The fight against terrorism is the most important job undertaken by the military in the past 37 years, a period that includes Desert Storm, the Vietnam War, and the Cold War’s latter decades, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Richard Myers told a Kennedy School audience Thursday (April 4).
“In the 37 years I’ve worn this uniform, there’s never been a more important task assigned to your military,” Myers said. “If terrorist organizations can get a hold of weapons of mass destruction, they would use them.”
Myers spoke to a packed ARCO Forum crowd during a 20-minute speech, “Imperatives of the Global War on Terrorism,” followed by a question-and-answer session.
Myers gave the United States high marks for the anti-terrorism effort so far. He credited U.S. military personnel for much of that success, but said the unified sense of mission and support from various government players, from President Bush to Congress to different federal agencies and departments, have been critical in the success so far.
Myers reiterated the oft-repeated assertion that the United States is in for a long struggle against a tough enemy. He said the military’s role, while central so far, is just part of the overall effort. Civilian police and other investigative agencies also play a large role in the effort, as shown by the recent arrest of top al Qaeda operatives by Pakistani police.
“The most important thing is our people. It comes down to people to make it happen,” Myers said. “We have put our troops in some pretty bad places, where sanitation, clean food, and clean water are real issues and you never hear them complain.”
As chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Myers is the top military adviser to President George W. Bush, to Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, and to the National Security Council. Myers, who was appointed chairman on Oct. 1, 2001, previously served as vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for 19 months.
Myers, a graduate of Kansas State University with an M.B.A. from Auburn University, entered the Air Force in 1965 through the Reserve Officer Training Corps program. He attended the Program for Senior Executives in National and International Security at the Kennedy School in 1991.
Myers said a unified sense of purpose has helped in the fight against terrorism so far, along with a clear set of goals that include disrupting international terrorist organizations, making it difficult for countries to sponsor terrorism, and making sure weapons of mass destruction don’t fall into terrorist hands.
He urged the public to be patient, saying successes will not come steadily and will likely not be of the magnitude of the military campaign in Afghanistan.
“We can’t think that every three months we’ll have an event like the Taliban falling,” Myers said.
The United States has gained broad international cooperation in the war against terrorism, Myers said, with more than 80 nations with participation ranging from sending troops into Afghanistan to less active roles such as sharing intelligence joining the coalition so far.
On the home front, Myers said the Sept. 11 events took the United States by surprise. After the end of the Cold War, the United States closed many alert bases, where fighters were ready to take to the air within minutes. That made the defensive air patrols after the terrorist attacks more difficult to manage, he said, and forced the U.S. to rely on help from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
The level of the military’s dependence on reserves for its manpower may also have to be looked at, he said, as currently 80,000 reservists and members of the National Guard are on active duty, Myers said.
Myers called on students to consider entering public service as a career, saying that there’s plenty of work to be done.
“This is a very, very dangerous enemy. There’s a world of work out there for members of your government,” Myers said. “There’s never been a time when you could be more proud to be in public service.”