Adm. Mike Mullen turns over the chairmanship of the Joint Chiefs on Friday, and the nation is poorer for his departure. As a surface warfare officer, Mullen knew what it meant to take the helm. After years of service in the middle of the ocean — where Navy regulations stipulate that a captain’s responsibility is “absolute” and his authority “is commensurate with his or her responsibility” — a Navy commander isn’t hesitant to speak out plainly. That, traditionally, has set admirals apart from generals.
Shortly after assuming the chairmanship in October 2007, Mullen raised eyebrows inside the Pentagon when he declared: “In Afghanistan, we do what we can. In Iraq, we do what we must.” The eyebrows jumped not because what he said was wrong; he raised eyebrows because he had the guts to say it publicly.
Mullen skillfully handed off two wars from the President who started them to a new President eager to wrap them up. He didn’t equivocate as he sent tremors through some of his colleagues by declaring that “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” hurt the integrity of the U.S. military by forcing gay troops to live a lie. He and his wife, Deborah, constantly exhorted the government, and the nation, to help the troops they have been sending into harm’s way for the past decade once they come home.
Mullen didn’t waver when he called the national debt the nation’s biggest threat. He turned some fellow officers pale when he said the geyser of Pentagon spending since 9/11 took away the U.S. military’s “ability to prioritize, to make hard decisions, to do tough analysis, to make trades.” Only a week ago, Mullen didn’t hesitate to call out Pakistan’s double-dealing in his final congressional appearance.
Senior officers always get plaudits from fellow brass, lawmakers, Presidents and pundits as they move off the stage. But this time they’re deserved.