Were there any particular places for you in the building that you drew inspiration or assurance from?
Well, the Pentagon is so large. I mean, it’s a city, truly, in every way. And it is so big I never got to see all of it. I mean, I saw most of it. But I think the areas that were always sacred really were the corridors that reflected the wars that the United States participated in. During my time we were putting together a Vietnam War corridor for the first time. And then after I left, they brought me back to help dedicate it. But each of those corridors – World War I, World War II, I mean you can go right back to the Civil War – represent not only an era in our history but what our country was going through, what our soldiers and sailors and Marines and airmen had to deal with, the challenges, the quality of leadership, the quality of commitment. When you spend any time in those corridors, you really start to understand this country, and it was always for me one of those sacred places in the Pentagon that I always enjoyed going to. I always learned something. It was something new that I saw every time I was in one of those corridors.
I think … each of us is shaped by our experiences in life. And you bring those experiences to whatever job or jobs you have, certainly, that experience that I had with my brother side by side in 1968, which was the worst year in Vietnam. We sent 16,000 dead Americans home that year, which is unfathomable today.
How do you think your experiences as a soldier informed your service as a senator and especially as secretary of defense?
Well, there wasn’t a decision I made as secretary of defense or a vote really I cast on any aspect of national security when I was in the Senate that did not include my reviewing of my experience in Vietnam, first of what our men and women who fought that war had to go through. Was it a wise commitment of our blood and treasure? And you take it all the way through that experience and I think … each of us is shaped by our experiences in life. And you bring those experiences to whatever job or jobs you have, certainly, that experience that I had with my brother side by side in 1968, which was the worst year in Vietnam. We sent 16,000 dead Americans home that year, which is unfathomable today. I mean, America wouldn’t put up with that today. But every one of those experiences I had in those 12 months that I was there through ’68 applied in some way to decisions I made, in thinking through decisions I had to make, certainly as secretary of defense, but in many cases in the Senate as well. And I remember the debates on Iraq that went on and on and some of the debates on Afghanistan. Sure, those were very important experience dimensions for me to call back on as I thought through all of that and we debated these issues, as they need to be in many ways debated in the Congress because the Congress. So, yes, my experience in Vietnam I hope helped me. It certainly informed me, and I hope made me a better senator and a better secretary of defense.
Now that we have a totally professional military and there is no draft anymore, do you think in some way we may have lost something through so many people not having that common experience?
Well, I think there is a loss in that regard. I have been a strong supporter of an all-volunteer force from the beginning, from when it first was instituted in the early seventies, because the sophistication of our military today and even going back to the seventies and through those decades – it’s so different from the time of when we had the draft. So, I think we need truly professional soldiers and sailors and airmen and Coast Guardsmen and Marines. I don’t think there is any question about that. But have we lost something? I think so. When you look at the reality that we today have less than 1 percent of our population that is in our armed forces, it disconnects from civilians in many ways. It disconnects from everyday Americans that kind of sacrifice and that kind of service. It’s nobody’s fault. It’s an attitude that just starts to dominate – “Well, let someone else do it; it’s too bad they’re in Afghanistan or Iraq or Syria or wherever they are, but they wanted to be; they volunteered for it, so that’s not my problem” kind of an attitude. I don’t think Americans mean that to be cavalier. But that’s just the way it is.
So, what happens is, like in Iraq and Afghanistan, for the first time in the history of America, we fought two wars and still are there, and in fact in more places with an all-volunteer force. And what that means on the downside for an all-volunteer force is the same people keep going back and back and back. And that takes a huge toll on the individuals, certainly on their families, on the institution, on the culture, on everything. So, there is a trade-off here. There is a downside, I think, to this. But at the same time, I do think the professionalism of our armed forces today is second-to-none. No force structure in the world has ever been as professional nor is any today as good as ours that we have. But it does separate a sense of service and commitment and some sacrifice from the rest of America.