General Hugh Shelton, former Chair Joint Chiefs

General Hugh Shelton, former Chair Joint Chiefs

In your book Without Hesitation, you refer to military duty as “selfless service.” Does this come from a sense of purpose…


In your book Without Hesitation, you refer to military duty as “selfless service.” Does this come from a sense of purpose or the Army culture itself?

Both, actually. From my first days on active duty, it was the old adage that in the Army your word is your bond. Integrity is the foundation upon which everything else is built. Everything you did had to be in done in an ethical manner and with the view that what is best for your troop is the right thing to do. If an officer had an integrity issue, colored the truth or made decisions in a self-centered way, he was history.

Meaning he’d be finished, right? From below or above?

He would be fired from above, but the recognition would be among his or her peers who would have nothing to do with him.

In the military you are fighting for freedom and our way of life. Is it realistic to expect business executives to be as motivated?

In war, it’s true you’re motivated by the severity of the consequences, and while in the business world, although you’ve got a different set of objectives such as shareholder value and a profit that you need to make, you can still develop that team to be the best. And I think the same rules apply; they converge downstream. You have to have a conviction and unshakable belief in the rightness of your mission. Different goals maybe, but the same techniques.

Wouldn’t most people question whether executives can be as inspired by making a profit as soldiers by saving lives?

To me there are very important similarities. I look at Enron and, while lives were not lost, the number [of lives] that were destroyed when it went under, the amount of personal savings that disappeared and caused retired employees to have to work for the rest of their lives—I easily see a situation that was equal to what we face in the military in terms of leader responsibility. And I feel that responsibility very strongly as a board director.

Business schools try to teach ethics, but the reality suggests it can’t be taught, only inspired. Do you agree?

I think you can teach it to a degree. I think by teaching, I mean including it in every course that you have, and by leaders emphasizing its importance on a day-to-day basis, the leader in the unit – making sure that everyone understands that we’re going to be a company that’s known for its integrity. Emphasizing compliance with the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act is a great example. The secret really is the tone from the top. It has to flow down through each leader and say in the strongest way possible, “This is part of who we are and what we are, and therefore this is the way we operate.”

Speaking of ethics, what about the unfortunate Abu Ghraib prison case? What is the most effective way to deal with cases where our ethical standards are at risk?

I believe it was a major ethical lapse, and the only way to deal with it is to hold the right people accountable at the levels where they should be held accountable, and not simply spread blame indiscriminately. For example, let’s start with the brigadier general who was in charge of this prison. If she didn’t know what was going on in the interrogation of prisoners, then she needs to be held accountable. And my second immediate question would be, did her boss ever walk through that prison to get a sense of how things were going? I think an investigation should show where the whole thing started breaking down, and assign accountability and appropriate penalties from there. But I don’t agree that the secretary of defense or the chairman ought to be fired because we had a breakdown, which violates common sense as well as the correct chain of command.

In the case of morality versus mortality, is it realistic to expect troops to focus on ethical issues at the same time they are facing dangerous combatants and insurgents?

Actually, it’s even more important. When we went into Haiti we immediately set up a prisoner-of-war camp, to house the thugs we knew were in the street and would shoot us if they had a chance. After we captured a number of them and put them in this compound, I immediately sought out the International Red Cross representative, and said, “I’d like you to go over and inspect our compound. Make sure that everything we’re doing is being done in a humane manner, in accordance with international regulations and rules.” And they went over, and the only suggestion they had was that you ought to put a five-gallon water can out there, just to make sure they can never claim they didn’t have water. So we did that. It’s just not that complicated to act ethically and fulfill a combat objective.

Can you expand on the point you make about [H. R.] McMaster’s book Dereliction of Duty, which concerned the lessons we learned from the Vietnam War?

Our country has an uncanny ability to investigate and inquire into our history regardless of the embarrassment it may cause, unlike many less democratically governed nations. This allows us to understand what really took place, and in the case of the Vietnam War, as McMaster pointed out in Dereliction of Duty, it showed that the military did not advise the political establishment forcefully enough and that the political establishment did not do its job either. Our task in the military was similar to those financial executives in the ’07–’08 crisis, whose responsibility was to advise their company CEOs on the risk in their portfolios, regardless of how unwelcome that news would be. History shows they failed to do that, and our military leaders at the time also failed to carry out their obligation to our civilian masters to make sure that we give them our best military advice. Having learned these lessons the hard way, today I tell our officers, “Don’t take no for an answer. Keep pushing so that you can get it as close as we can to what’s best for our men and women in uniform if we’re going to be fighting a war, and certainly watch out for people who lie, cheat and steal.” The deceit and the deception that was going on during the Vietnam War in the Johnson administration was something that I wanted to make sure did not happen during my and [former Secretary of Defense William] Bill Cohen’s watch. We both were very conscious to watch for that when we were over at the National Security Council meetings…for people that might not be entirely candid and working their own agenda.

So more recently, what lessons have we learned from the Iraq War?

In Iraq, we have seen that while you can extrapolate lessons from other military engagements, you can’t take a cookie-cutter approach. We had a very successful operation going into Afghanistan, and it was successful because on the ground in Afghanistan was the Northern Alliance, the indigenous fighters, and they had been at war for years. They could get close to winning against the Taliban, but they could never quite get over the hump, so the idea [former CIA Director] George Tenet and I had was take our special ops guys—who were the only troops in the world trained to go in—and take over an indigenous force and fight with them, and bring the high-tech pieces of the battle to them. When we went into Iraq, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld took some of that logic but applied it to a very different set of circumstances when he said, in effect, “We don’t need all these troops, so we’ll pare down this war plan that’s on the shelf and get it down to almost nothing and go in and we’ll kick Saddam Hussein out.” But as King Abdullah of Jordan told me, “What you need in order to stabilize Iraq is an individual that has some of Saddam Hussein’s ability to manage these different religious and cultural factions but who is a good leader who doesn’t abuse his people—if you can find someone like that. But you’ve got to have a strong man to keep them apart because if you don’t, they’ll go to war with each other.” Rumsfeld just didn’t want to hear that—he had a different mission and that was to prove to the world that he could go in and win this war with a small force. As he and General Tommy Franks [of the United States Central Command] both found out, it fell apart days after we beat Saddam, because no one could keep these factions apart. We also took out their police, dismantled their military, and now we wonder who runs the country? If you break it, you own it!

Doesn’t it always seem that politics trumps good policy?

It’s up to who’s in command as well as the risks the leader is willing to take to do the right thing. I carried a force to Miami after Hurricane Andrew; I was told they could carry weapons but no ammunition. So we started patrolling the streets where there was no law enforcement. Then the gangs started moving in. So I told them, distribute the ammunition but here’s the rule everyone will follow: Make sure there’s an imminent threat before you fire, period. Then, afterwards, be prepared to tell me why it was an imminent threat. I wasn’t going to have a service member killed on my watch by a gang member because we didn’t give them ammunition to fire back. And I felt that the American people would be solidly behind me. It worked because our great soldiers in the 82nd were properly trained and disciplined and could follow orders very well. That’s how these cases should be handled.

You were critical of the detainee program in Guantanamo. The flip side says the federal courts will tie it up forever. What’s the right way to deal with this?

It’s not a simple issue, but the problem I have with Guantanamo is we should not bring people, terrorists or anyone else, into Guantanamo and let them serve the rest of their life there without some kind of due process. I fully agree with bringing prisoners, of bringing individuals that have been captured like in Afghanistan that we think are terrorists, into Guantanamo, but we need to move faster to produce the evidence, bring charges against them, try them and dispose of them in a just manner, whether it’s to the gallows or whether it’s to freedom, but not keep them there for five or 10 years without some kind of process. That bothers me. I picture myself, for example, being thrown into an Iranian prison…

Meaning what happens when the tables are turned?

Yes. And I think it’s the same thing when it comes to waterboarding. It comes down to one fact that concerns me greatly: I don’t want to see our own troops waterboarded. I think we need to comply with the Geneva Convention and the rules of land warfare.

Our intelligence apparatus has been faulted for coming apart under the Carter administration, particularly in the Middle East, starting with Iran. Do you agree?

I think the big mistake that we made with the intelligence services was we thought peace was going to break out all over the world, and we really started drawing down, particularly our human intelligence, around the globe. That was particularly true for what were labeled as Tier Three and Tier Four countries— countries whose names you will recognize, like Haiti, Colombia, Afghanistan and Iraq….Because technology was going to replace the humans…and so it really meant that we had a big void in our intelligence, in our ability to transform the information into something that a commander can use.

Speaking of Iran, do you have any sense for what is happening there and how concerned should we be?

Well, I think first and foremost we need to recognize that Iran is the most terrorist-exporting nation in the world today. A nation that’s on the brink of developing a full-scale nuclear weapon. In fact, my guess is that they probably have the capability right now to pull it together.

What about Pakistan?

Pakistan is a nation that really concerns me. It’s a nation that I think could very easily disintegrate on us if we aren’t careful, and the al-Qaeda elements, and the Taliban, would be very quick to move in and take control. And we know where they stand, relative to the U.S. I think we need to do everything possible to work with the Pakistanis and remain a friend. The same is true for the Indians, because they’re a friend of ours as well.

On the subject of global politics, how concerned are you about WikiLeaks?

The fact that a young specialist could have access to the highest level State Department documents that were derogatory, had derogatory information about world leaders in it, just blows my mind.

Let’s switch to a subject that all directors have to deal with—diversity. How has the military made it work so effectively?

I grew up in an era that was racist, frankly, and in my early childhood I can still remember specific doors being marked “colored” or “white.” And when I’d go to the movies on Saturday, the blacks sat up in the balcony and the whites sat down below. And I remember even as a child thinking, “This is not right.” But in the Army, by 1963, that had gone away. The Army started putting a lot of emphasis on training and using situational vignettes, if you will, to train our people as to what constituted racism and how it might not be self-evident when you first looked at it, but ultimately it was.

Directors have ongoing issues with management compensation. Is compensation of our military and flag officers a similar concern?

I had lunch with the late [former Yankees owner] George Steinbrenner down in Tampa when I had just been promoted to four stars, and he asked me, “General, how much do you make?” and I said, “George, I make $150,000.” And he said, “Holy…$150,000 a month? Well, we gotta do something about that.” I said, “George, I said per year, not per month.” And he went ballistic. I thought the guy was going to have a heart attack. Then he turned to me and said, “You’ve got to do something about that,” and I said, “George, that’s not the way we operate in the military. Those guys are not motivated by pay, they just aren’t. They’ve done it all their lives, you know, they love what they do. They have a great sense of accomplishment at what they do.” In fact, by law, all of the four-stars are limited to the pay of the newest-serving member of Congress. That’s as high as you can ever get as a general. It’s not an easy problem to resolve, but again, monetary compensation is just not the key motivator in the military.

You became a corporate board director not long after your retirement. What’s your recommendation to future flag officers with their sights set on the boardroom?

Well, I think the first thing they need to do is take off the stars—leave ’em home, you are now general or admiral “retired”— and try to bring some humility with you when you come to the boardroom. You know, almost everyone respects flag officers for what they’ve achieved, and the skills they bring are just incredible skills that will be very adaptable to the corporate world. But I think from their perspective, there are lots of things that are different in the corporate world that they need a better understanding of. For example, as we talked about earlier, compensation. I think that each of these individuals, when they come into the business world, they need to understand there is more give-and-take; the rules are not quite as cut-and-dried as they are in the Defense Department. Sarbanes-Oxley, SEC rules clearly are, and they won’t have any problem dealing with that, but I think a greater understanding of board dynamics can be achieved by going to NACD-sponsored events and listening to the dialogue that goes on, and don’t go in with a mind-set of “This is the way it ought to be.” So I believe going to NACD-type courses as quickly as possible will help bridge that gap and bring them up to date and up to speed in some of these areas.

How did you manage your transition from chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the highest-ranking military officer, to the collegial world of the boardroom?

Jeff, I really did not find it difficult, and it’s the way I have always been. The first thing I did when I joined a board was to ask my board colleagues not to use my former title, but to call me Hugh (although they don’t always listen). And even during my service I preferred to be called “Dad” rather than “General” by my sons when they were in the military. And my grandchildren call me “Gramps.”

So now that you have been officially promoted to “General Gramps,” my final question: Are you optimistic about America’s future?

From a personal and personnel standpoint, I am extremely optimistic. I mean, we talk about the threats we have from other nations and our educational challenges particularly in the areas of math and science, but when I walk among the Shelton Scholars, Park Scholars and Caldwell Scholars at NC State, my alma mater, I walk away from there saying, “Boy, they are dynamite.” We won’t have any trouble producing future leaders because we seem to have an unlimited supply of really smart individuals. I guess my greatest concern for America right now deals with the economy. I get a little more concerned about our economy than I did in the past because I see it every day now that I am retired. But I’m also confident that we have individuals graduating from our universities with the right ethics, attitude and conscientiousness to figure out how to bring it back. To me, that’s the American way.