Mullen, who oversaw the assassination of Osama bin Laden in May 2011, came to the Wilson School after the program recruited him with a full-court press. On Thursday before his afternoon seminar, the Admiral sat down with The Daily Princetonian to discuss how his military experience parlays into leading a seminar, whether he plans to stay at the University beyond this semester and his thoughts on the University's dormant ROTC program.
The Daily Princetonian: You served 43 years in the Navy. What was your favorite assignment?
Admiral Mike Mullen: Well, typically in the Navy the best assignments are your command assignments, where you command ships and organizations that go to sea. The Navy is about ships, and ships are about going to sea, but that would be in my junior years during the first 20, 25 years. As far as the overall career is concerned, the best assignment was the last one as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It was a privilege to serve. We had two wars ongoing - thousands and thousands of young men and women in harm's way - and part of what drove me and drives me today are young people. And so understanding what's on their mind, doing the best I could to make sure they had everything they needed to carry out their mission and being engaged with them, literally on the front, was a part of my career that was just very, very special.
And tending to the needs of the families who had also been incredibly supportive during these multiple deployments, the needs of families of the fallen, for those families who'd lost a loved one in the war. So, from that perspective, the tour that I enjoyed the most - even though it was the most difficult - was the last one.
DP: During your second term as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the United States conducted the raid that resulted in Osama bin Laden's death. There is a famous photo of you standing next to the President in the White House during the raid. What were you thinking while the raid was taking place? How did you feel when it was all over?
MM: People asked me what the best moment of the time I was Chairman. It was that moment, clearly, because we had been after him for the better part of a decade to bring him to justice. He had certainly killed more than 3,000 Americans, and so that was a very rewarding moment, but it wasn't just about that moment. That moment wasn't just about bin Laden to me because I've been in long enough. When we tried to rescue the hostages in Iran in 1980 and failed, and our military overall - not just our special forces but our military - were not always in very good shape, so that moment also spoke to the incredible improvement of professionalism that I had observed for many years in our military, not just our special forces. So in many ways, that was the highlight of the time that I was Chairman.
The most difficult moment actually came not too long after that. We lost a couple of dozens of Special Forces on a helicopter that got shot down in Afghanistan. Meeting those families that were with the President, going to Arlington to bury [the soldiers] was as difficult a moment as I've ever had in my life.
DP: Some have said President Obama has politicized the killing of Osama bin Laden. Do you agree?
MM: I'd leave that up to the pundits ... I think that the military operations all need to be apolitical. I was a big advocate of staying out of politics when I was Chairman, and it's incredibly important for those in uniform to stay out of that. So I do all I can to make sure that anything that's associated with the military is out of the political realm.
DP: In February 2010, you testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee that you supported President Obama's decision to end the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" law. What is your position on women assuming roles in combat - in the infantry, for example?
MM: Well, we've had over a quarter of a million women deploy in the combat areas, and combat these days doesn't have a line you cross in the vast majority of areas - it can come from 360 degrees. Despite the legal restrictions to have women in certain combat units, there has been an extraordinary amount of women who have been in combat. Actually, there has been an extraordinary amount of women who performed exceptionally well in combat, and I can recall even before I became Chairman - I was the head of the Navy - when I awarded a young woman, a very junior woman, a very high medal for what she had done. Her performance in terms of saving her battle buddies' lives, killing the enemy was equal to any I had heard about - certainly at that point.
In fact, I think the Army is reconsidering the role of women in combat. I think that's something that's worthy of doing - as we've been through so much combat - to assess what's happened, to look at the rules that are there and see if they still apply.
DP: What made you decide to go into academia as opposed to anything else?
MM: Well, I was asked, first of all, by some of the leadership here at the Woodrow Wilson School, who I'd actually known in Washington - Professor [Anne-Marie] Slaughter, specifically, as well as Dean [Christina] Paxson. I've always had an interest to be plugged into young people. This is an opportunity to do that ...
When I was 17 and deciding on colleges to go to, Princeton actually crossed my mind. I was out in California, and actually going across the country to college back then was something that not a lot of people did. Anyway, I was also a basketball player. A Princeton graduate at the time, Bill Bradley ['65], was the best basketball player in the country, and I admired Bill Bradley a lot. It was sort of a combination of things as I look at the next chapter in my life, and I've always been motivated to try and give back. And bright young students who are looking at going on to, I certainly believe, great futures - a chance to have a great impact and to engage and interact with those minds is a pretty special opportunity, and to possibly be involved in their development for the future, and it won't be long until the seniors here at Princeton are in significant leadership positions.
DP: Specifically, why did you choose the Wilson School? What was the attraction?
MM: The Wilson School is internationally known for excellence in foreign policy and diplomacy, and in the last four years as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs I spent a lot of time in the diplomatic and foreign policy world. I really like that. I hadn't done a lot of it up until that time, and I've engaged most of my military counterparts around the world, but also many, many diplomats from various countries at a time where it's such an incredibly challenging time as the world changes, crises arise and the world needs what I would call global leadership.
I believe the United States is a big part of that and will continue to be in the future, so it was an opportunity not to just be engaged with the young students but also with a school with a wonderful reputation in this particular field. So it's a real privilege to come here and do this, and I'm excited.
DP: How did the Wilson School get you to come here? What was the process like?
MM: Well, Dr. Slaughter was the one who originally approached me. I had known her when she was working for Secretary Clinton. It was really Dean Paxson who came and saw me and really urged me to consider this. She made a trip to Washington, and I then made a trip up here, actually, with my wife. The school and the people had been incredible receptive about the opportunity, so after a couple more meetings, I made the decision to do this, and I'm very excited about it.
DP: Can you tell me a little bit about your military experiences and how that might be useful for teaching a course?
MM: I came in in the late '60s; it was an entirely different situation. The Vietnam War was raging at the time. There were many challenges in the country that had nothing to do with the Vietnam War as well - social challenges - and it was the first war I was in, in 1969, when I was deployed on a ship off the coast of Vietnam supporting the Army and the Marine Corps. But it was the totality of that war and the fact that the American people didn't support our men and women in uniform. In fact, in many cases, they blamed the war on the men and women in uniform. That was a very searing experience for me and a baseline that will never go away.
So, coincidentally, over time I would say at the end of my military career, some 40 years later, that that war had a lot to do with the way I handle myself in the wars that we're in right now, part of which means to make sure that the American people know what's going on - to put a face on that, to put a face on those we've lost. I was a big advocate for opening Dover [Air Force Base] to the public and the families for just that reason. We want people to know what's going on and to consciously say yes or no, we will continue this or we won't continue it. The Vietnam War began, the American people didn't support the men and women in uniform, and that is not the case now.
Far outside the politics, the American people have supported our men and women in uniform. We generate an extraordinary number of homeless veterans who are my peers from Vietnam. Many of them are still homeless, and I wanted to do everything that I could to make sure that we didn't do that again in these wars, but we are. And in fact, the homeless-veteran problem is substantially more difficult because now we are generating female homeless vets at an extraordinarily high rate. They have children. The VA is not geared for women yet, so the challenges that are associated with homelessness and veterans are actually more intense than they've been in the past. That's a very early experience as well as a very late experience with respect to my career.
I guess mostly I found myself seeing the world early, which I really enjoyed because I deployed many times all over the world. I was given great responsibility very young to lead sailors, to command ships. At one point in the '70s I found myself in command of a small ship in the middle of the '73 war in the Eastern Mediterranean. In addition, I found in the Navy and subsequently in the other services just great young men and women. In the end, it's all about people. Being engaged with people and such a diverse group of people from all backgrounds, from all parts of the country and, in some cases, parts of the globe because many in the military come here from other countries. So it was just that very broad exposure and early responsibility, an opportunity to make a difference for our country - that combination over time is what really motivated me.
DP: What are you looking forward to most about the course you are teaching?
MM: Another attractive part of this, this is an opportunity as [someone] in a senior job - as someone who executed the policy, was in on the policy debates at the highest levels of government. The very, very challenging schedule that you have with all the issues that are out there - you don't get much time to sort of step back and think about it, step back and read about it, step back and interact with a lot of other people about it. This also allows me to give some thought to the things that both I and the country have been through - it's been a very difficult decade since 9/11 - and hopefully in that thought, clarify how I might look at the future and how I can positively impact the future in terms of both policy for the country and how the military fits into that.
DP: How did the first class go?
MM: It was terrific. Wonderful young, enthusiastic group of young students, a very diverse group and a group with 1,000 questions, which is just great. And they really wanted to be in the class, and I am flattered and humbled by that, and so I think we'll have a great semester.
DP: Do you think that academia is something that you would like to continue doing after this seminar?
MM: I look at this time in my life, what I am going to do. I mean, it's a great privilege to come here and teach, and in terms of longer term, we'll have to see how all of this goes. The notional idea is to teach for the year so that there is an undergraduate course this fall and then a graduate course next spring, which isn't solidified yet. I haven't fully committed to that yet, but that's the idea, and then, after a year, see how that goes. One of the things, at this time in my life, that is my highest priority is my family and spending time with them, which had been very challenging for many years. So I have to balance these kinds of efforts with that, and I am in the process of doing that as we speak.
DP: Do you believe that the Princeton ROTC should be recognized by the University? Right now it's not. Do you think that it should be given space in the curriculum and be able to offer courses for credit?
MM: Back to Vietnam, one of the most disappointing parts of that was the Ivy League schools that pulled out of the ROTC program. I'm actually very encouraged by the ROTC program restarting at places like Harvard and Columbia, specifically. I haven't gotten to the details of Princeton with respect to that. I think it's very important that our young, bright military leaders have opportunities at these institutions, however their handhold.
In terms of both influence of the institution on them and influence of them on the institution, when it's done well, there is a win-win which occurs. But again, I haven't got into the ways of how Princeton is doing. Ironically, one of my aides when I was Chairman was a Princeton graduate commissioned out of here and who brought me up here about two or three years ago to spend the day up here and it had been my first trip to Princeton.
DP: What are your thoughts on the protests going on in the Middle East in reaction to the film "Innocence of Muslims"?
MM: I think we've got to get to a higher level with respect to this. This is a tragic loss with respect to our ambassador and the other Americans who were killed, and my thoughts and prayers go out to their families. But the change in the Middle East is obviously not just honest. It's going to be here for years and years to come ... I'm encouraged in a sense, that these are revolutions, if you will, in Egypt, Syria - at the heart of those are the aspirations of people for a better way of life, for a more democratic way of life, for freedom and ability to improve themselves, education and take care of their families. I think we have to stay focused on that. We can all be easily diverted with our focus on issues and the very, very difficult challenges of what we've seen in the last week or so.
I think we need to be prepared for more of these kinds of situations, and I know specifically our government and our state department are taking actions to ensure the security of all of our people who are stationed around the world. I think it's important, however, that the United States stay engaged with these countries, and work with them as best as we can to ensure that their future is what they want it to be and to try and understand their challenges from their perspectives while staying engaged and while staying in a leadership role. So it's an enormously complex problem that isn't going to go away, sadly, and there will be, I'm sure, more lives lost in time, whereas many, many lives are lost in those countries - Syria for example - right now.
There's clearly no easy answer here, and there's no yes or no right thing to do. We need to stay engaged and continue to lead and to try and make a difference in a way that allows countries to self-determine where they're going to end up.
Original URL: http://www.dailyprincetonian.com/2012/09/25/31242/