General James “Tom” Hill was the commander of the United States Southern Command from 2002 to 2004. His 36 years of active service began in the Republic of Vietnam.

How were operations Desert Storm and Desert Shield different from your time in Vietnam?

Well, they were two very different worlds: the jungles and the deserts. There is no doubt about that. I was a full colonel when I went to Desert Shield and Desert Storm. I was a brigade commander. I led the largest­–at the time, the largest heliborne assault in warfare history. On the first day of the ground, I flew 90 miles into Iraq to set up a base. Very different worlds, the Vietnam War and the army, and I’ll just talk the army.

The army that came out of Vietnam that merged into the ‘70s was a draftee army. It then became the early days of the all-volunteer force in the mid-‘70s, an army I refer to as the “awful army.” I know of no other word to describe it. We were incapable of doing anything. Those of us who stuck it out through the days of post-draft post-Vietnam through the years of the awful army then built it and took it to Desert Shield and Desert Storm. We proved it to be the greatest army the world had ever seen. They are two different worlds. It’s night and day, night and day. And the young people that comprised the U.S. Military league who were all volunteers: the country and the world are lucky to have them. It’s very different times, very different times. Interesting they were both in helicopters, and I commanded the brigade that I was a part of in Vietnam. That was cool. I thought that was fun.

What was it like serving in Haiti with the UN peacekeeping force?

I am, to the best of my knowledge, one of three army generals to ever wear a blue beret working directly for the U.N.: Tom Montgomery, a retired three-star general, did it in Somalia; a guy named Joe Kinzer, a retired three-star general who was my boss in Haiti; and me. We went to Haiti as part of the U.N.-sponsored force. The term is under the auspices of the U.N., with the 25th division in January, and then on April the 1st, part of us went home. Part of us reverted to the U.N. peacekeeping force, and I stayed on as General Kinzer’s deputy. Fascinating.

I learned a lot about a lot of different things. If done correctly, U.N. forces can be very useful in the world. If done incorrectly, they’re just a mess. I thought we did some really good work in Haiti: the U.S. forces retraining or training a new police force, helping the government get going and working on a new judicial system; then, as part of the U.N. forces, simply maintaining law and order. It was fascinating.

How did 9/11 change priorities in South America, where you commanded in 2002?

I’ve never been asked that question. When I took over in 2002, the United States was beginning to get very focused on Iraq and Afghanistan. We had already been in Afghanistan. We weren’t quite in Iraq yet. What it did for me was it gave me a freedom as a combatant commander that none of the others had, because I was really operating on my own. The president and the Secretary of Defense were not focused on Latin America.

If you look at Latin America in particular to the point of your question, we were very concerned about two different things, maybe more than that; I’m sure more than that, but one was the drug operation coming out of Columbia in particular. It is not an exaggeration to say that when I took over at Southern Command and president Álvaro Uribe took over as president of Columbia within a day or two of me, that Columbia was on the verge of being a failed state. Today, it’s far from that, and a lot of it is a direct result of what the U.S. effort was in Columbia in response to President Uribe’s leadership. I went to Columbia 31 times in 24 months. I made a point of going at least once a month and sometimes two or three times a month, working with President Uribe, working with their military, working with our embassy, working with our intelligence people to help the Columbians’ get a handle on their war.

The other thing we did was we ran a major drug interdiction operation coming up out of South America and Central America. We also countered Chinese interests and influence in the region. We for sure watched very carefully some of the money piece of terrorism that goes in and out of Latin America. There’s an area on the border between Paraguay, Argentina, and Brazil that Hezbollah gets a whole lot of money from. A large Lebanese trading community has been down there forever. There is a huge influx of money that comes out of that region and goes right back into Hezbollah. There is a large Muslim element on a place called Margarita Island right off the coast of Venezuela, which we watch very carefully, because it’s just a money laundering area.

How do you balance between effective administration and caring for the soldiers below you?

My management mantra has been–since I was a lieutenant colonel, a major lieutenant colonel, mid-level guy–I only do those things that only I can do. The higher I went up, the more I began to really understand that. There are things that only the senior leader can affect and make change on, and everything else is ancillary to that. You get your focus on the things that only you can do, and then you find somebody else to hold accountable and responsible to do the rest of it. The trick is then letting them do that, and you stay focused on what you can do, and I’ll do those things that only I can do.

Leadership is a different issue. There are lots of myths that it’s pretty easy to be in the military; you just give an order and that’s all. It’s easy to give an order. I can give an order. Getting it obeyed and getting it executed correctly are two different issues, and that requires a great deal of leadership. I grew up in a values-based organization, The United States Army, built upon a foundation of trust: trust between the leader and the led. Both have to trust each other in equal amounts. Both have got to respect each other in equal amounts. I believe firmly and deeply in the dignity of all human beings, and I think that came through in my leadership style and the way I cared for people, because I do care for people. I think I did that in Vietnam, and I think I did that all of my life.

But it does come down to having an ethic of your own, the values of the organization that you are a part of, and in the army living by seven values of leadership: most of all, selfless service, understanding that you’re serving something greater than yourself. You cannot lose sight of that. Right after we went into Iraq, one of the very first soldiers killed in Operation Enduring Freedom was a Colombian-American. He wasn’t even a citizen yet. His name was Diego Rincón, and I went to his funeral. He wasn’t my soldier, but he was Colombian, and the chief of staff of the army asked me to go up there to the funeral. I presented the flag to his family, and they had buttons made for him with Rincón’s face on it.

I kept that button on my desk until the day I retired so that when I looked at it, I always remembered that those are real people out there that are getting killed. Those are not “boots on the ground.” I hate that phrase. Those are human beings. Any time that a soldier forgets that it’s another human, and you begin to dehumanize that, bad things will happen: not can happen, will happen. Unnecessary killing is not right. It’s not correct. It’s just immoral.

How will recent endorsements of politicians by military leaders change the dynamic between the executive and the military?

I don’t like it. I’m fundamentally against it. I would never endorse anybody. Ever since I retired, I’ve been asked to endorse. I say to anybody who calls me, “I’ll be happy to help you write papers that inform your candidate about national security issues or Latin American issues or whatever.”

The first time I was asked, right after I retired, was during the presidential election between President Barack Obama and Senator McCain. Both sides wanted me to endorse. I said, “I will not endorse but I’ll be happy to talk with people to help the candidates get smarter.” Only the Obama people took me up on it. I went and had several discussions with people who ended up in the Obama White House, trying to help them understand Latin American affairs. I was asked this year to endorse, and I said I would not do it. I’m happy to write papers, but I don’t endorse.

The reality of life is that at the highest levels, there is always natural friction between the civilians and the military. It’s a natural inclination. Anything that increases that friction is not good. It’s not good for the military and it’s not good for the country. These endorsements, even from retired guys, can cause the incoming person to have more distrust for the military. You can’t have that.

I served through four active transitions. I worked on the transition team from the army. There were about 10 of us, headed by a two-star who was a major at the time, working on the Reagan transition. I was the head of the U.S. Army Team for the transition with President Bush, Herbert Walker Bush. As a one-star, I was there for Bill Clinton. I was there as a one-star in the joint staff. I was in the last year of Herbert Walker Bush’s tenure, and the first year of President Clinton’s, so I worked that transition of the joint staff. As four-star, I worked the transition also.

They’re all different, but they all come into the Pentagon thinking that they’re going to fix it all, that everything else was messed up before they got there. They quickly come up with the idea, and then they understand that I take an oath to the Constitution of The United States. I don’t take an oath to the President of The United States. There is no mention of the President of The United States in my oath. My oath says I will support and defend the Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic, and will bear full faith and allegiance to the saying. Period. We take it, and it’s like no other oath in the world. Nobody takes an oath like that. We take an oath to defend the rule of law, and when one president takes over, you salute the new president.

When I was a one-star, I was called over the day before President Clinton’s inauguration to the National Security Council, to the old executive office building, to meet my counterpart on the former Yugoslavia. This guy was in charge of that for President Bush’s part of the National Security Council, and he talked to me for about 45 minutes, telling me what I was going do 6 months from now. I finally looked at him and I said, “Dave, I give you guys an A for effort, but tomorrow morning, I am saluting President Clinton, and we’re doing a different policy.”

What do you wish students understood about the military?

I decided that I wanted to be an IOP fellow after a visit last fall and interaction with the students. I loved being with the students. I like the sense of vitality that the students had, and the interaction with them was a marvelous experience, as has been the last couple of months and will continue to be. All the people who have come in and out of the IOP are interested in government in one way or another. They’re interested in service, and this was my point.

In my very first study group, in the first three or four sentences, I quoted a congressman from Boston named Seth Moulton. Seth Moulton is a Harvard graduate and young congressman, who was talking about one of your very famous, now deceased chaplains, Peter Gomes. Congressman Moulton was talking about trying to figure out some service. Moulton is quoted as saying that Chaplain Gomes taught him to understand that it was not enough to talk about service; you needed to find something to serve. What I’m trying to do in my interactions with students is to encourage some sort of form of service. It doesn’t have to be the military. It doesn’t have to be government, but you need to be able to give back to humanity.

I have carried around two things in my wallet for years and years. The first is a quote by a humorist named Leo Rosten. He said, “I cannot believe that the purpose of life is to be happy. I think the purpose of life is to be useful, to be responsible, to be compassionate. It is, above all, to matter, to count, to stand for something, to have made some difference that you’ve lived it all.” I’ve tried to live my life that way–in a purposely-filled way.

This other piece, and if you looked at it carefully, you’d see it’s folded into little squares. I have carried this in my wallet since 1968, and it comes from the edition of Newsweek after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Every now and then in my life, I’ve pulled this out of my wallet and read it in moments of despair. It’s a quote by Martin Luther King. It says, “Cowardice asked the question, is it safe? Expediency asks the question, is it politic? Vanity asks the question, is it popular? But, conscience asks the question, is it right? And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right.” That is how I try to live my life. If I was going try to leave Harvard students with anything, it would be those two quotes.


Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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