Gen. Carter Ham, retired from the United States Army, is currently president and chief executive officer of the Association of the United States Army. On today’s podcast, he tells his story of why he decided to join the military, what he learned in some of his deployments in places like Africa and Somalia, as well as his perspective on the current state of the military, and where there is room for improvement. Read the lightly edited interview, pasted below, or listen on the podcast:
We also cover these stories:
- The Justice Department says it will change the sentencing recommendation for Roger Stone, a one-time Trump campaign adviser convicted of lying to Congress and witness tampering.
- Border crossings are down significantly, acting U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Mark Morgan says.
- Attorney General William Barr announces the Justice Department will be taking new action to limit the effects of sanctuary cities.
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Rachel del Guidice: We are joined today on The Daily Signal Podcast by Gen. Carter Ham, who has retired from the United States Army and he’s currently president and chief executive officer of the Association of the United States Army. Gen. Ham, thank you so much for being with us today.
Gen. Carter Ham: Thanks Rachel, glad to be here.
del Guidice: Can you just start off by telling us about how you ended up in the Army?
Ham: Yeah, it’s a bit of an odd story. Even today in my old age, there’s not a really logical process. I graduated from high school just outside Cleveland, Ohio. I went to college, because that’s what you’re supposed to do, and I had fun but I didn’t have much purpose.
And then for reasons that even today I can’t quite fully understand, one day I walked into a recruiting station in our hometown and enlisted in the Army.
I went to basic training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. And for the first time, for a kid who grew up in very comfortable, middle-class, all-white suburbia, I was in and amongst people who weren’t like me.
I found that a little bit challenging, to be sure, but more so rewarding and empowering and interesting. And I found that I enjoyed that.
So, I liked the physical aspects of being in the Army. I liked being around people who were different than me. I liked jumping out of airplanes and those kinds of adventurous things. So that’s kind of how my Army journey began.
Del Guidice: Thank you for sharing that. So you retired from the Army in 2013, and before that time you were commander of the U.S. Africa Command where you traveled to 42 countries as part of this mission’s efforts to enhance America’s security by establishing and developing partnerships. What were some things you learned in that role?
Ham: The first thing about serving at United States Africa Command is while it was a stimulating and exhilarating job and a wonderful way to cap off my military service, it was completely unexpected.
I had previously been serving in Europe, which was a very comfortable environment for me. I’d spent many, many years serving with the Army in Europe, so to go back there as a four-star commander, kind of … what I thought was the final assignment, was very rewarding but very comfortable.
When then-Secretary [of Defense Robert] Gates … told me that he was going to propose to the president that I’d be the next commander of the United States Africa Command, I was overcome by two simultaneous emotions. The first was, frankly, pure exhilaration. Combatant commanders for the United States military are kind of top of the pile.
There’s the Forest Service chiefs, Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, and then there’s the combatant commanders for Europe, Pacific, South America, [Middle] East, and Africa. So to be one of those commanders was exhilarating.
But then it also hit me instantaneously that I had no background in Africa. Nobody had any background in Africa because it wasn’t a part of the world that the U.S. military had focused much on.
So I embarked on a program of study going to the intelligence agencies, to the State Department, to universities, to lots of places [where] they did have expertise in Africa to try to try to learn.
When I got to the assignment, it was even more rewarding than I expected it to be. The ability to travel across the vast African continent, to help Africans deal with the many complex security challenges that those nations faced was certainly challenging, but very rewarding as well.
Del Guidice: Before you retired in 2011, and going back to talking about your time in Africa, your service there, you became just the second commander, as you mentioned, of the United States Africa Command. And you, during that time, had combat operations in Libya and hostage operations in Somalia. Can you tell us a little bit about those two different missions?
Ham: Sure. The first one in Libya was quite unexpected. In fact, I remember very clearly arriving at the command in the first week of March of 2011. And if you had told me that day that 10 days later we would be engaged in combat operations in North Africa, I simply would not have believed you.
Combat operations were not a part of the vision of Africa Command when it was stood up.
It was envisioned that the command would be engaged, principally, in assisting African nations developing their security forces where necessary. Perhaps some very specific and targeted counterterrorism operations, humanitarian assistance, should that be necessary. But mostly it was cooperating with our African partners.
So combat operations were not really envisioned and the command had not really practiced, wasn’t very experienced in that. So it was quite a challenge for the command to, in a very short period of time, plan for and conduct operations.
We were fortunate that we had a number of other nations that joined the United States and our operations in Libya. The purpose of which was to protect civilians from the Gadhafi regime. So we led that operation from a United States Africa Command for a couple of weeks and then handed it off to NATO for subsequent operations.
Del Guidice: During that time, you were in hostage rescue situations. What was it like to be working with hostages, rescuing them? What was that whole experience like?
Ham: It’s quite different operating at the theater command at the four-star command level, where you’re obviously not personally engaged in the conduct of the operations. But what you learn is that it’s a very complex process.
The tactical forces, the special operating forces of the United States are exquisitely trained and selected. And there was never any doubt in my mind about their ability to conduct these very sensitive, sometimes very risky, operations.
The greater challenge was coordinating those activities through the U.S. government interagency, and in some cases, in coordination with other nations.
You get matters of law and policy, the risk evaluation is quite different, but, ultimately, it’s a decision that gets presented to the president of the United States. In my case, President [Barack] Obama at the time, to lay out the possible options. Say, “Here’s an American who’s being held hostage.”
She happened to be being held in Somalia alongside with a Danish citizen. We laid out what we knew about the hostage-takers, where we knew they were, how did we know that, the nature of the operation.
[The] president listens to all of his advisers and makes a decision and says, “OK, I approve the execution of this mission.”
I’ll confess that from a thousand miles away watching the special operating forces, listening to them as they’re conducting the operation, tension is pretty high. But when they reported that they had safely recovered both the American citizen and her Danish counterpart, that was a feeling unlike any other.
To know that that woman would be able to rejoin her family, that Danish man would be able to rejoin his family, and have a life. She’s subsequently has had a child. It’s pretty special.
Del Guidice: That is special. Thank you so much for sharing that. So you were one of a very small number of military leaders who rose from the rank of private to four-star general. What was that experience like, starting at the very bottom and coming up so high?
Ham: Well, certainly, when I first enlisted in the Army, I enlisted as an infantry man, a paratrooper, and I enjoyed that. No expectation that I would serve in a career. And, certainly, not even a thought about being an officer.
My thought, frankly, was to serve for a couple of years, make a little money. Honestly, mature a little bit, hopefully, and figure out what do I want to do with the rest of my life?
But I found that the Army life was very attractive to me. And when I was afforded the opportunity by the Army to go back to college, finish my degree, earn a commission as an officer, I felt honored to have that ability.
So in the initial years as an officer, having served as an enlisted soldier before, I think it gave me a better understanding of the nature of the Army.
Some of the stuff is just very tactical and very simple. I was pretty good with communications. I was pretty good with weapons. I knew first aid, I knew how to march, I know how to put on my uniform, those kinds of things that come second nature to soldiers.
But it gave me, I think, a better understanding of the lives of soldiers, enlisted soldiers. Particularly, in the early stages of my service as an officer, I think I had a keener understanding of the challenges that young, enlisted soldiers face. Perhaps that my peers who hadn’t had the same experience could share with those soldiers.
Del Guidice: Given your vast experience working in the military and seeing everything you’ve experienced to where you’re at now, what are some things that you think could improve in the military?
Ham: I think one of the areas that causes me concern, and has for a number of years, and I certainly see it now in my role at the Association of the United States Army, is that the cohort of young Americans who serve, in all of the branches, comes from a pretty small swath of our population.
Geographically from Virginia through the South, across to Texas, people come disproportionately into the military service from that geographic region.
And over the past several years, the number of people who choose to serve, who come from families who have served in the military, that number seems to grow each year.
I think the last number I saw was two years ago and well over 70% of the young people who joined the military, joined the Army, came from families where their mother, father, sister, brother, other close relative had served.
In one regard that’s very good. Those are young people who have seen the military, seen the Army up close and said, “I want to be part of that.”
On the other hand, it’s exempting, if that’s the right word, a large, large segment of our population who don’t share that experience, who don’t know much about the military, [who] are not inclined to serve.
So I’m a little bit worried that there’s a potential gap growing between the all-volunteer military and the nation it serves. In a balance, I don’t think that’s particularly healthy.
Del Guidice: So you were speaking here at The Heritage Foundation, talking about strategizing for working with ROTC as well as historically black colleges and universities, working with those programs to help them be globally competitive and be prepared. What are some strategies you think that could be used positively toward that goal?
Ham: First, I’d give a big shout out to The Heritage Foundation for hosting this inaugural event, focusing on the historically black colleges and universities. It’s been, really, a great program that has been developed.
We’ve been through the first half-day of sessions. This afternoon we’ll talk a little more specifically about the Reserve Officer Training Corps at the HBCUs. …
What are the characteristics and the attributes that military leaders will need into the future? They will lead a military in an environment that’s very different than the environment in which I led.
Most of my career was during the Cold War. It was certainly dangerous, but there was a stability to it. We knew who the adversaries were. We knew their tactics, their equipment, their uniforms. We knew where their forces were staged. They knew the same about us. …
Certainly, had we ever gone to war during that period, it would have been exceedingly dangerous, but there was a stability, a predictability during that period. That’s not the situation today.
Leaders of the military, all branches today, deal in an era of great uncertainty. And even in what some call a return to great power competition with China and Russia, predominantly, there is a level of competition below the threshold of war that is still very dangerous.
We’re talking about cyber operations, other influence operations that, … frankly, my generation didn’t have to deal with. That necessitates, in my view, a leader skill set that is different than what I had to deal with.
Where I had a fairly predictable enemy, they have a wholly unpredictable enemy. Leaders today must be agile and adaptive. They must feel comfortable operating in ambiguity. We must trust them to operate with proper intent, but in the absence of a continuity of orders with their higher headquarters.
So independent operations at a much lower level. Young junior officers expected to display initiative and judgment that my generation didn’t have to do. Hard skills, advanced manufacturing, understanding artificial intelligence, manned/unmanned teaming of material.
Again, operations in space and cyberspace, and knowing how to leverage and take advantage of those emerging technologies and capabilities. That place is, in my mind, a much greater, much more difficult demand on leaders at a much lower level than I had to deal with.
And I would argue that in ROTC, whether at the HBCUs or across the board at West Point in our other commissioning programs, must adapt to that changed environment to produce leaders who have the skill sets, the leadership abilities, the technical understanding to not only operate in that environment, [but] to thrive and to win in that environment.
Del Guidice: Well, Gen. Ham, thank you so much for being with us today on The Daily Signal Podcast.
Ham: Thanks, Rachel. It’s great to be here. Thank you.