At both the beginning and the end of a 90-minute interview last month, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, chose to emphasize his concerns about the men and women of the armed services. Their health and welfare and that of their families, he said as we talked at the National Press Club, are central to the well-being of the military institutions that defend us. The institutions' needs, Mullen suggested,cannot be met without greater attention to the interests of those who serve.
My fifth National Press Club session with Mullen came just three days before the dramatic news that a Navy SEALs team had killed Osama bin Laden. I didn't ask Mullen about the hunt for bin Laden, but we did discuss relations between the United States and the government of Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan. Mullen described them as "badly strained," but said we needed a strategic alliance with nuclear-armed Pakistan to ensure regional and global security.
Mullen reemphasized his concern about U.S. budget deficits. He said he's called the nation's debt "the biggest threat to our national security" because fiscal crisis makes the likelihood of cuts in national security resources "very high."
At the same time, he was unsparingly critical of undisciplined growth in defense spending, which has nearly doubled during the past decade. "It hasn't forced us to make the hard trades," he said. "It hasn't forced us to prioritize. It hasn't forced us to do the analysis. And it hasn't forced us to limit ourselves and get to a point in a very turbulent world of what we're going to do and what we're not going to do."
It won't be easy to cut spending, Mullen indicated, citing in particular the need to replace aging Air Force weapons systems, and the high costs of active and retired personnel driven in part by skyrocketing health care spending. But he said he didn't know whether the 60 percent to 70 percent of defense spending devoted to personnel could be pared back. Mullen framed the issue by talking about the need to keep up the quality of the force. "If we retain the right young junior officers; if we retain the right young [noncommissioned officers] in all our services, we'll be just fine," he said. "And if we don't, almost no matter what the budget as we come out of these wars, then we're going to struggle."
Toward the end of the session, one attendee stood up to tell Mullen about his daughter, a sailor, and her husband, a Marine, who'd spent only one year of the six they'd been married in the same town. Mullen talked at length about the military's need to do better in such situations. He said, "In the long run, we are going to have to put people at the center here as opposed to the institutions."
Reflecting on lessons learned during his 43-year career, Mullen spoke with pride of "our military's ability to adapt and change from the classic conventional force to-I call it the best counterinsurgency force in the world." He said this was "a reflection of the extraordinary young men and women-2.2 million men and women, active, Guard, Reserve, who serve in a joint way many of us could not have imagined just a few years ago." And, he continued, "they could not have succeeded without the extraordinary, matchless support of their families who have become integral to our readiness because of the repeated deployments, because of the lack of time at home, even when you're back from deployment, the stressors that they're under . . . the worry every single day when you have your husband or your wife in the fight." Mullen said his wife, Deborah, "sees spouses who have post- traumatic stress symptoms, and children who are exhibiting the same kind of thing."
At the White House, first lady Michelle Obama and Jill Biden, the vice president's wife, are leading an initiative to address the need, both moral and practical, to improve the lives of military families-joining Mullen's drive to put people first.