Q&A: Retired Gen. Wesley Clark, host of WWI film series

He has served as the Supreme Allied Commander and Commander in Chief of the U.S. European Command during the Kosovo campaign, authored two books and run for president. Retired four-star Gen. Wesley Clark began his illustrious career as valedictorian of his class at West Point and went on to be a Rhodes Scholar studying at Oxford in England. He describes the time he was shot in Vietnam in his book “A Time to Lead.” He earned the Silver Star for his service there. The 69-year-old will be hosting TCM’s “Friday Night Spotlight: World War I,” every Friday in July. The more than 40 films include “All Quiet on the Western Front (1930),” “Lawrence of Arabia (1962)” and “Gallipoli (1981).” The series will mark the 100th anniversary of World War I. Go to www.TCM.com for more details.

Have to ask: Were you at all surprised by what has happened and is happening in Iraq?

We had some indications that the terrorist groups were marshaling their forces and getting much, much stronger and there were indications of some Baathist generals relationships there. We knew they were getting stronger. We knew they‘d taken over some towns in western Iraq, but the strength of the onslaught and especially the capture of Mosul with the finances and the heavy weapons, that is a serious blow.

What about the fact that the Iraqi army we helped to train just melted away, as some reports have said?

This was less of a surprise. Most of us who have been engaged in training foreign militaries know that it’s not just about the mechanics of the training. It‘s about the quality of the government and the whole structure of the society and how well it supports the men and women in uniform. In this case, there were some obvious problems that had built up over time.

Everyone knows the upside of an all-volunteer Army, which is what we have now. But what are the downsides?

I think we put an incredible burden on the men and women who volunteer to serve. To go back time and again to a combat zone, to take the mental deprivation and the physical dangers, whether they were an infantryman on the line or a photographer or working as a mechanic, that repetitive tour grinds up your force mentally and emotionally. It uses up family reserves. You know the volunteer force was never designed to be a long-term combat force. It was always intended that if we went to war we would mobilize the National Guard and the Reserve, but we would be using conscription, the draft. All Americans would serve. This was only a stop gap intended to fill the immediate needs, deterrents in peace time.

It certainly went beyond that.

Way beyond it. And at the time as we contemplated the invasion of Iraq, I talked to my friends who were still in uniform and we said, “How long can we make it?” The estimate was three years, maybe four. Well, we made it a lot longer than any of us believed. It is because the structural institutions, especially of the United States Army, are so strong. The way we train. The way we build our leaders. The way we take care of our families. The Marines did a great job. The Air Force and Navy came in there as well, but it was the Army that bore the brunt of the problem. We had the longest tours. We had the bulk of the forces deployed. We took the heaviest losses. We did far better than we ever believed possible, but we knew we weren’t designed, structured or prepared for a long-term, grinding, counter-insurgency environment.

You have been in combat. Do you know what it feels like when it starts to grind away at you?

You not only have it on the ground when you are there, but you have it when you come home. So yes, all of us who went through Vietnam experienced this. But there it was the second tour or maybe even the third tour. Here [Iraq] there are people who have been back four and maybe even five times over the course of more than a decade.

I imagine just the adrenaline that is generated time after time in combat would physically take a toll on your body.

Combat people say it alternates between boredom and terror. A lot of the time, you wish you weren‘t there. You are isolated, you are in a far-off land and there’s nothing happening. Then something happens and you don‘t like it either. So there is a lot of alternation of moods.

So many generals in history are reported to have had big egos. Is that important to being a good leader of men, particularly soldiers?

I think you have to have self-confidence but when you let your ego get out in front, you are doing a disservice to your troops and to your country. If you look at every war of the last century and including Iraq in the early 21st century, the level of casualties declined. So in World War I, Americans knew that when we went to war we were going to suffer huge casualties. The British in the Passchendaele offensive in 1916 had over 60,000 men killed in a single day. In a single day! When they stood up and moved across the field, they were mowed down.

American losses in what was essentially three months of active combat were 150,000 killed. The war was over before some of those families were notified in those days. General Pershing, who was the commander, told his generals, “You will take casualties. You will commit those troops, and they will take casualties. If you are afraid to take those casualties, I will pull you out of command.”

In World War II, we tried desperately not to take such high casualties and we didn‘t. For the most part, we didn’t make blind charges into trench warfare and machine guns lined up firing at us. We tried to do it smarter. People took heavy casualties at the Battle of Peleliu, which the Marines fought. The Army came in at the end in 1944 in the Pacific. Iwo Jima, Okinawa — these were difficult bloody assaults, not to mention some of the work the U.S. Army did in the Battle of the Bulge. These were really tough assaults. The breakout from Normandy was tough, but in terms of proportionate casualties it was nothing like World War I. If you move into Korea, sure it was hard, too, and Vietnam, but each one we have been more and more aware of the burden we are asking the soldiers to bear, and we have done everything we can to spare them.

Is there any difference between the generation of soldiers who fought in World War II and the men and women going to war now?

I think one difference is that the World War II generation were drawn from a cross-section of America. They had deeper connections to a broader segment of society than young people today who have volunteered. Most of the young people today who volunteer, God love them, they are great Americans but they are not as representative of the cross-section of America as the earlier generation was.

Do you remember the terror of combat?

Of course. I was shot and I had an instant of thinking, as I was lying on the ground bleeding, “I really don‘t want to be here.” I thought for a fleeting millisecond about my 4-month-old son I had never seen. Then it just slipped aside and I said, “Gotta fight, gotta do what I was trained to do.” Those thoughts probably passed within a second across my mind, and then you just do what you were trained to do.

So is the fear trained out of you? Or are you trained to manage fear?

People do what they are trained to do, and the fear resides in a corner of their mind. They wall it off.

Where are we heading militarily? To more cyber warfare?

We are heading toward special operations. More and more capability given to a single soldier. The way we took down the Taliban government in 2001 in Afghanistan, that is the model for future warfare. Special forces, not massed armies. It doesn‘t mean we won’t need lots of troops at some point in the battle, but we learned some tough lessons in the case of Iraq. We don‘t want to do it that way again. We want to be smarter, more precise, more deliberate, and draw on the bulk of the men and women who volunteer to serve only if we have to.

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