Outgoing Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, speaking to NPR's Morning Edition, says he's concerned about retaining qualified U.S. military service members amid the "stress and strain" of more than 13 years of continuous warfare in Afghanistan and Iraq.
In one of his last interviews in the job he's held since February 2013, Hagel refers to the "hidden consequences" of "nonstop war" faced by American combat forces since the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. He calls the situation "unprecedented in the history of this country."
He tells Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep that such a protracted combat role means that the same people keep rotating back to the front lines: "four, five, six combat tours — [the] same people."
Hagel says that when, in a recent meeting, he spoke with a group of six promising young U.S. military officers, "five out of the six said they were uncertain over whether they were going to stay in the service and most likely would get out.
"And why? Because of family issues, because of stress and strain," he tells Inskeep.
In the wide-ranging interview with NPR, Hagel also speaks about the chaotic situation in Yemen, the challenges of identifying and training a moderate Syrian opposition, as well as the difficulty faced by President Obama in closing the Guantanamo Bay detention center and the administration's sometimes controversial, hands-on involvement in national security matters.
Hagel, a former two-term Republican senator from Nebraska who is the first enlisted combat veteran to lead the Defense Department, says that "it's going to be very difficult" to close Guantanamo by the end of the president's term, "especially if the Congress further restricts where these last 122 detainees will go, how they will be dealt with."
On the subject of Yemen, Hagel says the White House is "working our way through what the facts are" after President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi and his Cabinet resigned amid a near-coup by sectarian Houthi rebels.
"I think until we get a better understanding of how the Yemenis want to go forward in governing, then that will determine the future relationships," he says.
"But we want to continue to have that relationship, which has been important, with the government," he says of the country that has simultaneously given rise to some of the world's most hardened jihadis and worked closely with the U.S. to eliminate the threat.
Concerning Syria, Hagel says there's no question about the need to train moderate forces to "take back their communities and their towns and their cities" from insurgents of the self-declared Islamic State.
However, he says, "[this] issue in Syria is not going to be solved militarily. This is going to require ... a political change, a shift. There is a military dynamic to it, but the military dynamic cannot lead and will not lead."
Hagel's deputy, longtime Pentagon official Ashton Carter, has been nominated by Obama to take over the key Cabinet post. He has yet to be approved by the Senate.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
One of President Obama's political goals remains a practical problem. It's the president's effort to close the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He vowed to finish that job by the end of his first year. He's still trying and says he means to do it before leaving office.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
A man at the center of that debate is Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. And Hagel tells NPR News it will be very difficult to achieve the president's goal. Hagel is on his way out of office. In recent months, he was privately criticized for the speed at which he certified prisoners for release from Guantanamo. It's hard to find countries to receive the detainees, for one thing, and Congress has said the U.S. will not receive them. This was one of the topics we discussed when Hagel welcomed us into his office on Friday for an exit interview.
U.S. DEFENSE SECRETARY CHUCK HAGEL: The closing of that prison, which I support - I supported it when I was in the Senate - it requires more than just a military dimension. It requires countries hosting these detainees. First, countries who are willing to take them. Second, do they have the capability, capacity and commitment to assure in every way they can that satisfies us that there is substantial mitigation of risk of these individuals returning to the battlefield to threaten the United States or our people or our allies?
INSKEEP: It was hard for you to sign off on some of the prisoner releases or transfers out of Guantanamo in recent years, wasn't it?
HAGEL: I didn't sign off on any Guantanamo detainees that I did not certify that we substantially mitigated the risk of them returning to the battlefield. Now, has there been a slowing of that which hasn't always made me popular in all quarters? Yes, but I made that very clear to the president and to everyone - to the Congress.
INSKEEP: You're affirming that there were people at the White House who were saying come on, move faster. Let's get this done.
HAGEL: I am not affirming anything. I'm just saying that not all people agreed with me.
INSKEEP: I understand, I understand. In the last couple of months, a number of people have been released from Guantanamo. Things seem to be moving more quickly. Is it going to be possible to close the Guantanamo Bay Naval detention facility in the next couple of years?
HAGEL: It's going to be very difficult, especially if the Congress further restricts where these last 122 detainees go. How they will be dealt with - this isn't a simple, easy matter of, well, let's just move 122 detainees. These people are there for a reason. And as you draw down into the last numbers there, these are the most difficult cases.
INSKEEP: As you know, Secretary Hagel, a couple of your predecessors publicly complained about the White House's hands-on involvement in national security affairs. Of course, there's always a balancing act because you have civilian control to the military. You spent a couple of years as the guy in between the White House and the military. Did the White House get that balance right?
HAGEL: Well, every president has to find that balance and that position on how he deals with not only his military, but every agency of government. We in the military - we have had, continue to have, every opportunity to express ourselves on every occasion and on every issue. I don't think there is any perfection in the process.
It depends on the issues. It depends on timing. It depends on what is going on at any one time where as to how much involvement the White House has, how much involvement the president has. And again, he is the commander in chief and the people who work with him at the National Security Council are his arm in working with the Defense Department. And quite frankly, they have responsibility for all of the government. We are one component of the government.
INSKEEP: Did you ever have a moment in the last couple of years of saying to someone at the White House, wait a minute, I understand he's the commander in chief, but hold on, you're going too far here?
HAGEL: We've had opportunities to express ourselves on many occasions.
INSKEEP: (Laughter) I don't think you're answering the question.
HAGEL: I just did.
INSKEEP: Meaning, have you expressed yourself in that way?
HAGEL: I have expressed myself in many ways, but I don't get into the book-telling business of conversations I had with the president. That's not my style. I don't think that's a responsible thing to do.
INSKEEP: How much, if at all, has this institution been able to begin to renew itself after the sacrifices and the difficulty of more than a decade of war?
HAGEL: Well, I think one of the hidden consequences of 13 years of nonstop war, which is unprecedented in the history of this country - two wars, two large landmass wars. Also unprecedented is the fact that we fought those wars with an all-volunteer force, never has that happened. And what that means is you keep rotating back into combat tours, the same people - four, five, six combat tours, the same people. Strain, stress, consequences of that are showing up. They have been showing the last two or three years. And I've tried to pay a lot of attention to this over the last two years in our medical health care reviews, family issues, everything that affect people because in the end it is people that is the most important asset of any institution.
You can have all the capabilities. If you don't have the quality people, you don't have much, so we've got to pay attention to that. We're going to have to pay more attention to it. It's affected, for example - I always ask when I bring young enlisted soldiers in and young officers in for private luncheons, which I do, and I always ask the question do you intend to stay the military? And when I went around the table this morning on six young officers, 5 out of the 6 said that they were uncertain whether they we're going to stay in the service and most likely would get out. You know why - because of family issues because of stress and strain. If you want to have a family, what does this mean? Uncertainty of budgets, uncertainty of are we going to continue to cut the force? This is very dangerous. Now, you don't see that anywhere. That is not anything that's articulated in any big news stories because it's not here and now. And the news business, I know and it's part of it, it's reporting on what's there today, but rarely are there any reflective stories on how do you assure this country's security into the next generation? And this is what I look at.
INSKEEP: Secretary Hagel, thanks very much.
HAGEL: Thank you.
INSKEEP: Chuck Hagel stepping down soon as the United States Secretary of Defense. That was one of a very few exit interviews he's giving on his way out of office. And you can find a full transcript of our discussion at NPR.org. Give it a read. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.