“Hope Is Not A Method”

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It is dawn in Washington as Gen. Gordon R. Sullivan, the Chief of Staff of the United States Army, walks quickly from his helicopter at Andrews Air Force Base to board the jet bound for Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Waiting for him there is a classroom full of the Army’s most successful and promising officers, colonels, and lieutenant colonels newly chosen to command brigades and battalions. Some of these officers will have fought in Grenada, in Panama, in the Gulf War, or all three. It is possible they will have to lead their soldiers in some other conflict before they leave command. Sullivan wants them to know who leads them.

Sullivan’s manner is natural, easygoing, and informal. But his message is serious. He wants his new commanders to know what he expects of them. He wants them to take to their new commands his own vision of the Army as an enduring American institution—where it has been and where it is likely to go. In a little more than an hour, he will describe the national-security policies that guide him and his subordinates. He will discuss frankly the reductions in strength and budget the Army faces in the aftermath of the Cold War. And he will state in no uncertain terms what he expects, and what the American people expect, from their Army. Along the way he will employ historical allusions and references in a manner that could be expected only from one who has steeped himself in historical study, and he frequently mines the history of the Civil War for stimulation, for inspiration, and for insights into dealing with the problems that now face his Army and its men and women.

The Army that Gordon Sullivan leads has not always been so fortunate, so expert as the military force the American public saw on television during the Gulf War. When Sullivan received his commission in 1959, his army was a draftee army in the deep freeze of a Cold War. Then, the backbone of American defense was the “strategic triad” of nuclear forces, and the U.S. Army was on the back-side of an ambiguous war in Korea, its share of the defense budget slipping to make way for more nuclear forces. One Army Chief of Staff, Matthew Ridgway, had already retired prematurely to protest the neglect of the Army, and another, Maxwell Taylor, was making no secret of his dismay over defense policies in the waning days of the Eisenhower administration.

 

The worst was yet to come. In 1962 Gordon Sullivan was on the leading edge of a new wave of American soldiers being sent to the Republic of South Vietnam, where he served twice during the sixties.

When that war was over, the Army was an institutional wreck, and Sullivan was one of those who put it back together again, rising gradually in rank through the seventies and eighties. By 1988 he was a major general commanding the 1st Infantry Division. Two years later he put on his fourth star as the Vice Chief of Staff of the Army, and in June 1991 he was selected to be the thirty-second Chief of Staff of the United States Army.

As this interview was conducted, the U.S. Army once again faced the prospect of reducing its size and withdrawing from Europe. The presidential transition was well under way, and along with it the inevitable uncertainty over the practical shape of future national policy. As Sullivan is keenly aware, the new world order presages a new world for the United States Army as well. He leads what is arguably the best army the United States has ever had: more than half a million strong, technologically sophisticated, confident in its orchestration of military power. But this is an institution under stress, one whose traditional adversary has been replaced by a world of uncertainties. Faced with momentous change, Sullivan must steer the Army toward another century in the nation’s history.

“To be a successful soldier you must know history,” wrote George S. Patton. The general responsible for remaking the American Army in the aftermath of the Cold War knows a great deal of history, and it sustains him in a very tough job.

As the Army’s Chief of Staff, Sullivan looks back at a line of predecessors that includes John J. Pershing, George C. Marshall, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Omar Bradley. Photographs of these men line a wall in Sullivan’s official residence, but they are not merely the adornments of office. Neither is the history of the army that he leads. Sullivan draws moral inspiration and practical insight from the merger of that history with his own. How his personal history joins with official history and guides his stewardship of one of America’s largest institutions is the subject of this interview.

Of the millions of American soldiers who have taken an oath to the Constitution, very few have become Chief of Staff of the Army. How do you explain your own personal history to yourself?