Maj. Gen. Eric J. Wesley is a thoughtful military leader.
As commander of the Maneuver Center of Excellence at Fort Benning, Wesley’s direct charge is the training of soldiers. A career military man, he is a decorated combat leader with experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, but he also served two years in the White House on the National Security Council as the Director for Afghanistan-Pakistan Policy.
When he speaks, you should listen.
Thursday afternoon, he addressed a group of local business, political and civic leaders off post at the Columbus Public Library. He was frank about the threats facing the United States right now. In his candor, while making it clear it was not his job to establish policy when it comes to our nation’s adversaries, he offered some advice for the general public.
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And that advice concerned North Korea and its nuclear threat.
“... If you listen to the senior leadership ... the language that they are using is very, very serious language,” Wesley said when asked specifically about the North Korean threat. “And we shouldn’t think it’s just bluster. We should take it very seriously.”
Wesley is focusing on what Defense Secretary James Mattis, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford, Army Chief of Staff Mark A. Milley and President Donald Trump are saying regarding the North Korean threat. Wesley was in Washington last week and heard Mattis and Milley speak.
“Both Secretary Mattis and the Chief of Staff of the Army spoke on it,” Wesley said. “I will just say up front, they both speak about North Korea in very serious tones. That is the first point. The second point I will tell you is Secretary Mattis and Gen. Milley both said nobody in this room — all of the Army’s senior leadership and the Sec Def was in the room — nobody in this room knows what will happen. But what our charge is is to get ready. Our charge is to be ready in the event that something does happen in North Korea.”
Speaking at an international security conference in Singapore in early June, Mattis said that North Korea presented a “clear and present danger.”
Don’t ignore that phrase, the Fort Benning commander said.
“Those are important words to me,” said Wesley, who holds master’s degrees in National Security Strategy and International Relations.
In August, speaking to South Korean leaders in Seoul, Dunford said, “Nobody’s looking for war.” But then he added that the military’s job was to provide “viable military options in the event that deterrence fails,” according to a Washington Post report.
About the same time Wesley was speaking Thursday afternoon, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly was taking questions in the briefing room in Washington. When it came to North Korea and the threat, Kelly, a retired four-star Marine general, told reporters that North Korea can’t be allowed to threaten the United States.
“The American people should be concerned about a state that has developed a pretty good (intercontinental ballistic missile) capability and is developing a pretty good nuclear re-entry vehicle,” CNN quoted Kelly as saying. “I would believe —I think I speak for the administration —that that state simply cannot have the ability to reach the homeland.”
Wesley was clear that it is the military’s job to be prepared to execute whatever plan in ordered.
“We know that there is a significant strategic dilemma in place,” he said. “Our president has said we do not want to be held hostage by a country of that nature, not knowing the deliberate — or lack thereof — nature in which those weapons would be used. That is our policy he is crafting as we speak. But there’s no good option to the volume of weapon systems they have in North Korea relative to allowing yourself to be hostage to a capability like that, right?”
As the question-and-answer period wound down Thursday, Russell County Commissioner Peggy Martin, who had posed the original question to Wesley about North Korea, started a follow-up question, but it came out as a statement.
“I am just afraid personally of World War III,” she told the general.
There was a noticeable pause from the stage as the general collected his next words. Wesley then got philosophical, turning to the words of Carl von Clausewitz, an 1800s Prussian general and military theorist, to discuss the nature of conflict.
“We all read, quote and study Clausewitz, but one of the things that comes out of most philosophical documents on warfare is once you pull the lanyard, once you pull the trigger, nobody truly knows where it’s going to go,” Wesley said. “That’s why we’re so careful, sober, deliberate and wise when we use the military.”