Four-star General Richard Myers became familiar to millions of TV viewers as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the initial phase of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It was the culmination of a military career that began in 1965 when he joined the Air Force as an ROTC graduate. Myers became a fighter pilot and accumulated 4,100 flying hours—600 of them on combat missions in Vietnam. He led some of the Air Force’s largest commands, including the U.S. Space Command. Myers was vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs at the time of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and became chairman the next month. He retired in October 2005.
Born: March 1, 1942, Kansas City, Missouri
Residence: Arlington, Virginia
Education: Bachelor’s in mechanical engineering, Kansas State University; master’s in business administration, Auburn University
In Vietnam: December 1969 to October 1970, pilot, F-4D Phantom II fighter-bomber, 13th Tactical Fighter Squadron; September 1972 to March 1973, F-4 Wild Weasel flight commander, 67th Tactical Fighter Squadron
Today: Today: Chairman, USO World Board of Governors; trustee, Fisher House; Colin Powell chair of leadership, ethics and character, National Defense University; foundation professor of history and leadership, Kansas State University; several public and private boards.
What affected you most: the Vietnam War or 9/11? Oh, 9/11 clearly, because it happened at the Pentagon. I wasn’t in the building. I was on Capitol Hill, but I got right back. The [Joint Chiefs] chairman was gone, so I was the acting chairman. It was quickly determined that this threat of terrorism or violent extremism had the potential to do great harm to this country. I saw it and I still see it as an existential threat to the United States. I don’t think we saw Vietnam like that. At least it would take a lot of dominoes falling to get to that point.
What is the legacy of the Vietnam War? The all-volunteer force, which occurred in 1973, was probably a direct result of our experiences in the Vietnam War. Another thing that came out of Vietnam was the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986, in which Congress told the services to fight in a coordinated and collaborative way. In Afghanistan and Iraq we were a much better coordinated force than we had ever been. That was a direct result not only of Vietnam but all the small little conflicts we got into afterward when it looked like our services weren’t coordinating very well.
What are the lessons of the war? You have to be broadly prepared for a spectrum of conflicts. We were not prepared for the Vietnam War. All the plans pointed to a potential nuclear conflict, not a counterinsurgency. To be really prepared, you have to have the right equipment with the right training. I don’t think any of the people I knew in the Air Force would say they were well-trained for what they were going to face. Better training was a big outcome of that war. And equipment too.
How well did we learn the lessons of fighting insurgencies? We were actually having success in Vietnam toward the end of the war, but we didn’t take advantage of lessons learned when we prepared ourselves for Iraq. That’s why General David Petraeus was sent back to [an Army education center at Fort] Leavenworth to refresh our counterinsurgency doctrine. Then he applied it.
Any lessons from Vietnam on how to manage a war? It’s not comforting to know that a lot of the decisions were made in Washington about when, where and how to apply force, putting servicemen and women in harm’s way for unspecified or poorly understood geopolitical concerns. Enemy surface-to-air missiles were getting resupplied from the Soviet Union, but we weren’t allowed to bomb supply ships in Haiphong harbor. They’re knocking us out of the sky, and we can’t interrupt their supply line because—the theory went—that could start a conflict with the Soviet Union. Whether that was true we’ll never know because not until the very end did we get more aggressive.
In a war, what is the proper role of the political establishment, compared with the military establishment? The number-one issue with the president is keeping the American people onboard. He takes the lead in talking about why we’re in the conflict and asking Americans to share the burden, not leave it to the military alone. The legislative branch—and this is probably very idealistic—should keep discussions about the conflict to matters of security. When you start playing partisan politics, it puts senior military people in the middle of that, and that’s not where we want to be.
Some commentators have drawn parallels between our problems in Vietnam and our intervention in Iraq. What is your view? I felt that if Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, chemical or biological, they could fall in the wrong hands. And al-Qaeda fled to the north part of Iraq after they were kicked out of Afghanistan. So there was a good rationale for doing what we did. Every conflict has its own specifics, its own peculiarities. Probably some things are similar, but each situation is really different. The pundits making those comments don’t have real good grasp of history and all the circumstances surrounding the specifics of each conflict.
Are there any leaders from the Vietnam era you admire? I was influenced by some of the combat leaders that I worked with. In several squadrons, we had great leadership. Squadron commanders, operations officers were the ones that I admired. When we came back and tried to change our approach to training, we had great four-star generals who allowed that to happen, like General Robert Dixon. I admired his foresight in bringing online better equipment and developing realistic training scenarios.
What type of music from the Vietnam era did you listen to? The Beatles, for sure. I don’t know how many times we played “Hey Jude” on the jukebox. There was Creedence Clearwater Revival. I would hear Led Zeppelin and try to find it. When you’re in a foreign land, fighting by day, and you come in to have a drink or a meal, to be able to listen to something from home is very comforting.
Are there any clothes you wore in the ’70s that you would be embarrassed to wear today? Right after the war I was in a Las Vegas department store and getting a nice leisure suit. It had the bell-bottom pants. I should have saved it to go to costume parties. That’s what it would be good for today.
During the Vietnam War’s 50th anniversary, Vietnam magazine is interviewing people whose lives are intertwined with the war and asking for their reflections on that era in American history.