And perhaps nobody knows better the dire consequences of a breakdown in international communication than Forum attendee Les Brownlee.
Les Brownlee has the distinction of having served two tours of duty in combat in Vietnam, coming home with two Silver Stars, three Bronze Stars and the Purple Heart. Following a 22-year career in the Army and retirement as a Colonel, he began a career of almost 18 years as a member of the staff of the US Senate. As a member of the professional staff and later Staff Director of the Committee on Armed Services, he was deeply involved in the national security and foreign policy issues of the United States, travelling throughout the world with members of the committee. He was appointed Under Secretary of the Army on Nov 14th, 2001 and became Acting Secretary of the Army from May 10th, 2003 until Nov 18th, 2004, serving in tandem as both Acting Secretary of the Army and Under Secretary of the Army for 18 months. Brownlee became the longest-serving Acting Secretary of the Army in history.
I had the pleasure recently to speak with the former Secretary from his home in Arlington, Virginia, about what he feels he can bring to the roundtable. He told me that when he was asked to participate, he asked himself the same question. “I’m flattered and honored to be included in this group. I’ll be there to learn and contribute where I can on issues that I’m familiar with – like national security and perhaps in some areas of foreign policy.”
Brownlee’s answer was typical of the conversation we had: humble and forthright. Although a decorated soldier who has served his country with distinction, Brownlee seemed surprised that I would even want to feature him in this series, stating that he’d prefer to stay out of the limelight.
Given recent events in Ukraine, I was extremely curious as to how a former Secretary of the Army would feel about 2015 as the “Year of Russia in Monaco” and whether this influenced his participation in the Forum. His answer was tactful – but direct.
“I don’t speak for the people of Monaco, but only as a private citizen of the United States. I do, however, believe Russian actions in Ukraine detract greatly from the good intentions of the people of Monaco to recognize Russia and the Russian people in this way. I believe that the takeover of Crimea, now by Putin’s own admission, brought about by Russian troops under his personal direction and the aggressive actions by Russian troops, tanks and heavy weapons in eastern Ukraine, clearly violate international law. We haven’t had boundary changes by force in Europe like this since World War II. With the other nations of Western Europe and the United States now imposing sanctions on Russia for their illegal actions, I am surprised, frankly, that the ‘Year of Russia in Monaco’ has not been cancelled.”
Brownlee furthered his point of view by adding that he understands that these sanctions cause hardships for the Russian economy and the Russian people and hopes the majority of Russians do not agree with what Mr Putin is doing and that summits like these might help lead to a decrease in tensions. “The people of Ukraine are fighting to defend their country and their newly-won freedom and the American people support their efforts. I believe we need to achieve a sustainable ceasefire, ensure the removal of all foreign forces, work toward restoration of international boundaries and allow the people of Ukraine to decide, without outside interference, how they wish to be governed. Otherwise, the Western Nations will have to consider increasing economic sanctions and providing lethal weapons and equipment to the Ukrainians.”
Brownlee, who holds a Masters of Business Administration from the University of Alabama, hopes the Monaco US Economic Forum can help lead to positive change, especially when it comes to the area of free trade. “I would hope that the dialogue might provide a better understanding of issues which currently preclude and inhibit the free exchange of ideas and trade – trade among countries that might improve the lives of people and raise standards of living in many countries.”
As a former Secretary of the Army, I wanted to approach Brownlee on his take on ISIS and what should be done. Before giving me an answer, he was always quick to point out that nowadays he was privy only to the same information I was, and constantly praised the efforts of those in the military (regardless of rank) who are presently serving their country. “The US military is working hard to defeat ISIS. ISIS is a dangerous menace to the world and we have to be prepared to support other nations who are threatened by these terrorists – to help train and equip their forces and, where necessary, be prepared to go to war along with them, not only to assist them but to protect our own security and national interests. But you can’t do things half way. You have to apply enough of the right kinds of combat power to get the job done.”
When you look at his record, it’s no wonder that Brownlee doesn’t believe in doing things half way. In 1962 he was commissioned as a lieutenant of infantry in the US Army after graduating from the University of Wyoming. Following parachute and Ranger training, he served the two aforementioned tours as a paratrooper in Vietnam. He later became aware of a problem of cohesion there within some Army units, due in large part to the way units and personnel were managed. Once units arrived in Vietnam, the units remained there for years, replenished by individual replacements. Experienced soldiers in Vietnam served with new recruits they didn’t know. Soldiers were unfamiliar with each other, unit cohesion and esprit were adversely affected.
As Staff Director of the US Senate Armed Services Committee from 1996-2001, Brownlee was revered and respected by both Democrat and Republican Senators before his tour at the highest level of the Army at the Pentagon.
When he became Acting Secretary of the Army in 2003, he realized that an occupation force was going to be necessary in Iraq and was determined not to make the same mistakes that had plagued the Army in Vietnam. “I was not going to allow what happened in Vietnam to happen in Iraq. I directed the Army to plan to rotate by units not by individual replacements.” His policy resulted in the controversial stop-loss program and while the relatively small number of soldiers negatively affected by stop-loss were not altogether happy with it, Brownlee believes that the change in rotation policy significantly improved unit cohesion and esprit, morale, combat effectiveness and resulted in fewer casualties overall.
Instead of shipping individual replacements to replenish units, the Army organized, equipped and trained units, then shipped intact units over to replace other units. These soldiers trained together for months in their unit before deployment. After a brief transition period, the soldiers in a unit, which had completed its tour of duty, redeployed, returning home together – as a unit. Brownlee left no doubt that he believed these units were better, more combat effective units because of this change in policy and gives all the credit for its success to the enthusiastic and exemplary way this system was executed by the Army.
Although his tenure as Secretary of the Army ended in 2004, Les Brownlee still has informed opinions on how the Army could meet today’s challenges, especially in terms of technology. “When we go to war, we go to war as a joint force militarily. So all of our military services must stay on the leading edge of technology. We’re doing a lot in the area of cyber threats but you have to constantly push the limits of technology. When it comes to communications, we have to be sure that our information is secure and on the right networks.”
Finally, I address the issue of those who serve our country. Does he think there is enough support to help those in the armed services? “Improvements have been made to the GI Bill and the Veterans Administration has a lot of hardworking people there working on behalf of our Veterans, but when it comes to those who are seriously wounded in combat or training for combat, in my view, we can never do enough for them and the sacrifices they and their families have made.”