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General Tommy Franks

Marvin R. Shanken conducts an exclusive interview with America's top general in the war on terrorism.
Marvin R. Shanken
From the Print Edition:
Gen. Tommy Franks, Nov/Dec 03

(continued from page 3)

As I look at President Bush, I think he will ultimately be judged as a man of extremely high character. A very thoughtful man, not having been appraised properly by those who would say he's not very smart. I find the contrary. I think he's very, very bright. And I suspect that he'll be judged as a man who led this country through a crease in history effectively. Probably we'll think of him in years to come as an American hero.

CA: What about the men of the U.S. armed forces?
Gen. Franks: There are a lot of very capable people in the military. I tell people all the time, maybe for shock effect, that I had a young sergeant for about three years before we came to Tampa. I had the ground component of Central Command. And he got his doctorate while we were there. He was just a young sergeant. I've worked with three other young sergeants since we've come down here, on my personal staff. All three of them with baccalaureate degrees and two of them with master's degrees. Average American sergeants in the military.

This army is not the army that I served in when I was in Vietnam. That does not deprecate the service of all of us who went there and did that. But the quality of our people [today], the depth of their commitment to all the things that represent the best of American values, is beyond anything that the world has ever seen. And, sir, that is why, when we say that America's military represents the greatest might in history, it's all about the people. That's what it's about. And they should not be trifled with. Because this military has the ability, as it stands today, to go anyplace on the face of the earth and do whatever it is that the commander in chief will tell them to do. There are those who wring their hands that the military's worn out and we're stretched too thin, and all that sort of stuff. But we're not stretched too thin to do anything that the country wants the military to do.

CA: Do you think the U.S. military was downsized too much and was underfunded during the Clinton administration of the '90s?
Gen. Franks: Actually, I don't think that it started with the Clinton administration. Keep in mind, as I said, I'm an apolitical guy. I don't tie things to the eight years of Clinton, but over the years, postñVietnam and over the years postñCold War, I think that a couple of things have happened to the military. I think that the sizing construct that was used to bring the military down was not a good one. And so I do not think the sizing was exactly correct. But more important than that, I don't believe that the structuring was done correctly. We came out of Vietnam and decided that we would have what we call a total force concept, which means a big chunk in the active force and a big chunk in the reserve components, the Army reserves, for example, and the National Guard and that. And the political decision that was taken, the national decision, was that we would set ourselves with a military so that any time America had to go to war, both active military and the citizen soldier would have to participate. That's a great construct for a cold war. But when we're in a situation, for example, in the global war on terrorism, where we may have a number of things going on all at the same time, one wants to be more balanced. Not having certain skills that exist in the reserves only, for example.

The way we built ourselves was that we could not go to war effectively without the reserves. Well, now we're in a situation where we need a different balance. I'm not sure whether at the end of the day, Rumsfeld will decide whether we have not enough Army or too much Navy. I'm not sure what the numbers will look like. But I am sure that he is concerned about the structure within those numbers and would like to make some changes. For example, there probably are some places, some jobs being performed by people in the military which could easily be done, perhaps more effectively, by civilians. We need to get people out of those jobs, get civilians in them, and get our military into the jobs that are the highest payoff in terms of the military skills. So that's what I think about the way we're structured right now.

CA: What is the future of weaponry? Are we going to see the more exotic, high-tech weapons in the battlefield of tomorrow?
Gen. Franks: We're going to see more unmanned systems. We have seen, to our satisfaction, unmanned aerial vehicles performing in a way that gives us not only surveillance and reconnaissance, but also a kinetic capability, a lethal capability. Armed, unmanned aerial systems. We're going to see more of that. We're going to see continuing experimentation to be able to better use the bandwidth for communications that we have right now. We're going to see more robotics. So, sure, yeah, we're going to be technical for the foreseeable future.

CA: Let's get on to some lighter stuff. Your personal life reads like a rags-to-riches tale. How does a college dropout rise to the top of the U.S. military as the head of Central Command?
Gen. Franks: Ain't this a great country! [Laughter.] That's kind of a theme with me, by the way. I know you picked it up. When I was growing up, I had a little difficulty with priorities. You know, I couldn't decide, at one point in my life when I was young, that studying and getting an education was as important as other things to me. And so I prioritized education a bit lower than I should have. But then I met my wife and she corrected my aberrant behavior, and so I subsequently went to school and did that sort of thing.

Corny. I'm a corny guy. I had great parents. When I was growing up, I was permitted to be a child beyond the years where maybe one ought to be a child. But on the other hand, I grew up with a sense of values and I've kept that sense of values throughout my life. Did that contribute to me becoming a senior military officer? Yeah. I think so. I think, also, as I grew up in the military, life is about choices. And my background in the military reflects choices to do hard things, things that people would, perhaps, think of as hard. You know, if the choice was to spend more time getting a military education or spend more time with boots on in the field, I just always opted to spend time in the field. When the choice was to go to military education with Army guys to learn more about the Army or to get military education with Air Force people or with other services, I always went with the other services. I was always egotistic enough to believe that I already knew a lot about the Army and I wanted to know more about how airmen think and airmen operate and what sea services are all about and how Marines think and what they do and [about] special operations forces with whom I'd been associated the entirety of my life.

So, I've chosen to go to jobs that were with the troops more than they were away from the troops. I've had the luck of having worked for some wonderful, gifted, talented people who were willing to mentor me over a number of years, and the luck of being able to work with these evolving troops that I described a minute ago who have become smarter, who have become just incredibly resolved to do whatever one asks them to do. My own good judgment over the course of many years, and surrounding myself always with people smarter than me, probably resulted in whatever success I've enjoyed.

CA: Sitting in this room, one has to walk away with the impression that you love cigars, because you've got probably 20 humidors here and maybe thousands of cigars. When did you first become interested in cigars?
Gen. Franks: I probably became interested in cigars when I was in about the fourth grade or fifth grade and I first saw my uncle, Bob Meyers, out in Midland, Texas, when we were living out there in the middle of the oil patch. I was beginning to grow up and my uncle smoked King Edward cigars. And he and I used to go to along with my dad to baseball games. There was a minor-league ball club in Midland, Texas at that time. And we used to go to ball games and I remember my uncle sitting there in a baseball box smoking King Edward cigars. And then I noticed that many of the people with whom he associated—oilmen, bankers and that lot—smoked cigars. And I always thought that's kind of classy behavior.

Then I got a little bit older and smoked Tampa Jewels and Tampa Nuggets and the things that kids smoke. And I guess I didn't become really, really interested in cigars until I had occasion, by traveling all over the world, to sample a lot of cigars and smoke a lot of different cigars. And to this day, I still read Cigar Aficionado. Now, the characterization of cigar flavor as earthy, fruity, roasted, spicy, and so forth, is something that is interesting to me, but it is not how I characterize cigars. No one cares how I characterize cigars; but I characterize cigars as honest or balanced. I mean, terms that you're likely to see in the military. You know, I think of maduro wrappers and whether you're talking about a dark cigar or a light cigar, thin-veined or thick-veined. I don't understand nearly as much about that as I do the aroma of a cigar.

Say I walk into a room of 15 or 20 people, all of whom are smoking cigars. If you have enough not-quite-so-good cigars that probably don't draw real well, but you have only one or two or three very good cigars, I actually believe in a room full of smoke, I could walk up and talk to these 15 or 20 people and pick the ones who are smoking the good cigars. That whole thing sort of made me interested in it. What really built my interest in cigars is the fact that troopers like them. American troopers like cigars. And cigar manufacturers on this planet and people who are interested in cigars—you, for example, Marvin—have supported our kids and troops. Send them hats and magazines and send them cigars. And the number of cigar companies who send off to Afghanistan or send off to Iraq, to the troops, cases and cases of cigars, sort of made me a little bit of a fan of some of the personalities in the business of cigars. And so the result of that, then, was a humidor here and a humidor there and, if you're going to have a humidor, you should pay attention to the humidity. And then you should pay attention to the cigars which are in the humidor. And all of it sort of, as a process, is interesting to me. I like it. I enjoy it.

CA: That's really what I was getting to. I mean, I enjoy smoking cigars with friends, but I also enjoy smoking cigars when I'm by myself.
Gen. Franks: Me, too. It is relaxing. And during the course of the Iraq war, on a number of occasions, I'd sit outside in a number of Middle Eastern countries and just sit by myself and smoke a cigar. You know, I find that it's possible to spend a little too much time talking and not enough time thinking.

CA: Contemplation.
Gen. Franks: If you just want to think, there's nothing better than taking a good cigar and sitting under a tree, sitting in your room, and just sit there and smoke a good cigar. It's important to look at a cigar from time to time, when you're smoking it.

CA: Is it true that when you went to one of the palaces in Iraq, you sat at a desk of Saddam Hussein's and lit up a cigar? Gen. Franks: It was wonderful. It was not a celebration. You know, celebrations occur at the end of things and no one believes—none of the military guys—none of us believed that we had hit an end state in Iraq. But on a very important occasion, which was the gathering of all of the Central Command commanders in Baghdad, we all smoked a cigar, sitting around in one of the regime palaces, and it was a wonderful occasion. Sort of the kind of occasion one can frequently mark by smoking a good cigar.

CA: Last question. Do you ever think the day will come when peace will reign in the world and the threat from terrorism will be over?
Gen. Franks: It's not in the history of civilization for peace to ever reign. Never has in the history of man. Ever. So, I guess there's an honest answer. It doesn't mean it's the answer I like, but it is what I think—I doubt that we'll ever have a time when the world will actually be at peace. Because one of the characteristics of man is that he'll work hard for a better quality of life: a finer cigar, a better bottle of wine, more material wealth. And there'll be haves and have-nots. It is the nature of history. And it seems to me, when I think about the Greek civilization, Romans and, in fact, a number of others, the history has been that, when civilizations grow powerful, in some cases they grow lazy, and those less fortunate rise up and take it away from them. And so we've had, for thousands of years, wars on this planet. And I'm afraid that we're going to continue to have wars on this planet. Terrorism? A form of warfare. The use of incredibly small numbers of combatants to create huge problems. As long as terrorism can effectively get the military job done, some organizations, and probably some nations, are going to turn to terrorism. It is not a delightful prospect and my view is a reasonably old view. I think the way one protects our civilization and the way one protects our way of life is through strength, not through hope.


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