MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Michele Norris.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block. General George Casey was the top commander in Iraq before he became the Army's top officer two years ago. The war he once led has stretched, some say broken, the Army. Now it's Casey's job to repair it. We conclude our series now on the state of the U.S. Army with a profile of the officer in charge. NPR's Tom Bowman met General Casey in his Pentagon office for a rare interview and a bit of a guided tour.
TOM BOWMAN: A four-star general's office tells the history of a career. The walls and bookshelves filled with souvenirs from past missions came from the soldiers who came before.
General GEORGE CASEY (U.S. Army Chief of Staff): Omar Bradley's coffee cup, Douglas MacArthur's staff badge that he designed. This is really an Iraqi harp, a gift from Prime Minister Maliki.
BOWMAN: What did he say when he gave that to you?
General CASEY: Oh, he thanked me profusely for what I'd done.
BOWMAN: And on the wall, there's a pen and ink portrait of Ulysses S. Grant, one of General Casey's favorite officers.
General CASEY: He's the one. He had the tenacity and the perseverance to press through in hard times, and he ultimately succeeded.
BOWMAN: And a lot of people doubted him, too.
General CASEY: Oh, they sure did, they sure did.
BOWMAN: There are now those who doubt this general. During General Casey's time in Iraq, two critical years from 2004 to the end of 2006, the violence spun out of control. And then General David Petraeus replaced him and oversaw the so-called surge of U.S. troops, which helped bring the violence and bloodshed under something like control. Senator John McCain has been one of Casey's harshest critics. He confronted him about Iraq in 2007 after Casey had been nominated to the top Army job.
Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona): We're not winning, and we had a failed strategy. We had a failed policy and we are not winning.
General CASEY: Senator, I do not agree that we have a failed policy. I believe...
BOWMAN: The Senate approved Casey as Army chief of staff. It was a high watermark of a career that began in 1970 when Casey was commissioned an officer just three weeks before his father, an Army division commander, was killed in a helicopter crash in Vietnam. But Casey's achievement came with a rare rebuke. Fourteen senators voted against Casey, including McCain and Hillary Clinton. Most criticized his handling of Iraq. He's been compared to another Army general from another failed war.
You're seen as the Westmoreland of Iraq. Westmoreland failed in Vietnam, went on to become chief of staff. That's what they're saying.
General CASEY: I don't feel like I failed. I feel like I laid the foundation for our ultimate success in Iraq. And frankly, I think, the success of the surge demonstrates that the foundations were set.
BOWMAN: If the surge made Petraeus the hero of Iraq, Casey is seen as the one who bungled it by focusing on training Iraqis in order to bring Americans home.
General CASEY: If I had got some different guidance to bring violence levels down faster, you know, I certainly would have done that.
BOWMAN: Different guidance. What Casey means is that he was following the president's strategy and yet he is being blamed for its failure. To this day, Casey says he doesn't know, doesn't really care, who is to blame.
General CASEY: We're running an Army here. We're fighting a war. And I don't want to be distracted by petty bickering.
BOWMAN: It was Iraq what Casey calls his searing experience that made him realize the Army must be remade, but how? The Army is split into two camps. General Casey is on one side. General Petraeus is on the other. Petraeus wants the Army to focus on small wars, counterinsurgencies like Iraq and Afghanistan. Casey wants a balance between conventional and irregular warfare, saying the Army must be prepared to do it all.
General CASEY: Now, the guidance that I gave the Army last summer was focused on major conventional training so that you rekindle some of the skills that you've lost.
Mr. ANDREW KREPINEVICH (Retired Army Office; Defense Analyst): General Casey talks about an era of persistent conflict. I think, really, we're looking at an era of persistent irregular conflict.
BOWMAN: Andrew Krepinevich is a retired Army officer and defense analyst.
Mr. KREPINEVICH: The big challenge before the Army right now is irregular warfare - Afghanistan, Iraq. The Army is anxious to reorient itself back to a more traditional, comfortable kind of conflict, conventional war, the kind of war it fought in 1991 in Operation Desert Storm.
BOWMAN: Some officers side with Casey, saying the Army's tilted too far to counterinsurgency. If Casey is to win this fight and build an Army that can do it all, he has to start by taking care of the Army's people.
General CASEY: We can't continue to do 12 months out, 12 months back and then hold this force together. I think people would start voting with their feet, and the stressors on families are already difficult. Twelve months is not enough time to recover, especially when you're doing it for a second and a third and a fourth time.
BOWMAN: You're already seeing that, aren't you? You're seeing people voting with their feet.
General CASEY: Well, people are leaving the Army. There's no question about that. Part of the perception that captains are leaving in droves is because we're increasing the size of the Army, so we're creating a demand internally.
BOWMAN: There are a lot of people worried about recruiting and the quality of the recruit coming in, more waivers for medical reasons, criminal waivers, and then fewer with high school diplomas.
General CASEY: The only quality measure last year that we did not meet in terms of recruits is the high school diploma graduates. So it's about 7 percent below the standard. What I see, after these young men and women go through basic training, I'm pretty satisfied with. I think we're going to get some help from the economy. In fact the last, the first two months of this fiscal year we have met our high school diploma graduate rates.
BOWMAN: Some say Casey is downplaying the Army's troubles. Here's Larry Korb, a Pentagon official in the Reagan administration.
Mr. LARRY KORB (Former Pentagon Official): Desertion rates are up, suicides are up, cases of spousal abuse are up. So if you look at all of those indicators, this is an Army that has many more problems than it had five or six years ago.
BOWMAN: Casey will acknowledge that the Army is in for what he calls two more tough years. Not until 2011 will soldiers get 22 months at home, still not quite reaching that necessary two years he says is needed for rest and training. Still, Andrew Krepinevich says Casey deserves credit for his time as Army chief. He is doing more to help combat veterans with mental health problems and more to help families.
Mr. KREPINEVICH: He's focused very much on trying to ensure that the families are well cared for while the soldiers are overseas.
BOWMAN: Families who have lost a loved one in battle are of particular concern to Casey. Recently the Army made a mistake. It sent information packets to the families of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan in the last seven years. The families were all addressed as John Doe. To Casey, that was inexcusable, so he began signing letters to all 7,000 family members.
General CASEY: My dad was killed in Vietnam, and so I took that personally, and I felt that I needed to respond to the families directly.
BOWMAN: Casey still wears the stars his dad wore as a general. A few days ago, he mailed the letters to the families of those fallen soldiers, many of whom he led. And then he turned back to the job of fixing the Army. Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.