General Richard Myers Borah Symposium keynote address at the University of Idaho, Student Union Ballroom, April 9, 2014, courtesy of Luke Sprague

General Richard Myers addresses the University of Idaho

By Luke Sprague

April 9, 2014

I attended the Borah Symposium keynote address on April 9, 2014 at the University of Idaho. The keynote speaker was retired Air Force General Richard Myers who served as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) during the Bush Administration from October 1, 2001 to September 30, 2005. Myers currently holds a part-time appointment to Kansas State University as a Foundation Professor of military history and leadership. Opening his address, Myers briefly spoke about his challenges as a fighter pilot in Vietnam and a long flight in an F-4 Phantom jet from West Germany to Idaho during the Cold War. The subject of Myers’s address was supposed to be about the First World War and its consequences both socially and militarily.

Myers contended the First World War accelerated women’s suffrage, enlarged the pacifist movement, undermined class structures, dramatically altered fashion, and strengthened fascist and communist political movements. However, Myers’s speech focused on his argument that General of the Army George C. Marshall’s solid performance as United States Army Chief of Staff during the Second World War resulted from his First World War experiences. Overall, Myers presented Marshall as a metaphor for the idea that one person can make a difference and the lessons Marshall picked up in the First World War became crucial to Allied success in the Second World War.

According to Myers, the four lessons Marshall learned from the First World War were preparedness, innovation, unity of command, and leadership. While providing First World War examples, Myers drew parallels to more recent conflicts.

With regards to preparedness, Myers quoted then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld responding to criticism during the Iraq War, “You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want…” and likened it to the Army’s complete unpreparedness for the First World War.

Myers then asserted that Marshall supported innovation in the Second World War spurned on by the failure of the Army’s inability to comprehend fully the value of the tank during the First World War.

At Kabul Air Base in Afghanistan, a Canadian commander struggled with which troops to assign to a location, as each country of the NATO Alliance dictated what their soldiers could and could not do in theatre. This example of failure to create a unity of command Myers equated to the failure of the allies to create a unity of command until late in the First World War under General Foch. In an interesting parallel, Myers stated that the United States Military as a whole did not achieve unity of command until the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Marshall’s First World War experience tempered and balanced his Second World War leadership according to Myers. His experience dictated that he “pick the right people” and “give them opportunities to excel.” Marshall sought out leaders who had “sincerity, integrity, and tolerance,” unlike the chateau generals of the First World War.

Although, Myers’s speech drew good parallels and contained evidence supporting his argument, his sometimes overly informal verbal-style detracted from the strength of his presentation. With that said, Myers convincingly demonstrated that Marshall had in fact learned from his First World War experiences and applied them in the Second World War.

An extract from the flyer handed out to the public by the Borah Foundation at the 2014 Symposium at the University of Idaho

The following are a sample of audience questions answered by Myers following the keynote speech:

Q: “What have we learned in Iraq and Afghanistan?”

A: We’ve learned that we need to bring medical support as far forward on the battlefield as possible and that integration of intelligence across multiple agencies is critical. We should be considering using other instruments of policy, other than the military. To a degree, the war on terrorism has become a “Whack-a-mole” exercise.

Q: “What is going to be the next big thing for the military?”

A: “WMD, proliferation, sponsor[ed] terrorism, A-teams, Pakistan, Iran, and North Korean regime survival.”

Q: “What was your hardest job as JCS?”

A: “Going thru the casualty book every morning”

Q: “Do you think we should increase defense spending?”

A: “[We] don’t need three fighter bombers.” We’d like to make decreases in spending but often this does not pass political muster. The military is overused as an instrument of policy.

Q: “Was it a mistake for Ukraine to send away nukes?”

A: No. NSC’s concern was al-Qaeda types getting a hold of nuclear power. As a an assistant to the NATO-Russian Charter it was apparent that Ukraine was not ready for NATO membership and their membership in NATO would have been an affront to Russia. “Diplomacy has to work in Ukraine…do not do diplomacy in the media.”

Luke Sprague is a public historian at HistoryMint and manages the nominations to the National Register of Historical Places for Latah County, Idaho. To find about more about what he does during his working hours click here.