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Col. Larry Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Colin Powell, describes what can be done

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JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore. And welcome to this edition of the Wilkerson report.

Now joining us from Williamsburg, Virginia, is Larry Wilkerson. Larry is the former chief of staff for U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell. He’s currently an adjunct professor of government at the College of William & Mary. And, of course, he’s a regular contributor to The Real News.

Thanks for joining us, Larry.


DESVARIEUX: So, Larry, what are you working on this week? We were discussing earlier you’re reading a very interesting book. What’s that all about?

WILKERSON: I got a book from a gentleman who started a project called [Waking Up from War]. And what he’s done is assess the programs that the DA and the DOD and those two in combination, though they rarely are in sync, offer for veterans coming home primarily from Afghanistan and Iraq and the bloody wars there. And the manuscript not only describes the Coming Home Project and how successful and effective it has been, but it also describes why other programs run by the services, run by DOD in general, run by the VA are not working or are causing more problems than they’re helping to solve. And in a very comprehensive sense, he comments on the backdrop of all of this, which is a nation, supposedly a democratic federal republic, interminably at war and how that exacerbates all of this.

And, of course, it’s a positive manuscript, in terms of he wants to say how we get out of this, both the larger problem, interminable war, and the problem it breeds, which is a lot of Americans, millions of Americans, who were sent off to do their nation’s business and who are now back seriously harmed, seriously injured psychologically and physically, sometimes both. And we’re not doing a very good job of taking care of them.

DESVARIEUX: So what are some of his suggestions? How do we kind of get out of this vicious cycle of failing our veterans and our soldiers once they come home from serving?

WILKERSON: I think the first thing we have to do–and I agree with him 100 percent on this–is we have to take a long-term approach to it. You cannot cure these veterans by giving them the magic elixir, the antidepressant or the cocktail of drugs that the military sometimes would like to give them to get them off its books and out of its hair. What this is doing in many cases is giving them situations, depression and so forth, that leads to suicide. As you probably know, the suicide rate is off the charts in all the military services. So this is an ancillary problem connected with this, though.

The most important thing you have to do in that sustained approach is give the veteran a sense of community. You have to give them a sense of coming home to something that really cares for them, that wants to deal with their problems, that will deal with their problems, that doesn’t accuse them in any way, that is not something that is a handshake in the Atlanta airport, for example, and a trite welcome home, thank you for your service, but is a serious effort to deal with their problems, physical and psychological, that will last over time and not quit until they’re back being meaningful members of their community again.

And I’ll give you an anecdote of my own experience that sort of demonstrates this in crushing detail. I was at Walter Reed National Medical Center recently and met a triple amputee, and older young man, about 32. He was an EOD, an ordinance disposal technician, and he’d been disposing of IEDs in both Iraq and Afghanistan when one of them went off and took off both his legs below the knees and his right arm. And this was a young man who was being visited by a congressional delegation that morning, and I was visiting with him around lunchtime after that. And he told me, he said the delegation came in–dog and pony show, he called it–and he said they thanked him for his service. And that was the first thing they said, almost in unison. And he cut them off and he said, don’t thank me for my service; thank me for my sacrifice, which you can clearly see. My service I’m conflicted over.

And this takes us into the second dimension of this manuscript, which is so eloquent and so well written in terms of this, and that is a nation that is interminably at war, and arguably at war that many of these veterans don’t understand the purpose of. They don’t understand what their sacrifice was for. The Iraq War comes to mind immediately as an illegal war, a war we should never have participated in. Many of these veterans feel that way about it. And this makes their healing burden, if you will, all the more challenging, makes the problem, the challenge that we have to welcome them home and to deal with their problems, their challenges, all the more difficult, because they don’t feel like the sacrifice that they made–in many cases catastrophic sacrifices–was for anything meaningful, for anything worthwhile. So we have to cure that problem too. And the first thing, of course, we have to do is stop this business of interminable war.

One of the quotations in the book that just grabbed me by my heart was from a Marine, active-duty Marine general, two-star general. He was speaking over the 30,000-plus graves in the San Francisco national Cemetery on the northern slope of the Presidio–beautiful place in California. And he said, we just have to find–the costs of war are so great that we just have to find a better way to resolve our problems and our disputes than killing one another.

And, now, that’s a truism of the very first order. We have to start doing things through political, diplomatic, and other means, other parts of our national power, than through the military means. It simply is not a sustainable way to do things. And these veterans are testimony to that.

DESVARIEUX: And how do these veterans feel about lawmakers? Some people kind of make this criticism that they don’t even have skin in the game, they don’t have their kids serving, things of that nature. What’s their take on that? What’s been the book’s perspective on that?

WILKERSON: That’s a precise point, Jessica. It’s a very important point. If you don’t have skin in the game, if you don’t have your family members under duress, in harm’s way, if you don’t go there yourself–one of the vets, for example, says something to this effect: when the king led his forces into battle, there was less battle. Well, just think about that for a moment. When is Lindsey Graham and John McCain going to mount their Charger and go out and get in front of the forces fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and in Syria? And you say, well, John McCain’s a veteran, he’s done his service, and so forth. Well, shut up, then. We don’t need people mongering for war. We don’t need people asking the president and others to lead this nation into yet more conflicts, for example a war with Iran, which might be forthcoming if these negotiations, now extended, don’t succeed. We do not need more war. We need less war. And we need less veterans.

DESVARIEUX: Alright. Larry Wilkerson, joining us from Williamsburg, Virginia.

It’s always a pleasure having you on, Larry.

WILKERSON: Thanks, Jessica, and thanks for letting me go on about one of my favorite subjects.

DESVARIEUX: Yes, absolutely. And just quickly, Larry, remind our viewers: what is the name of that manuscript and the author?

WILKERSON: [Waking Up from War], and the author is Joseph Bobrow.

DESVARIEUX: Alright. Thanks again.

And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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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.