Representative Jack Bergman (R-MI) is the highest-ranking military officer elected to serve in Congress. A Marine aviator, he served in Vietnam and in a variety of positions in the United States and Europe as both an active duty and reserve officer. His last command was as Commander of Marine Forces Reserve/Marine Forces North. Elected to Congress in 2016, Rep. Bergman serves on the Committees on Armed Services, the Budget, Natural Resources, and Veterans Affairs. inFOCUS Editor Shoshana Bryen spoke with him in late August.
inFOCUS: Let’s start with the defense budget. Can we afford what we need?
Rep. Bergman: We cannot afford to not have defense capability – which means both defensive and offensive capabilities. And we cannot afford to not have the capabilities when we need them. The Marine Corps talks about how we are the most ready when the nation is the least ready. That’s because we keep ourselves on the cutting edge of where we could be deployed, based upon the national defense strategy. We’re not trying to be everything to everybody. That is – in a positive way – more the Army’s job, because it’s bigger.
So, getting back to the idea of ‘can we afford …’ the challenge that we have is technology … even if you take it out of defense and put it into business today or put it into your personal life. How many of us can keep up with the software upgrades in our iPhone?
iF: Not me.
Bergman: That’s at the very micro level. The digital world, and especially the cyber world, is changing at such a rate that we are indisputably at war right now in cyber. People trying to hack your credit card, people trying to hack your defense systems, whatever it happens to be. We talk about “managing change,” but the first understanding of managing change is understanding the rate at which things are changing. In the defense world, whether we have $700 billion or $800 billion, if we’re not managing those finite resources wisely in the Department of Defense, we’re in trouble. We’ve talked about acquisition reform forever, but a big question is how we spend the money appropriately on R&D (research and development). Maybe it’s not all defense money, maybe it’s private sector money in some cases, so that in the end, there’s a product that we can use in the fight.
As I look around the Armed Services Committee (HASC), there are a lot of good folks there. Democrats, Republicans, good folks there for the right reasons. But not enough of them understand what it really means to give DoD a dollar and to get a dollar’s worth of product, of return, out of that. It’s more of, “Well, I’ve got a base in my district,” or, “There’s a big defense supplier.” That’s not a bad reason, but it is different for those of us who’ve served and those of us who’ve built budgets. There are very few of us on that committee or even in the whole House who have actually built some level of defense budget. When I was still in uniform, if you got $1 million in your program last year, the next year you were supposed to ask for $1.2 because that became the going rate. That’s not acceptable. It wasn’t acceptable then. It’s not acceptable now.
The challenge lies in assessing the rate of change of the threats around the world, whether it be waterways, in space, or in the cyber world. We have to assess the best we can the future capabilities that our potential adversaries would have and make sure that what we do is perceived properly by those potential adversaries and our potential allies. We’re in this all the way and we’re developing our coalition partners in different parts of the world. But we’re also sending the signal to those who would oppose us, that we’re not going to stand for it.
iF: In light of that, are hypersonic missiles an entirely new thing? Should this be worrying us the same way that ballistic missile technology used to worry us before we had some handle on it?
Bergman: This is an open phone line. I just would say yes. But it’s in its infancy. We don’t know what goes from infancy to, if you will, adulthood or worse years, teenage years and how quickly. So yes.
iF: Are we going to get to 12 aircraft carriers by 2023? That seems to have been on the docket at one point.
Bergman: I don’t know. The SASC (Senate Armed Services Committee) and the HASC, basically worked here all of August. But if we don’t have a 12-carrier fleet, we have to consider alternatives for protecting the open waterways, whether it’s the Strait of Hormuz or the South China Sea or the Strait of Malacca. That presence is going to be essential to future global security. When I say global security, it’s economic security, because of the free flow of goods and services. But also, we have to make sure that countries that are in that area know that that we are right in the area as well.
iF: Do we have allies to work with us? I know the president called for help in the Persian Gulf.
Bergman: That question would span where we are in the Persian Gulf, as far as NATO’s role, but we also talk about our partners literally around the globe. It could be in … South and Central America where it comes to getting coalition partners down there. The United States will be the best partner of any ally. But it’s only because we took the time to build the relationship. I’ve been heartened by, not only the president’s stance, but also the work that Secretary [of State Mike] Pompeo has done, because that’s what the State Department does.
If you remember, after Saddam [Hussein] went down, that we were trying to move more State Department folks into Iraq to help on the rebuild. But too many of them said, “No. That’s not what I signed up for. I signed up to work behind a desk in Washington D.C.” In the military, you don’t sign up to stay at home. You sign up to go to the fight. I’ve seen what I would call a positive change of attitude under Secretary Pompeo’s leadership.
iF: Can you give me some positives and some negatives about the current Defense bill?
Bergman: The good news is that we’re continuing to build under President Trump. We do realize that for eight years under the Obama administration our ability to defend ourselves, whether it be defensively or offensively, was eroded. The positive is President Trump and his administration pushing forward with higher numbers in defense.
What I see as a negative is that the military is not a social experiment. Never has been, never will be. So, the negative for me is that wasting time with social-experiment-type ideas within the military is a detriment to the overall capability of our young men and women who serve.
iF: You authored the Improved Well-Being for Vets Act. Tell us about it.
Bergman: First, a data point: these are Marine Corps numbers, but they probably are not too far off for the other services. People assume that the highest percentage of people who would have suicidal ideations or actually complete the act would be those who had deployed to the fight and were under the stress of combat. That those people were coming back and taking their own lives. It’s actually the opposite.
The higher number of suicides is among those who have not deployed. You have to think about what that really means, but there clearly has been a failure to assess the outcome of money spent on veteran care. This bill does two things.
First, under the Improve Act, information will be better shared among the entities serving veterans. Admittedly, there is a kind of a slippery slope. You don’t want to invade a person’s privacy, but at the same time we need to make sure that for people who are potentially at risk, the appropriate information is shared among agencies, healthcare agencies, whoever is providing that treatment so that nobody falls through the crack.
Second is to actually check the outcomes. After we do this, what are the results? And then where do we try to improve based upon what we found out? … We found a problem with the veterans’ use of hospital and doctor vouchers under the “Choice” act, so we changed things. Now veterans can go to Urgent Care facilities in their local communities as opposed to going into emergency room where we know the costs are higher. Now the key is getting the word out to the veterans who don’t know. It’s about all of us continually educating, in this case the veterans, about where the available health care is for them. Especially in rural and remote communities.
iF: Do you see any correlation between vets who aren’t getting jobs or are having a hard time transitioning back to civilian life and suicides?
Bergman: Not necessarily. The challenge that we have in this country is the change in the nuclear family. Eighteen-year-old boys and girls, as they hit that next phase in life, don’t have enough adult role models in their lives to pattern themselves after. Positive role models. I think there are expectations, whether you’ve served in the military or not, once you reach a certain age everything’s supposed to be just fine. And we know that that’s not the case. I think this is about managing expectations and managing the transition to adulthood.
One of the challenges with veterans is that if they leave the military and go into a rural or remote area and become isolated, their only point of communication can sometimes be the Internet. We all know what happens when someone spends too much time on the Internet.
iF: Draft military or volunteer military, you’ve done both, which is better?
Bergman: The National Service Commission was chartered a year and a half ago. Their interim report came out last February talking about some form of national service, whether it be the military, the Forest Service, the health service, the Park Service, whatever. The military is not for everybody. It ties into my answer to the last question. We need to do better at providing our 18-to-24-year-olds with a realistic view of the world, what and who they are, how they fit, and how they can excel.
One of the things the military does is make you understand that it’s not about you. It’s about the unit. It’s about the group you choose to join. It allows people at that very vulnerable age of 18 to 24 to really mature in a broader sense rather than in a kind of silo. But I’m looking forward to the National Service Commission follow-on report, because I think we as a country would be better off if we had, whether it’s compulsory for everybody or compulsory for most, something that is going to help us as a country develop good, functioning adult citizens.
iF: The negotiation for a U.S. exit from Afghanistan seems to be powering up.
Bergman: We have to think about how the threat unfolds. The Internet, just to be basic here, is something we use generally for good, our adversaries use it to recruit, train, execute missions, all of that. And we know that because of the Internet, these groups can operate in very remote places that are hard to reach in order to stop them. One of the reasons we built up the American presence in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa is so that when we had actionable intelligence, we could reach out and touch these groups very quickly. Bring that back to Afghanistan – where did Osama bin Laden go? Where do other groups go? Out to those remote places where they think they are outside of the range of our capabilities. Whatever we do in Afghanistan, we have to have a presence around the area where we can use actionable intelligence to take care of bad people.
I was an airline pilot when 9/11 happened. And the reason those hijackers were successful is because we had been trained as airline crews for 30 years, “Don’t make the hijackers mad, all they want to do is get a free ride somewhere and make a political statement.” And those hijackers counted on the response of the airline crews to be able to take over the airplanes and then use them as weapons.
But by the fourth airplane, United Flight 93 that went down in Shanksville, PA, the change had already occurred in what the passengers knew and what they did to take the plane down. And we’re going to need a global presence. It may or may not be visible in all cases, but to just say we’re shutting the door, turning off the lights and walking away, is not an answer in the world in which we live today.
iF: Can you talk about Turkey in NATO, out of NATO?
Bergman: Turkey is complex because if you kick someone out of a group, then you isolate them, you give them the incentive for more bad behavior. We have to always keep our negotiating doors open, but at the same time, look them in the eye and say, “This behavior is not acceptable.” Let’s face it, they decided to sacrifice the F-35 fighter for the Russian S-400s air defense system. But if you kick someone out, then you lose visibility and you lose whatever small communication you had going on at the time. I am not at a point yet where I’m ready to kick them out of NATO.
But going back to what I said about Secretary Pompeo and the efforts at the State Department at different levels, we have to continue every day to create those bridges because the world stage that everybody can see now is very small. The Internet has connected us. We can see what’s going on in different parts of the world where 100 years ago we couldn’t. One of the unique challenges we have in our time is the speed at which information flows and is visible to the world.
The best thing historically from the beginning of mankind is to have a strong, robust intelligence network. We sacrificed that beginning in the late ‘70s after Vietnam. It takes generations to build up a good network within different areas. Combine that, again, with the influence of Iran when it comes to Hezbollah or Hamas or whatever it happens to be, it’s almost like unraveling a gang network. Every major city in the country here has an anti-gang unit that tries to unravel who’s who. We have to maintain some level of presence [overseas].
iF: Which causes you more angst, Russia or China?
Bergman: The patience and the long-term planning in China, and the goals are more organized and thought out and adhered to than those of Russia.
iF: My last group of questions goes back to the United States. You have focused on debt. Can we deal with the debt without raising taxes?
Bergman: The short answer is yes. Here’s a data point. In my first term, I was on the Budget Committee. Every year the federal government pays out roughly $150 billion, with a B, billion dollars in improper payments. What that means is somebody who passed away two years ago is getting a Social Security check. There’s a check being cut for $1,000, but through a clerical error, it should have been $100, or there’s a program or some small funding line that continues to be funded, but it doesn’t even exist. It’s the waste. This is not fraud, it’s not abuse, it’s just flat waste.
My philosophy is built upon my reading Jim Collins’s book, Good to Great. Successful businesses do three things every year: They evaluate what they’re doing that they need to keep doing. They look at what they need to start doing but they haven’t been doing, but the hardest thing for any entity is to stop doing things that no longer add value but consume resources. That is the biggest challenge.
iF: What’s your evaluation of the national mood? If we had a major crisis, if we had, God forbid, a 9/11 or some other major crime, are we still all in this together?
Bergman: This is the weirdness of the Internet. It makes us think we know more about what’s going on because we can see all over the world. We can see into everything, but we actually know less because we have a lot of information that we are not able to put into context. It’s really not interesting to me if there is a forest fire in New Zealand today. It’s not going to change my day, but The Weather Channel will show that to me.
Our challenge as individuals is knowing how we fit into the grand scheme of things. What I see in my district is a bunch of pragmatic, hardworking, realistic people who truly are all in this together still. Do we have ideological differences? Absolutely, but from where I sit, both in my district and talking to people … I talk to everybody. I represent everybody in the district, whether they voted for me or not. Although, if someone didn’t vote at all then I give them a little lecture about losing their voice because they did not take the time to vote.…
The part you do not see in the media, because the media have chosen what you are exposed to, is the bipartisan work that Democrats and Republicans do every day, morning to night. I’m here to tell you that it occurs. I’m part of it. I was the president of the Republican freshman class three years ago and my first goal was to not only get our Republican freshmen up and on speed in their ability to serve as functioning representatives, but also to get together with our Democratic freshmen colleagues to get to know one another because we were all new.
The media’s job is to … the media’s goal, it’s not their job… The media’s goal is to make sure people watch their newscast, read their papers, do all those different things, but they really, really, really run a risk of alienating those people who want to believe them but have lost faith in their ability to objectively report.
iF: That’s both a depressing answer and a good answer. On behalf of the members of the Jewish Policy Center and the readers of inFOCUS, thank you.