Passing the Lessons of War from Father to Son

Retired Marine Gen. Thomas Wilkerson, head of the U.S. Naval Institute, talks with Linda Wertheimer about the lessons of war he learned from his father, who was also a general. Wilkerson talks about his father's very different experiences in World War II and Vietnam.

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STEVE INSKEEP host:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

LINDA WERTHEIMER host:

And I'm Linda Wertheimer, in for Renee Montagne. The criminal investigations of American troops for killing civilians in Iraq cause one retired general to think of World War II, when circumstances were different.

Major General THOMAS WILKERSON (Chief Executive Officer of the U.S. Naval Institute; United States Marine Corps, Retired): When my father fought on Guadalcanal, as an enlisted man, it was pretty easy. If they're on that side of the line, you shoot. If they're on this side of the line, you don't.

WERTHEIMER: That's retired General Thomas Wilkerson, one of the Americans we're hearing from this week as we discuss leadership in war. We've heard from a long-time war correspondent and from the leaders of small units in the field in Iraq. In a moment, we'll talk with General Peter Pace, the president's top military advisor.

Gen. Wilkerson's father, the World War II veteran, rose from enlisted man to colonel. He commanded Marines during the murkier conditions of Vietnam, but Colonel Wilkerson made it his business to know how his Marines were fighting.

Maj. Gen. WILKERSON: He was able to maintain radio contact with almost all of his subordinate units all the time, and he put the word out, fairly clearly, that he would listen in if there was a firefight and not interfere, but would obviously be tuned into the idea if something happens at a platoon company level, or there's a need ultimately for more reinforcements, he wanted to be aware. And the other thing he regularly said he did was, after those firefights or engagements, he would visit the units that had been engaged the very next day and see how the men were holding up and, in general, what was the state of the unit, which was one of his subordinates.

WERTHEIMER: Now, there were a lot of situations in Vietnam - My Lai, of course, is the most famous - where things did go horribly wrong.

Maj. Gen. WILKERSON: Indeed.

WERTHEIMER: Did he have any of those kinds of experiences when he was listening?

Maj. Gen. WILKERSON: He shared one story with me. He had listened to a firefight one night, and there had been communications back and forth on the radio. Subordinate units had indicated they had been engaged, had been given some supporting fires and arms, and then things had quieted down. So he went up to the company, and when he got there, he saw the company commander and the company first sergeant with six or seven Marines standing in front. And they were having a conversation with him one at a time. It turned out that those particular Marines had partially faked the fight that had gone on the night before and had been, in fact, looking for some female companionship in one of the villages, been discovered by some of the enemy, had had a small fight, but in the process of being discovered, had also killed those who had been the subject of their interest.

WERTHEIMER: The sort of civilians that they had been seeking out?

Maj. Gen. WILKERSON: Innocents.

WERTHEIMER: Mm-hmm.

Maj. Gen. WILKERSON: And the purpose of the questioning, as it turned out, was to determine if these Marines had violated the rules of engagement. As it turned out, when the interrogations were finished, they determined they had. They were summarily charged. Several days later, they were at a courts-martial, and not too long after that, they were in Leavenworth for an extended period of time. The whole point was, that's the way the Corps handles those kind of things, when we do it correctly.

WERTHEIMER: Well, now, obviously, you must have been thinking about things like this as the news began to sort of dribble out about what happened at Haditha, when the Marines appear to have killed innocents, including infants.

Maj. Gen. WILKERSON: Yes. My first concern - many of us - was for all those Marines who have served and lived up to the standards regularly, but that perhaps some individuals had lost focus. The second part that concerned me was the allegations that perhaps there had been a cover-up. And just the idea that there might have been someone who did not step up at a higher level is very disturbing.

WERTHEIMER: Thank you very much, Gen. Wilkerson.

Maj. Gen. WILKERSON: My pleasure.

WERTHEIMER: Retired Major Gen. Thomas Wilkerson of the Marine Corps, who is now the Chief Executive Officer of the U.S. Naval Institute.

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