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National Convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and The Ladies Auxiliary
Remarks as Delivered by Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen, Midwest Express Center, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Monday, August 21, 2000

Thank you [VFW] Commander [John] Smart, everyone's Mr. Wonderful, for your warm words and also for your leadership of this great organization. Let me also extend our words of congratulation to Heather French, Miss America, for all that you've done on behalf of our veterans and our soldiers. We look forward to a very special ceremony later. (Applause)

Lorraine Fryer, the National President of the Ladies Auxiliary, congratulations on your award as well. You have just done an outstanding job. And as you pointed out, your organizations work together. You bring together all of the forces that help support our [men and women] in the field and the veterans who have served, so we are truly indebted to you and the Ladies Auxiliary as we are to the veterans themselves.

Let me say to all the members of the VFW, Janet [Langhart Cohen] and I were just talking as we were looking out into this vast audience, [and discussing] how proud we are to be here amongst those of you who have done so much not only for our veterans, but for those who serve and for the contributions you make to humanity through the charitable efforts that you undertake. We are truly proud to be here to share just a few moments with you today.

Also, I want to say that you have been such a powerful voice not only for our veterans, but for everybody who serves today in uniform. You do so by standing up for our forces, their families, their quality of life, by sustaining the ties of friendship that bind this extended family together in such an extraordinary fashion, and by ensuring that the fundamental principles at the heart of our democracy are preserved and passed on to future generations.

I also want to say on a personal note of privilege that I am delighted to be here today to address this distinguished gathering because this afternoon you're going to be honoring my wife Janet for her extraordinary work on behalf of all who serve in uniform today. I can think of few, if any, who have been more active -- and none more committed -- to the cause of service of our members in uniform and those who have served in the past than my wife, Janet Langhart Cohen, and I wanted to be here today to pay special tribute to her. (Applause)

Ladies and gentlemen, I can't see all of you. I can feel you out there in the audience. But I must say that Janet and I have not had an opportunity to address an audience this large since we were privileged to help kick off the Indy 500 where there were 500,000 patriots in that audience. We spoke and then were able to take the lead car around the lap. I recall that day very vividly. Both of us do. We had a Harrier that flew over that crowd and then did a 360 [degree turn] in front of everyone there that day. I recall the words of everybody who was speaking and passing by, with the roar of that crowd and everybody firing their engines. They looked up and they saw that Harrier and they said, that is the sound of freedom, and thank God, those planes are ours. (Applause)

I can't tell you how proud we felt at that particular moment, and virtually every day that we are privileged to serve this country.

First, I want to make one point. When I decided to leave public service after over a quarter of a century of serving in public office, I never expected to be called back. I never expected to receive a call from President Clinton. I was on my way out the door into the privacy and the anonymity of private life and I got a call from the White House asking whether I would be willing to serve as his Secretary of Defense.

I asked the President at that time, "Why do you want to do this? You're a Democratic administration, I'm a Republican." He said, "I want to send a signal. I want to send a signal to the country and to the Congress that when it comes to national security there is no party label. We are not Republicans, we are not Democrats. (Applause) It's not a question of moving left or right, Republican or Democrat, it's really [a question] of moving forward. I want to send that signal."

I said, "Mr. President, on those terms I am happy to go back into public service." I want you all to know that it's been the greatest experience of my life and that of my wife Janet. Every day that we go to the Pentagon we are uplifted. To be the civilian head of the greatest military on the face of the earth is the most exciting, extraordinary experience that one could ever hope to achieve. We are grateful every day. (Applause)

I want you to know that we have done a lot of traveling. I have traveled almost 700,000 miles during the past three and a half years. Janet has been on at least 300,00 to 400,000 of those miles. We have been to Bosnia, to Kosovo, to Korea, to the Gulf, to the deserts of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and I want you to know how proud we are and how proud you should be of the men and women who are serving us. They are serving without complaint, they are serving with distinction. They are happy to be doing the job that they're doing. They are helping to spread the flag of freedom the world over. And today, more people are sleeping under that blanket of freedom than any time in the history of the world, thanks to our men and women in the military. (Applause)

I know that there's always controversy in dealing with the military. When I first took office I looked at what was happening and we were on a downward descent. Frankly, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union there was a tremendous demand for a peace dividend. I heard it when I was on Capitol Hill and serving in the Senate. My constituents from Maine were demanding it, as were people around the country. [They were] saying that now that we no longer have this visible enemy on the horizon, we need to restructure and downsize; we need to start pouring more of our resources into building our economy and to modernizing for the future with a smaller, more capable, more agile, more lethal force. So spending started to go dramatically lower.

When I arrived in office, I took a look at what we had and I saw that Congress and the administration had taken the highest figure of what they could agree upon and what we should spend for national security. [I] was essentially told that this is what Congress and the administration have agreed on, and that's likely to be the [level of defense spending] for the foreseeable future.

Well after just 18 months, we decided that wasn't enough. We have now begun the largest sustained increase in our military spending in a generation. We were looking at $42-$43 billion being spent for procurement, an all time low. This year – just three and a half years later -- we have [increased procurement spending] to $60 billion. Within five years we'll be at $70 billion and [we’ll continue] to climb into the future in order to recapitalize and rebuild this wonderful military that we have.

So we have looked at the men and women and said, we can never pay them enough, but we can pay them more. And that's precisely what we recommended and what we've done. We now have secured the largest pay raise in a generation. We now have returned retirement benefits from 40 percent back up to 50 percent. We are now focusing on rebuilding our housing and our healthcare system, and as a result, we're starting to see retention and recruitment increase once again.

It's been a tough environment. It's been a very tough environment. We have the strongest economy we've had in over two decades, and we're competing for the same people that the private sector wants. They want the people that we want as well. They can pay two, three, four times as much, so we've got to draw from that same pool, and not only draw them in but then hold them. So recruitment and retention are now starting to stabilize and increase as a result of what we've been able to do on a bipartisan basis.

Again, I come back to this point: I am not here as a Republican. I am not here on behalf of the Democratic administration. I came here today to simply talk to all of you who have supported our military because the contributions that you've made as members yourselves [has helped to] sustain this great military that we have today.

That's the reason I wanted to be here today to talk to you. Yes, we can always do better, and national defense is certainly a subject matter that is open to debate and improvement. Hopefully that will be the case whatever administration comes in next year. But I want you to know something. We have the finest, the best led, the best equipped, the best educated, the finest fighting force in the history of the world. We have that today. (Applause)

I can point to any place on the globe, but I want you to think back just about a year ago. We were waging a war in Kosovo. It seems like a lot longer in terms of the timeframe, but a year ago we waged the most successful air campaign in the history of the world, and I want you to think about it. We had 38,000 sorties that were flown during that campaign. We lost two aircraft and no pilots. That's a record that has never been equaled. (Applause)

And let me say something to [Slobodan] Milosevic, Saddam Hussein or anyone else who would ever want to challenge the United States again. Saddam has been put into a box, and if he tries to move out of that box and in any way threaten his neighbors, he's going to be hit and hit hard.

We have been able [to contain Hussein] as a result of the commitment that we've made globally to help stabilize the world for peace and security and prosperity. That's the reason we're forward deployed. That's part of our strategy to shape and respond [to world events] and prepare [for the future]. We need to be forward deployed to send a signal to all of those in the world that we are there not to conquer territory. We're not there to try to grab land. We are there to promote stability because where there is stability, investment will follow. And if investment follows, it has a chance to develop and promote prosperity. And if you have prosperity, you have a much greater chance of promoting democracy. And when you have democracy you have less chance for conflict and warfare.

That's why we are forward deployed around the world. That's why we have 100,000 people spread throughout the Asia Pacific region. Why are we there? Because if we were not there, who would fill the vacuum? If we were to pull our forces out tomorrow, who would move into the Asia Pacific region? Would it be China? Would it be Japan? Would it be India? Would it be Pakistan? Who would move to fill the vacuum? And what would that mean for stability in that part of the world?

The same thing applies to Europe where we have 100,000 [service members] and in the Gulf where we have some 23,000. Yes, this puts a strain and burden upon our country, but we are a superpower.

[Surely,] we have to continue to always examine what [being a superpower] means? What are the benefits? What are the burdens? Are we prepared to assume those benefits and burdens? And if we look at the history of what we have done during the past 50 years you see that we are the leader for freedom. Every other country looks to us as the model – and to the Statue of Liberty holding up that flame – and says, this is the country whose ideals we want to emulate.

If you look across the globe, you will find that freedom is ascendant. Countries from Europe to Central Asia are looking to the United States and saying, we want to embrace free market ideas. We know that through a free market that we are able to prosper in a way that we could never do under the old Soviet concept of a centralized economy.

So yes, [our global engagement] is costly; it's burdensome. Can we do better? You bet. Can we improve in the future? We need to. But I hope that during the course of this year and next year, whoever is in office, that we always maintain that commitment to serve the men and women who are serving us. And you play a vital role in that. You who served, and you who serve as the models for them, are the ones who help carry the torch on behalf of the United States of America. So I wanted to thank you for all of that.

Ladies and gentlemen, it's my job as Secretary of Defense not only to talk about current threats to our security, and there are a number. I mentioned Saddam Hussein, I mentioned Milosevic. There may be others that I could talk about today. But we're looking at what I call a Superpower Paradox. There is no other country that can challenge us directly. No other country has the capability that we do, be it ground forces, be it our warships, be it our aircraft. No other country can challenge us directly. So they look for indirect ways to challenge us through asymmetrical types of conflicts. That can come in the form of chemical or biological or even cyber [warfare]. And those are the kinds of threats that we're seeing emerge today and that we will have to face tomorrow.

Let me give you an example. There are probably at least two dozen countries or more that are seeking to develop weapons of mass destruction and the means to deliver them. So what we have to do is intensify our anti-proliferation types of measures to cut down on the technology that so many of our friends or allies or adversaries are helping to spread around the world. [That is a] big challenge. [We also have] to deter those weapons of mass destruction from ever being used against our troops or against our population.

We have to be concerned about terrorists, those who are being supported by people like Usama bin Laden. We know that threat is out there. We saw the bombing of our embassies in East Africa. We know that the same groups are seeking to develop and acquire chemical and biological weapons.

 

We know a group in Tokyo a few years ago released sarin gas in a subway. We know that that same group was also trying to release a chemical weapon against American forces.

We know that Usama bin Laden is trying to acquire weapons of mass destruction. We know that in the bombing of our [World] Trade Center a couple of years ago the [culprits] were also experimenting with chemical weapons. So all of that is out there, and we have to be prepared to fight against that.

We know that other countries are forming cells of professionals dedicated to finding ways to interrupt our [information] infrastructure. If you can shut down our financial system, if you could shut down our transportation system, if you could cause the collapse of our energy production and distribution system just by typing on a computer and causing those links to this globalization to break down, then you're able to wage successful warfare, and we have to be able to defend against that. We're taking these measures.

This morning is not the time for me to go through on a case by case demonstration all that we're doing, but let me just talk about a couple. Yes, we are concerned that some country will seek to release a chemical or biological agent on American soil sometime in the future. Some time ago a poet imagined [a scenario of] a man clutching a little case, walking out briskly to infect a city who's terrible future has just arrived.

We are anticipating that kind of terror. We are preparing our citizens by going out to 120 different cities and preparing those who will be required to respond to a chemical or biological attack. We are doing all of those things in anticipation of the kinds of threats that we are likely to face in the future. So I want you to know that we're not only looking at what we have to defend against today, we are also preparing ourselves for the kind of conflicts that we're likely to face in the future.

I want you to know, once again, that our men and women in uniform are performing magnificently. They are doing everything that we are asking from them, and more. I wanted to be here today to say that to all of you.

[The futurist Alvin] Toffler reminded us more than 25 years ago about Future Shock --that we're going to have the winds of change sweep across our country, our culture and our ideals. And we've seen that take place. He said that technology has the potential to benefit all of mankind, and we know that. Today, technology is empowering the average citizen in ways that none of us contemplated just 10 or 20 or 25 years ago.

But there are two edges to this sword. The hand that wields it, as Toffler pointed out, can sever the hand that's holding it. It's a double-edged sword, and we have to be very, very concerned about how we are empowering our citizens, our businessmen and women and our consumers. We also have to be concerned that it is not turned and used against us. So we are preparing for that eventuality as well by devoting vast resources to developing the capability of protecting our infrastructure, protecting our citizens and protecting our soldiers.

I feel like I am a former Senator just warming up. As you know, Senators have the capacity to speak at length. I've put away my senatorial robes as such, and assumed that of a chief executive for the Pentagon.

So I want to conclude this morning by again telling you how very proud I am to be in this position. I never imagined I would be here. I never thought that anyone would call me and ask me to serve in this capacity. And I will tell you once again that my wife and I have never ever had the opportunity to be around people who are so devoted to duty, so dedicated to their country, so patriotic, so hardworking, so gifted, as we have in the military today, and we are terribly, terribly proud. We have been blessed to have had this opportunity.

We also had the opportunity just a couple of months ago to attend the opening of the D-Day Museum in New Orleans. Steven Ambrose [Chairman of the National D-Day Museum] orchestrated that, and he also had Stephen Spielberg, Tom Hanks, Tom Brokaw and others who arrived to participate in this great opening.

Steven Ambrose has many books, but the one that always stayed with me is Citizen Soldier. And in the end of Citizen Soldier he asks, "How was it possible for this country of ours, so diverse and at that time disorganized in terms of its military might, to take on this mechanized evil that was going across the entire continent of Europe? How were we able to defeat that enemy?" He said it all came down to the citizen soldier. He said, "The citizen soldier knew the difference between right and wrong, and he was unwilling to live in a world in which wrong triumphed, and so he fought and we prevailed, and all of us are the grateful beneficiaries of their sacrifice."

Ladies and gentlemen, many of you in this audience were part of that greatest generation. You have been part of the generations that have followed. And you have held up the torch of liberty and freedom, and all of us here are the eternal beneficiaries for what you've done. God bless you. (Applause)