NEW YORK – Vigorous public debate about the war in Afghanistan is preferable to ignoring the situation there and confirms that combat deaths are not in vain, according to U.S. Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Mullen was the keynote speaker at the 64th annual dinner of the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Oct. 15 at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York.
His reflections on war and his repeated calls for support of military personnel were met with applause and interspersed with self-deprecating remarks about the anonymity of his post and his being an unlikely choice to address an event better known for attracting headliners from the political, corporate, entertainment and philanthropic fields.
The speakers at last year’s dinner were the Democratic and Republican presidential nominees, then-Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois and Sen. John McCain of Arizona.
“We are engaged in two wars and some pretty serious discussions about how we’re going to fight those wars in the future,” Mullen said. “It is right that we question ourselves and our assumptions. It is right that we recognize the changing nature of war.”
He said the American military is the “best counterinsurgency force in the world right now.”
“War is an ugly, messy, bloody business and no one in uniform, no matter how high or low in the chain of command, welcomes the task of waging it. And yet the task is ours,” he said. “Neither pity us nor praise us. Stand by us.”
Contrasting current public opinion with his experience during the Vietnam War, when he said “America walked away from her military,” Mullen said, “Today it is extremely obvious that Americans support their troops, but I also know that many don’t support the war effort in Afghanistan.
“I know that a debate about what we are doing there rages in the press and in the Congress and throughout the country. And I say, let’s have that debate. I’d rather see us as a nation argue about the war, struggling to get it right than ignore it,” he said.
“Each time (my wife) Deborah and I go to Dover (Del.) to see the return of someone’s son or father or brother, mother or sister, I want to know we’ve done all we can to make sure that that sacrifice is not in vain,” he said.
Mullen, a 1968 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and former chief of naval operations, was sworn in as the 17th chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Oct. 1, 2007.
He described himself as “the nation’s most senior military officer, but I do not command any troops. I do not field any equipment, I do not plan or execute operations and I’m not responsible for any region of the world. My job is to give advice to our nation’s leaders.”
“I, indeed all of our military leaders, understand the essence of civilian control of the military and of the need to preserve the chain of command. It’s a bedrock principle of this republic,” he said.
With a smile, he recounted a supposed telephone conversation introducing himself to Obama by spelling his name to distinguish himself from disgraced financier Michael Milken. He also explained his job this way: “I make suggestions. I prod. I poke. I advocate. I’m like a Fox News analyst.”
There are 2.2 million men and women in the service and 250,000 are deployed around the world “keeping the peace and keeping watch over our freedom and national interest,” he said. “They are the finest military this, or any nation, has ever produced and, they are, after eight long years of war, still defending us magnificently.”
He said, “They believe in what they are doing for you. All I ask is that you continue to believe in them.”
He asked for prayers for military personnel, and invited active and former service members and their families to stand and be recognized.
Mullen asked the audience to extend a “seed of good will” to service personnel and their families, especially as troops reintegrate into society. “War has changed them and their loved ones forever, but it has not changed their dreams,” he said.
He also invoked Al Smith’s commitment to service. The annual dinner honors the memory of the Democratic governor of New York, who in 1928 was the first Catholic nominated by a major political party to run for president of the United States. Proceeds from the dinner, which raised $3.8 million in 2008, are distributed as grants to Catholic health care programs throughout the New York metropolitan area.
It is a convivial event that brings together politicians, industrialists, philanthropists and entertainers for an evening of thoughtful speeches and gentle barbs.
Alfred E. Smith IV, chairman of the dinner, was the master of ceremonies for the $1,500-a-plate event. He surveyed the dignitaries on the three-tiered dais and the 750 guests in the grand ballroom and said, “looking around at all the capitalists here, this must be Michael Moore’s definition of hell,” referring to the filmmaker who just released a movie critical of capitalism.
The dinner this year was the first hosted by Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan of New York.
He called Mullen an inspiration and said, “My only disappointment is that there’s not a St. Christopher or Miraculous Medal among those abundant ones on your chest.”
Describing the event as one of “joy, civility, common conviction flowing from what’s most noble in public service, in the church and in the country we love” Archbishop Dolan said, “You’re not here for me. You’re here for a community we savor, a cause, namely our kids in need, which moves us, a church we love and a man whose memory still evokes a smile and a nod of affection. Al Smith’s spirit, that of the happy warrior, still inspires us.”