served as commander of the First Infantry Division of the U.S. Army in Iraq in 2004 and 2005. He was recently fired as a consultant at CBS News after he criticized President Bush in an ad for VoteVets.org.
Major General John Batiste was offered a promotion to become a three-star general, the second-highest-ranking military officer in Iraq. Instead, he quit over the war. After he appeared in a commercial for VoteVets.org, CBS News fired him as a paid news consultant. MoveOn.org collected 230,000 signatures on a petition demanding he be rehired. In a wide-ranging interview, Maj. Gen. Batiste discusses the Iraq War, calls for the closing of the U.S. prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, says private security firms like Blackwater USA should be investigated and says President Bush has failed by surrounding himself with "like-minded, compliant subordinates." [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: CBS News is being accused of political censorship after it fired a retired U.S. general from his position as a paid news consultant after he criticized President Bush’s Iraq War policy. The controversy began when the general, John Batiste, appeared in a television commercial sponsored by the group VoteVets.org.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: I have always said that I will listen to the requests of our commanders on the ground.
MAJ. GEN. JOHN BATISTE: Mr. President, you did not listen. You continue to pursue a failed strategy that is breaking our great Army and Marine Corps. I left the Army in protest in order to speak out. Mr. President, you have placed our nation in peril. Our only hope is that Congress will act now to protect our fighting men and women. Senator McCain, protect America, not George Bush.
AMY GOODMAN: Two days after the ad aired, CBS News fired Batiste. In response, the group MoveOn.org collected 230,000 signatures on a petition demanding Batiste be rehired by CBS.
For Batiste, this marks the second time in a year he’s made headlines for criticizing the Bush administration’s handling of the Iraq War. Last year, he shocked many in the Pentagon when he publicly called for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to resign. Six other retired generals also called for Rumsfeld to quit, but Batiste was the only one of the group to have served in a high position in the Pentagon and had commanded troops in Iraq.
Prior to the war, he was then-Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz’s senior military assistant. In 2004 and 2005, Major General John Batiste served as commander of the First Infantry Division in Iraq. He led 22,000 troops fighting in the Sunni Triangle. Batiste was offered a promotion to become a three-star general and the second-highest-ranking military officer in Iraq. Instead, he resigned after a 31-year career in the Army. Months later, he began speaking out.
On Thursday, I interviewed General Batiste for an hour in Rochester, New York, where he now runs a steel company. I began by asking him about CBS’s decision.
MAJ. GEN. JOHN BATISTE: CBS and I left on very friendly terms, quite frankly. It’s not about money. It’s about being able to speak out. For example, here we are, you and I, untethered, so I can speak my mind.
AMY GOODMAN: But CBS is a news network. Why shouldn’t you, as a retired general, be able to talk about your attitude toward the Iraq War right now?
MAJ. GEN. JOHN BATISTE: Again, I’m pleased that you and I can be having this conversation right now, that I can speak out and say what’s on my mind without any limitations.
AMY GOODMAN: You were a paid consultant for them, but will they invite you on simply as a pundit, as a general would comment on what is happening today?
MAJ. GEN. JOHN BATISTE: I was a part-time consultant. I had been signed on for a few months. I think I had one or two opportunities to talk with them. If they invite me back to comment, I’d think about it. I’m not interested in going back in any capacity as a paid or part-time paid consultant.
AMY GOODMAN: What do you think of the fact — well, for example, Talking Points Memo documented how CBS News has allowed the Brookings Institution pundit Michael O’Hanlon to continue to appear as the CBS News consultant, even though he has repeatedly advocated for the surge.
MAJ. GEN. JOHN BATISTE: You know, that’s something you’ll have to ask CBS. I’m focused on other things more important.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s talk about what you are focused on and your decision to leave the military. First, give us a little of your background, serving in the Gulf, then serving here as a general in the current war, and how your decision making or how your decision to be a part of this changed.
MAJ. GEN. JOHN BATISTE: Sure. Thirty-one-year Army veteran, two-time combat veteran, first Gulf War, Operation Iraqi Freedom, multiple tours of duty in the Balkans serving in Bosnia, Kosovo, commanding Army formations from platoon through division, commanded the First Infantry Division, most recently, for three years, an incredible career. But gut-wrenching decision in the summer of 2005 to put my uniform up and leave an institution I loved, because I realized I could do more good for my soldiers wearing the suit that I am today than the fatigues that I wore some time ago.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk specifically about that decision and, especially for young people to see how you, with your history in the military, your history going back to your father and your grandfather, what those days were like? Where were you when you made this decision?
MAJ. GEN. JOHN BATISTE: Tough decision. As you said, both grandfathers served. My father served multiple times, career infantry officer. Myself, a West Point graduate, 31 years in the military. Decision was made in my quarters in Germany in the summer of 2005.
You see, we got this war terribly wrong. I’m not antiwar at all. I don’t support MoveOn.org. That’s the reason I joined Vote Vets. This is all about getting it right. This is all about recognizing that it’s not about timelines and deadlines. It’s more about recognizing that this administration got the national strategy so wrong in Iraq, wrong in March 2003, wrong today in May 2007. This administration failed to mobilize this country in any way, shape or form to complete the important task of defeating worldwide Islamic extremism, global terrorism.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you think, General Batiste, that it was wrong for the United States to invade Iraq, March 19, 2003?
MAJ. GEN. JOHN BATISTE: You know, that’s all hindsight, and we certainly could debate that forever. The point is, we are where we are. And again, the strategy is so incredibly flawed from a national perspective — an inter-agency process that is all but dysfunctional, the many facets of mobilizing a nation to accomplish something as important as war. You know, you exhaust all political, diplomatic and economic means before you commit your military into this kind of endeavor.
Today, our Army and Marine Corps, and portions of the Navy and Air Force, by the way, because they’re competing for the same shortage of funds, are in serious shape. And this should not sit well with any American, based on the current situation and the other threats in the world today. We’ve got the best military this nation has ever fielded.
We’re on the verge, in a few days, of celebrating Memorial Day. This is a day to stop what we’re doing and pay our respects to our fallen comrades, Americans who have given their last full measure. It’s not a day to debate timelines. It’s not a day to debate whether or not we should be in Iraq. It’s not a day for Republicans to be fighting Democrats. It’s a day for all of us to say, "Stop. Let’s pay our respects to our fallen comrades."
AMY GOODMAN: General Batiste, I want to ask you about your criticism of the previous secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld. Last year, you joined other generals in publicly calling for his resignation. This is what you said last September.
MAJ. GEN. JOHN BATISTE: Donald Rumsfeld is not a competent wartime leader. He knows everything, except how to win. He surrounds himself with like-minded and compliant subordinates who do not grasp the importance of the principles of war, the complexities of Iraq, or the human dimension of warfare. Secretary Rumsfeld ignored 12 years of U.S. Central Command deliberate planning and strategy, dismissed honest dissent, and browbeat subordinates to build his plan, which did not address the hard work to crush the insurgency, secure a post-Saddam Iraq, build the peace and set Iraq up for self-reliance. He refused to acknowledge and even ignored the potential for the insurgency, which was an absolute certainty. Bottom line, his plan allowed the insurgency to take root and metastasize to where it is today.
AMY GOODMAN: General Batiste, testifying in Congress. I wanted to read from The Wall Street Journal a recent piece they did on you, "The Two-Star Rebel: For Gen. Batiste, a tour in Iraq turned a loyal soldier into Rumsfeld’s most unexpected critic." And it says, "Six days after he called for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to leave his post, retired Maj. Gen. John Batiste faced a crushing moment of doubt. Earlier that morning, Mr. Rumsfeld had brushed off Gen. Batiste and other critics as inflexible bureaucrats, uncomfortable with change. A few hours later, President Bush vowed to stand by his secretary. Now CNN’s Paula Zahn was grilling Gen. Batiste: 'So, do you plan to continue with these kinds of attacks ... when the president has made it clear he's not budging?’ [Gen. Batiste said,] 'I have yet to determine if I will do that or not.' Afterward, the 53-year-old officer retreated to a deserted parking garage outside the television station. For 30 minutes, he paced up and down, he says, literally shaking." Why were you shaking? And go through that thought process with us.
MAJ. GEN. JOHN BATISTE: I remember it well. And, by the way, everything that you just played on the recording, I’d say again. For a moment, I had doubts. Remember where I came from: West Point graduate, 31 years in the Army. We take an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States and to obey the orders of the president and the officers appointed over us when we’re commissioned. That’s the reason I chose to get out of the Army, before I started to speak out.
But any moment of doubt was quickly eclipsed with absolute certainty that I knew what I was doing, it was the right thing to do, and it is important to keep speaking out for our country, for our incredible military and their families, who are bearing the brunt of this war. The military is the only element of our national strategy that this administration is focused on. It seems to me they’ve all but forgotten about the diplomatic, political and economic hard work that needs to be done before the military is even committed and concurrently to accomplish what needs to be done. It’s absolutely outrageous.
AMY GOODMAN: Major General John Batiste, speaking from Rochester, New York, where he now lives and runs a steel company. When we come back, I talk to him about officers who refuse to fight, like Ehren Watada; I ask him about the private mercenary firms, like Blackwater; and he talks more about his life and his decision. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: We return now to our interview with retired Major General John Batiste. I asked him about what should be done now in Iraq.
MAJ. GEN. JOHN BATISTE: First off, we need a comprehensive national strategy with an inter-agency process that is well led, focused and synchronized to accomplish what we’re trying to achieve. Diplomatically, we need to be making up lost ground, speaking with friends, allies and enemies, to galvanize support to accomplish what we’re trying to do. Politically, there’s a whole range of issues that need to be considered and addressed. We owe it to the Iraqi people. Economically, we’ve never gotten off dime one to change the attitudes of the Iraqi people to improve their quality of life and give them alternatives to the insurgency. Mobilizing the country is fundamentally important to accomplish what we’re doing. We haven’t done any of that. From properly resourcing the military, to the Veterans Administration, to figuring out ways to fund a war that’s costing over $10 billion a month, we’re mortgaging our futures.
The people that I speak to in America want to get involved, beyond sending a care package and putting a magnet on the back of their car. We’re screaming out to our leaders to lead the way, and nothing is being said. If we can’t figure this out, if there is not a comprehensive national strategy — and we haven’t seen one yet — and if we don’t get this nation mobilized, then we need to take stock in where we are. Our Army and Marine Corps are at a very serious point. They’re doing a great job. General Petraeus, his officers and men are doing unbelievable work in Iraq. We owe them all a great debt of gratitude. But a fact is, without a national strategy that makes sense and without mobilizing the country, we got to think about America first.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about General Harold Johnson, going back in Vietnam?
MAJ. GEN. JOHN BATISTE: Harold K. Johnson, sure. Sure, yeah. Sure. You know, one of the points that made a big difference to me in my decision process to speak out is the story of General Harold K. Johnson, who was chief of staff for the Army during the Vietnam years. This case was studied by myself and other officers at the Army War College and, previous to that, at the Command and General Staff College.
It goes something like this. As the chief of the staff for the Army, General Johnson realized that everything was going wrong in Vietnam. The story goes that his purpose was to jump in his sedan and go to the White House to confront President Johnson, President Lyndon Johnson, to say something like that we have completely screwed up the war in Vietnam, you haven’t mobilized the nation, you violated principles of war, and on and on, and I therefore resign, and I’m going to go out and tell the press waiting for me out in the parking lot exactly why I’m doing this. He, like so many of us, made the decision not to do that, to stay within the institution, to fix things from within. They can do more good serving than outside.
On his deathbed, he was asked by a very close friend, "Do you have any regrets?" And his answer was, "I have but one: that I lacked the moral courage that day in the president’s office to do what I should have done." I paraphrased that a bit, but, essentially, you get the notion.
AMY GOODMAN: Is that what went into your thinking as you gave up — I mean, you were going to be promoted to a three-star general.
MAJ. GEN. JOHN BATISTE: Absolutely. Those and other factors — my experiences in the Pentagon from March 2001 'til June of 2002, my experiences within the First Infantry Division, service in Kosovo, service in Turkey, service in Iraq in a three-year period. I realized that change doesn't come from within. There comes a time when you got to look at yourself in the mirror and do the right thing. I chose to hang up my uniform, leave an institution and a way of life that I loved. But I realized, as I said before, that I could do more for my soldiers wearing this suit and tie than I could wearing the Battle Dress Uniform of the United States Army.
AMY GOODMAN: What has been the response of fellow generals?
MAJ. GEN. JOHN BATISTE: Extremely supportive. Not long ago, 10 days ago, there was a story about me in The New York Times, good story, and in that, I said that, you know, I rarely get any feedback from active-duty or retired officers to say, "Don’t say what you’re saying." In fact, since the airing or the printing of that story 10 days ago, there has been two cases where folks have gotten back to me, and I respect their opinion and I appreciate their feedback. But the vast majority of the feedback and the response from active-duty, retired, serving folks, comrades, is, "Keep saying what you’re saying."
AMY GOODMAN: General Batiste, last September, you co-signed a letter urging Congress to reject a provision of the Military Commissions Act that would redefine Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions. Can you talk about the Military Commissions Act, Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo?
MAJ. GEN. JOHN BATISTE: Sure. In December of 2003, January 2004, the First Infantry Division was in Kuwait preparing for combat, preparing to move into Iraq as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom. I remember the day that the division staff came to me, and the subject of the decision briefing was how the First Infantry Division would run its five prisons and detention centers within our area of operations in Iraq. We started out with the rules that the Department of Defense had promulgated that watered down the provisions of the Geneva Convention, giving American soldiers what I considered to be incredible and unacceptable latitude in the dealing with prisoners. We collectively, at that meeting, decided to do away with all of these rules and ground everything we would do on the Geneva Conventions — that is, you treat prisoners right. We found that the information that we garnered from our prisoners was much better when we didn’t use torture.
AMY GOODMAN: General Batiste, Haditha. More details have emerged on the U.S. massacre of 24 Iraqi civilians in the town of Haditha in November 2005. Your response?
MAJ. GEN. JOHN BATISTE: I think Haditha is a sad chapter in the story of our military. It did not reflect the vast majority of our great soldiers and marines, which is not to say that a very small percentage make mistakes. On a different level, I think Haditha represents the incredible frustration and friction that’s in the military today, understrengthed, underresourced in Iraq, trying to accomplish a task that required over three times the number of coalition troops without the right capability. So you see the frustration building in our great soldiers and marines. Unacceptable behavior, there’s no excuse for it.
AMY GOODMAN: Recently, Sergeant Sanick Dela Cruz testified he urinated on the dead body of an Iraqi killed by his fellow marines. Sgt. Cruz also said he saw his squad leader shoot down five Iraqi civilians who were trying to surrender. The testimony came in a pretrial hearing for a marine charged for the massacre and the ensuing cover-up.
MAJ. GEN. JOHN BATISTE: There is a fine line between an armed mob and a disciplined military force, and it’s up to military leaders to hold that line with rigid discipline. What you just relayed are examples where we lose it. There is no reason in the world why that kind of behavior should be condoned or, for that matter, happen in combat.
AMY GOODMAN: How did it happen? This is one example that we know about, because there was film, although it was raised for months before. It was when Time magazine brought the film to the military that it could no longer be denied.
MAJ. GEN. JOHN BATISTE: It happened because of a couple of things. One is a failure in leadership. Two, mitigating, but does not excuse it, is the fact that we have a great Army and Marine Corps committed into something in Iraq — they’re bearing the burden almost entirely. The rest of the elements of national strategy, like diplomatic, political and economic measures, all but nonexistent. A force that is underresourced with boots on the ground by a huge number, factors three times — what we’re seeing there is frustration. Again, there’s no excuse for it. I don’t condone it. It’s wrong. It’s a failure in leadership.
AMY GOODMAN: General Batiste, a recent Army survey has found more than one-third of U.S. soldiers in Iraq said they believe torture should be allowed in some cases. In addition, about two-thirds of Marines and half the Army troops surveyed said they would not report a team member for mistreating a civilian or for destroying civilian property unnecessarily. The Army survey found that less than half of the soldiers polled believed that noncombatants should be treated with dignity and respect, and 10 percent of the troops said they had personally mistreated civilians in Iraq. Nearly 1,800 troops took part in the survey. Acting Army Surgeon Major General Gale Pollack characterized the report as positive news, telling reporters what it speaks to is the leadership that the military is providing, because they’re not acting on those thoughts, they’re not torturing the people.
MAJ. GEN. JOHN BATISTE: None of us should be proud of those numbers. I think it speaks to the legacy of the office of the secretary of defense, back in the spring of 2003, where the military of this incredible nation of ours was committed into something with a flawed strategy, a war plan that was outrageous, violated principles of war and the principles of the Geneva Convention, watered down to the point where we got to the terrible situation of Abu Ghraib and, by the way, many other instances of a similar nature. This is not good. This is a failure in leadership from the very top of this administration that generates that kind of response in our military.
AMY GOODMAN: Guantanamo, General Batiste, just that one word. Your response to the — I guess it’s been more now than 700 men who have been held there, many for years, for up to five years, without charge.
MAJ. GEN. JOHN BATISTE: Outrageous. Where is the American principles?
AMY GOODMAN: What discussion was happening among the generals, your fellow generals, as this has been going on for years now?
MAJ. GEN. JOHN BATISTE: I can only relate what I know. And that’s, within the First Infantry Division in north-central Iraq, we chose to ground our operations on the Geneva Conventions. There can be no watering down of that document. I don’t want my soldiers treated like that, should they be captured.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you think Guantanamo should be shut down?
MAJ. GEN. JOHN BATISTE: Absolutely. There is such a thing called due process.
AMY GOODMAN: What do you think of the military contractors, what some call mercenaries — I mean, companies like Blackwater, made up of tens of thousands of soldiers? What do you think of what they’re doing in Iraq? The special inspector general on Iraq reconstruction has just announced that they will begin an audit of companies like Blackwater.
MAJ. GEN. JOHN BATISTE: Well, I think they should. There’s a real problem in Iraq. There’s a huge number of these contractors, and it creates, in effect, two chains of command, which violates one of our principles of war, which is unity of effort and unity of command, creates enormous confusion on the battlefield, and as a result, we haven’t done as well as we should have in Iraq. The problem is, we went to war with a military that was sadly understrengthed, underresourced, and it’s a problem today that this country has got to address.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you think that Blackwater mercenary soldiers, police should be under the Uniform Code of Military Justice?
MAJ. GEN. JOHN BATISTE: I haven’t thought much about that, but what I do think is there needs to be unity of command in a theater of operations — in other words, one person in charge of all Americans, no matter what uniform they’re wearing, inside that theater. We don’t have that in Iraq, and it creates incredible frustration. I know as a division commander, it drove me crazy, as it did the other division commanders, that we never had unity of effort, a fundamental principle of war that we dare not violate.
AMY GOODMAN: What about the pretext for war, weapons of mass destruction, that has turned out not to be true? You’re a general who led troops into war on those grounds. What are your feelings about that today?
MAJ. GEN. JOHN BATISTE: I certainly knew before deploying to Iraq that there was no connection between 9/11 and Saddam Hussein, and I had my doubts about the weapons of mass destruction. In the course of the 12 months in Iraq, we confirmed, at least in our area of north-central Iraq, that, other than 1980 vintage chemical munitions that we found in stockpiles rusting in a state of dilapidation, there was nothing. So you can imagine my feelings about that.
AMY GOODMAN: Does that mean you feel it’s wrong that the U.S. invaded Iraq to begin with?
MAJ. GEN. JOHN BATISTE: Again, that’s a debate we could have all day. It really doesn’t matter. We are where we are.
AMY GOODMAN: What about General Shinseki, someone you were close to, being driven out? What are your thoughts about that today?
MAJ. GEN. JOHN BATISTE: I have enormous respect for General Shinseki, an incredibly talented and competent chief of staff for the Army. You recall in the Senate Armed Services Committee in 2003, when asked what it would be take to be successful in Iraq, he gave an answer that was based on the war plan developed by U.S. Central Command.
AMY GOODMAN: Major General John Batiste, talking to him in Rochester, New York. We’ll come back to the conclusion of our interview after this break.
AMY GOODMAN: We return to our interview with retired Major General John Batiste. I asked him about the popular TV show 24 on Fox. This past fall, the dean of West Point, Brigadier General Patrick Finnegan, along with experienced military and FBI interrogators and representatives of Human Rights First, flew to Southern California to meet with the creative team behind 24 and told them to stop using torture on the program, because American soldiers were copying the show’s tactics. I asked for Major General Batiste’s response.
MAJ. GEN. JOHN BATISTE: Well, it goes back to my previous comments that there is no room for the use of torture in how we treat our detainees and our prisoners. We violate the principles of the Geneva Convention at our own peril, which is exactly what we did, driven by the office of the secretary of defense in late 2002-2003, which allowed all this to happen. It’s a culture that we got to get beyond. You know, all of us watch 24, but in the American military it’s fundamentally important that we embrace the Geneva Conventions, never step away from them, stay on the moral high ground. We’re the United States of America.
AMY GOODMAN: You’re a lifelong Republican?
MAJ. GEN. JOHN BATISTE: I am.
AMY GOODMAN: The New York Times is reporting you’re now a consultant for Hillary Rodham Clinton?
MAJ. GEN. JOHN BATISTE: No, that is not true. I will answer any candidate’s questions, whether that be Senator Clinton or Senator Obama or Rudy Giuliani. If somebody calls me and wants my opinion, I’d be happy to give it to them. It’s important that we educate our candidates.
AMY GOODMAN: How do you feel about Senator McCain?
MAJ. GEN. JOHN BATISTE: You know, I’d rather not comment on the politics of this right now.
AMY GOODMAN: What is your understanding of where President Bush is coming from right now?
MAJ. GEN. JOHN BATISTE: Good question. I think the president, for whatever reason, perhaps surrounded by like-minded people so he doesn’t get the different views, opposing opinions, the full sides of an argument before he makes a decision, is fixated on something called "victory in Iraq," this notion of creating democracy in Iraq. I don’t think there will ever be democracy in Iraq. I think there’s a chance that they’ll establish some form of representative government. But you know what? It has to account for the tribal system in Iraq, and we’ve all but ignored that. And until we figure that out, whatever political system we impose on that culture will not work.
AMY GOODMAN: We know the number of soldiers who have died in Iraq, and that number doesn’t include contractors. But what about Iraqis? Do you believe the study that was published in the British medical journal, Lancet, out of Johns Hopkins, that estimated somewhere around 655,000 Iraqis had died — that’s months ago. A more recent study said somewhere over a million. Does that jive with your experience in Iraq?
MAJ. GEN. JOHN BATISTE: There’s no question in my mind that there has been too many Iraqis, innocent Iraqis, killed and maimed in their country. There’s also no question in my mind that our failure to plan for, resource and rehearse a transition from war fighting to peace enforcement back in April of 2003 created the situation where our Army and Marine Corps continued to attack in zone and create more enemies than there were insurgents geometrically. That happened.
I don’t know what the right number is, but I know that the good Iraqi people deserve better than that. We invaded their country. We tore apart their structure — good, bad or indifferent — and left them in the malaise that they’re in now.
AMY GOODMAN: I asked you about President Bush. What about Vice President Cheney?
MAJ. GEN. JOHN BATISTE: I think President Bush has surrounded himself with like-minded, compliant subordinates, and therefore he does not get the opposing opinion, the other side of the coin, so to speak. I recently read the book Team of Rivals on Abraham Lincoln. It impressed me that Abraham Lincoln hired his political opponents, his campaign opponents, to be his Cabinet, so that he would ensure that he got all sides of the argument before he took a decision. I think that’s a lesson learned from this administration as we go into the future.
AMY GOODMAN: What about, General — what about the — now, the Defense Secretary Gates?
MAJ. GEN. JOHN BATISTE: I think he’s an incredibly talented, capable person. Time will tell.
AMY GOODMAN: And the Congress moving forward with President Bush funding the troops in Iraq?
MAJ. GEN. JOHN BATISTE: Wow! I think a couple of things. One is it’s absolutely morally right to get our troops, in contact with the enemy, anything and everything they need to be successful. I also think this is not about timelines and deadlines, as I said before. This is all about recognizing that we have a fundamentally flawed strategy from the national perspective. We have completely failed to mobilize our country in any way, shape or form.
Look at what’s going on with the VA. Today, I attended a dedication of a new building at the Rochester Veterans Outreach Center. This is a nonprofit organization. Its purpose is to take care of veterans returning from war. Thank God there’s institutions like that all over our country, not just in Rochester, New York, but all over our country, to take up the slack. Our VA is not doing a good job, by and large. I could go on and on talking about why it’s important to mobilize this country and where it hasn’t been done.
AMY GOODMAN: Would you do anything differently now?
MAJ. GEN. JOHN BATISTE: You know, I don’t think so. Life is a journey, and you make that journey, and you make the best decisions that you can along the way. My decision to speak out in June of 2005, to leave the Army so that I could speak out, was the toughest thing I’ve ever done in my life. But you know what? I haven’t looked back, and I can look at myself in the mirror in the morning, knowing that I’ve done the right thing. Somebody had to speak out. If not me, who?
How long are we going to continue down this road to nowhere, where we’re depending on our military almost entirely to accomplish this ill-fated mission in Iraq, all the while ignoring, virtually, the tough diplomatic, political and economic measures of a successful strategy and absolutely failing to mobilize this country to accomplish what I believe is a terribly important effort to defeat worldwide Islamic extremism, global terror, whatever you want to call it? But this is the defining issue of our time. I also believe that Iraq and Afghanistan are but the first two chapters in a very long book, very long book. And guess what. We’re off to a very bad start.
AMY GOODMAN: Are you going to be writing that book?
MAJ. GEN. JOHN BATISTE: I might. I might.
AMY GOODMAN: And officers like Ehren Watada, the first officer to say no to employment in Iraq; people like the Army medic Agustin Aguayo, who went to Iraq, applied for CO status — his investigating officer recommended this, said he was the real deal — he refused to load his weapon for a year that he was in Iraq, went back to Germany, where he was based, told he had to go back to Iraq, and that’s when he went AWOL — thousands of soldiers have gone AWOL — what do you think of these soldiers who are resisting?
MAJ. GEN. JOHN BATISTE: I think that the right thing for that lieutenant to have done is to certainly express his displeasure within his chain of command, but remember the oath of commissioning that he took when he pinned on his second lieutenant bars. And the truth is, he should have deployed with his platoon and led them in combat. And then, if at the end of that he still felt the same way that he did, then he should have gotten out to speak out. And if he had done that, he would have had a whole lot more to say, and people would have taken him a lot more seriously.
AMY GOODMAN: Florida Army National Guardsman Camilo Mejia went to Iraq, came back, was on leave, and said he couldn’t go back. He offered to testify before Congress to talk about the abuse he had seen. But he was court-martialed. He was imprisoned for almost a year. He did go to Iraq, came back. Do you think these men and women should be going to prison?
MAJ. GEN. JOHN BATISTE: You know, I don’t know the specifics of that case. I have a lot of faith in the military justice system. I also think, as do most Americans, that our Congress, for the better part of six years, abrogated their responsibilities to provide the oversight on our executive branch of government, a function that our Constitution depends on. So all of us voters have a big say in this. We need to vote when the elections roll around, and we need to vote for the candidate who knows the issues and the candidate who has the moral courage to do the right thing, to make the right kinds of decisions. But I’ll tell you, none of us should be too happy with the way our congressional and executive branch of government have been conducting themselves since 2001.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go back to Ehren Watada. You’re saying that he should have gone to Iraq, but if he felt it was wrong and he felt as a leader, as an officer, he didn’t want to take his men and women into battle — I was thinking about the psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton, who has written many books on war — and talking about Iraq being an atrocity producing situation, why should Lieutenant Watada, if he now, upon reflection before he went to Iraq, realized it was wrong, that WMD wasn’t the reason that was originally given, that they didn’t even exist in Iraq, why should he take young men and women in that direction, lead them into Iraq when he felt it was wrong?
MAJ. GEN. JOHN BATISTE: He followed his conscience, and for that, I respect that. I respect him as a person. I don’t agree with what he did. In the military, as I said, there is a fine line between an armed mob and a seasoned disciplined force. And one of the glues that hold it together is discipline. When an outfit, a company, a battalion or a brigade receives orders to deploy to Bosnia or Kosovo or Turkey or Iraq, or whatever, the soldiers all saddle up and they go. There’s no questions. It’s "Yes, sir. Let’s go." That’s the way the military works. And he stepped out of that. He stepped out of that and, as a result, needs to face the music, whatever it turns out to be.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you agree with Congressman Rangel that there should be a draft? Do you think that would mobilize this country, if everyone’s children were equally, well, possibly going to war?
MAJ. GEN. JOHN BATISTE: We have a problem right now. We’re facing a long-term threat in a military — Army and Marine Corps, primarily, but Navy and Air Force, as well — that is in serious trouble, in trouble with equipment, in trouble with troop strength. The Army, by some accounts that I’ve read, needs to be increased by 100,000 soldiers. The Marine Corps, by some accounts that I’ve read, needs to be increased by 50,000 soldiers to accomplish our national strategy. Where are those soldiers and marines going to come from in our current recruiting scheme? They don’t exist. We have two or three generations of Americans who have never served. This is not a good situation.
I think it’s time that we debate national service. National service can come in many flavors. The Peace Corps — my daughter served two years in Malawi — AmeriCorps — think of the opportunities with Homeland Security for national service and, of course, the military. We need to have that debate, and we need to have it soon.
AMY GOODMAN: So do you think there should be a draft?
MAJ. GEN. JOHN BATISTE: There needs to be some form of national service to get Americans back into the game, their heads into serving their country. We don’t have that right now. Part of the problem is the military is underresourced, and the current recruiting scheme is insufficient. It won’t take us to where we need to go. So we need to debate the draft and form it the way it makes sense for us today to complement things like the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps and other opportunities that we should be thinking about to support Homeland Security.
AMY GOODMAN: Iran?
MAJ. GEN. JOHN BATISTE: A concern. Persian. Much bigger than Iraq. A unified country working on nuclear capability. Let’s not take them lightly.
AMY GOODMAN: And how do the American people believe the whole issue of Iran getting weapons of mass destruction, given what happened with Iraq?
MAJ. GEN. JOHN BATISTE: You know, that’s a problem. The people of Iran, by and large, are good people. I lived in Iran as a young boy. Old enough to remember well the good people in Iran. A different culture, to be sure, but good people. It is strange to me that we have not established, much sooner than this, a dialogue with the people of Iran.
AMY GOODMAN: How do you see that happening?
MAJ. GEN. JOHN BATISTE: Well, it takes an administration with some imagination. It’s all about getting close with your friends and your enemies. Relationships matter. And the only way to make relationships is to spend time with people, whether you like them or not. You need to understand them, so you can make better decisions.
AMY GOODMAN: What about dissent and what many feel is a crackdown on dissent in this country, that dissent is not patriotic?
MAJ. GEN. JOHN BATISTE: Well, I tell you, anybody that tells me that I’ve stepped out of line or dissent is not patriotic, I absolutely disagree with that person. I have a moral obligation, a duty, to speak out. Again, if not me, who? How long are we going to trudge down this path of a flawed strategy, a failure to mobilize the country, a war plan that violated basic principles of war that officers like me for 31 years took on board and understood, that to be successful in war you don’t violate principles of war.
AMY GOODMAN: Major General John Batiste, he was offered a promotion to become a three-star general, the second-highest-ranking military officer in Iraq. Instead, he quit over the war. General Batiste did an ad for VoteVets.org against the Iraq War. Two days after the ad aired, CBS fired him as a paid news consultant for his advocacy. In response, the group MoveOn.org collected 230,000 signatures on a petition demanding CBS News rehire Batiste.