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Lawrence Wilkerson, Collin Powell’s former Chief of Staff, reflects on his life journey from “cold warrior” to harsh critic of US foreign policy

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. And we continue our series of interviews with Lawrence Wilkerson. In the first segment of the interview, we talked about how Larry joined the American military and went to Vietnam for, as he said, fighting for truth, justice, and the American way. And we pick up our story. And we’re joined again by Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson. Thanks for joining us again.


JAY: So you come back from Vietnam. What’s the next big moment in your life in terms of your political understanding, your formation of how you look at the world?

WILKERSON: I went through the normal things that you do when you come back, anticipating going back in a year, only to be again sidestepped from that by the fact that I was selected to go to a very prestigious school.

JAY: ‘Cause you’re sort of, I guess, somewhat unique. You’re an intellectual and a soldier. There’s only a few of those.

WILKERSON: Well, the next moment in my life that was as you’re referring to was at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, where I was introduced to Vom Kriege, Clausewitz’s seminal book on war, and introduced to a team of professors who more or less stripped war of its truth, justice, and the American way and gave it its real face, not just in terms of the battlefield–all of us in those seminars were Vietnam veterans, whatever service, and it included CIA and State Department personnel too–but also stripped it of its, shall we say, particularly in America, its hyperbole, its passion, its you’ve got to do this for the country, you’ve got to defend the shores, and so forth, and boiled it down to its basics. This is all about politics and power. This is all about getting your way over someone else–or someone else plural–who wants to prevent you from getting your way, whether it’s territory, whether it’s resources, whether it’s a way of belief, ideology, or whatever. That’s what war’s really all about. It’s not about truth and justice. It never has been, never will be.

JAY: And they want you to understand this because you and this class are going to have to execute a foreign policy that actually works, a military policy.

WILKERSON: You are going to have to bring that educational experience, that knowledge, that skill you’ve developed, that critical thinking ability, to problems at a much higher level now. You’re not going to be leading a 42-man or -woman platoon. You’re going to be making policy yourself. You’re going to be developing war plans yourself. You’re going to be planning for these things. You’re going to be dealing with politicians. You’re going to be dealing with presidents and vice presidents and secretaries of state and defense and so forth. And so you’ve got to understand this. Interesting thing happens here. Fully half, if not slightly more, of the seminars usually won’t accept this. They want to go back to flying their airplanes, sailing their ships, and commanding their battalions. And generally speaking, the Army, the Navy, the Air Force recognizes this somewhat incoherently and acknowledges it and does it. That is to say, those who accept the new responsibility and the new understandings move on up to be general officers. Those who don’t stay where they are, Peter principle out, and go to 20 and retire or whatever. It’s not a very perfect thing, though. Lots of times you get people who come up who don’t understand what’s being taught [to] them, and they go on and take their Peter principle aspect right on in to being a general, which is usually catastrophic for the person and for the people that serve that person.

JAY: In an interview we did a few months ago you talked about how foreign policy is really about serving commercial interests and it’s the real–the commercial imperative is the underpinning of foreign and military policy. When–go back to these seminars, when they’re stripping away truth, justice, and the American way. To what extent do you understand that? Or is it just more about learning how to be pragmatic?

WILKERSON: It’s more about learning how to be pragmatic. But it’s clearly geared to whatever entity, whatever national entity you’re serving. It’s not like Clausewitz is limited to America. I suggest that Sandhurst, the British schools, would be a little bit different, the French schools would be a little bit different, the American schools are a little bit different. I think there’s a clear understanding in the American schools that commerce, trade, is a big part of what a soldier is all about. That is to say, there is some aspect of Smedley Butler’s I never fought a war that wasn’t commercial purposes that every military officer realizes. There’s a different aspect to it, though, when you bring other aspects of power to bear on the problem, nuclear weapons, for example. You’re not going to contemplate using nuclear weapons, or no one in his sane mind is going to contemplate nuclear weapons for commercial purposes. Nor is anyone going to probably contemplate deploying core-sized formations, army-sized formations out strictly for commercial purposes. There’s got to be some other reason. So what do leaders do when they understand this? They conjure up a Saddam Hussein. They conjure up weapons of mass destruction. They conjure up connections between al-Qaeda and Baghdad. They conjure these things so that the unwashed American public will feel passionate and ideological about the reasons that they’re sending increasingly fewer and fewer of their sons and daughters to die for state purposes. And so it becomes something that you grasp and deal with as a senior military officer, or it becomes something–and I’ve seen this happen–that repels you, and you wind up leaving, you wind up leaving the service, because you see this is not at all about truth, justice, and the American way, it’s all about achieving the power purposes of a certain coterie of leaders who happen to be, by ballot box, occupying Washington for the time being.

JAY: Alright. Go back into this seminar. You’re now the–some of the veil has lifted, and you’re looking at more the reality of war and the objectives of war. What’s next for you?

WILKERSON: The next thing for me was to become one of those teachers and to try to do what I could to help the services and others differentiate between those people.

JAY: Now, you’re an intellectual. You could have left. You could have gone into an academic stream, which many years later you do. Why didn’t you? Why’d you stay?

WILKERSON: Primarily because I really liked the Naval War College and what they were doing. I thought they were doing an excellent service to the nation to give this kind of education to future leaders, because part of this education also is a recognition of the civil-military relationship and a fundamental recognition that civilians run this country and the military serves them, and to reverse that relationship would be tantamount to overthrow of the republic. And this is a part that’s imbued in the fabric of the education, and I think it’s very positive, and I was attracted to that. In the middle of all this, though, as I began to teach, I get a call from the national security advisor of the United States, the office of Colin Powell, asking me to come down for an interview, January 1989. And long story short, that led to my being hired by Colin Powell and working for Colin Powell at the very highest levels of these responsibilities over the next ten, 12, 15 years, and getting my eyes opened even wider as to what it was all about with regard to those leaders in Washington.

JAY: Alright. In the next segment of our interview we’ll pick it up with the first interview with Colin Powell, which begins a many-year relationship, which we will dig into. Thanks for joining us. And thank you for joining us. And please join us for the next segment of our interview with Larry Wilkerson on The Real News Network.

End of Transcript

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Distinguished Adjunct Professor of Government and Public Policy

Lawrence Wilkerson's last positions in government were as Secretary of State Colin Powell's Chief of Staff (2002-05), Associate Director of the State Department's Policy Planning staff under the directorship of Ambassador Richard N. Haass, and member of that staff responsible for East Asia and the Pacific, political-military and legislative affairs (2001-02). Before serving at the State Department, Wilkerson served 31 years in the U.S. Army. During that time, he was a member of the faculty of the U.S. Naval War College (1987 to 1989), Special Assistant to General Powell when he was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (1989-93), and Director and Deputy Director of the U.S. Marine Corps War College at Quantico, Virginia (1993-97). Wilkerson retired from active service in 1997 as a colonel, and began work as an advisor to General Powell. He has also taught national security affairs in the Honors Program at the George Washington University. He is currently working on a book about the first George W. Bush administration.