Gen. Richard Myers didn't lose sight of the vexing problems facing the nation after he retired as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 2005.
He's still speaking, traveling, working for various boards. He sees the Iraq and Afghanistan wars still going, long after he launched the military into those countries. He knows firsthand that China is a growing power financially, and a worry for the military because "they were a third-rate military power who are now first rate, and growing stronger."
He's heard all the talk and worry about the financial crisis.
He's coming to Wichita on Saturday to talk about leadership. He's going to talk a bit, as he frequently does, about honesty and integrity, and not only because they are positive virtues.
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"Integrity is essential to human beings getting along with each other," he said in a phone interview last week. "It was essential to the military working well — that the officers you worked with could be trusted at their word. It makes sense in the military, but it makes sense also in every walk of life. It's a huge, important ingredient, from what I've seen, in business, in the nonprofit world, in going to school, in going through life. Integrity involves engaging other people, asking yourself how you are treating other people."
Myers will be guest speaker at the Commemorative Air Force Jayhawk Wing's 13th annual Salute to Valor banquet and silent auction.
By the time he became Joint Chiefs chairman in 2001, he said, he'd noticed that the longest-serving Air Force officers around him were people of exemplary character. It was the chief reason they lasted and advanced in the military.
He'd learned, he said, that integrity was not just a virtue, but also a trait that defused conflicts. When he became the nation's top military officer, he tried in every way he could to engage not only allies but also others. Myers and the military, recognizing the growing power of longtime adversary China, defused tensions by reaching out, talking to their Chinese counterparts, keeping communications open.
Though his chief concerns and training involve the nation's security, he said that what he learned about integrity can be applied to everything with good results, whether it's politics or finances or charity.
He intends to tell people that in Wichita. He also hopes to give them hope when so many are out of work and frustrated with everything from the protracted wars to the financial meltdown. He said he knows what the financial crisis did to employment in Wichita.
"The first thing people can do to do something about all these problems is first to arm themselves with history — learn how we coped successfully with every crisis we've ever had, whether it was environmental, or a national security problem," Myers said. "What they will learn, as I did, is that there is something about the American character that will always get us through these problems."
And he recommends that "if you feel strongly about these things, to get involved, to get informed, and get heard ... try to be a part of the debate" with every kind of politician. "For some people," he said, "that might even mean running for office."
The problems that Myers confronted are still there. The U.S. is still engaging with the Chinese military. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are still being fought. Myers still thinks about those problems a lot.
"The biggest questions out of the war with Iraq started after major combat operations ended," he said. "There were lots of moving parts, and no easy answers. Nobody has been able to say that if only we'd done this or that, that there would have been a yellow brick road to success. But we did try to figure it out in advance. We had a lot of talks with a lot of people about Iraq, about what would happen. And ... nobody agreed about how it would turn out. Clearly what did happen was different from what people expected. The problems we had probably came about because of the way we were organized. We could have done a better job of organizing what we'd do after major combat ended. But that thought comes with 20/20 hindsight."
Myers said he does not believe his role today as a retired Air Force general should be to weigh in on any one side in national debates. But he did weigh in on one highly controversial question, about what's going to happen Wednesday night in Lawrence:
"I think Kansas State has got a great chance to beat KU, in Allen Field House," said Myers, a K-State graduate. "It'll be a good contest, a good fight, and I'll be solidly in the Wildcats' court."