A Lifetime of Service: An Interview with General James T. Hill

What was your path within the US military?

Photo accessed via Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

Photo accessed via Wikimedia Commons
Public Domain

I spent 36 years in uniform in the US Army. When I retired, I was the Combatant Commander of the US Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), which meant that in my four-star capacity, I was the general in charge of US military activity in South America, Central America, and the Caribbean. Prior to that, I had done the normal range of army “stuff ”: I served as an infantryman in Vietnam, I served in Operation Desert Storm as a brigade commander, I commanded the 25th Infantry Division in Hawaii, and I commanded the Army’s 1st Corps at Fort Louis, Washington.

How have you seen the military change, both in your personal experience and as an institution?

I came on active duty in the Army in 1968, when it was a draftee army. I was still on active duty when we did away with the draft and began to develop the all-volunteer force. The Army that I looked at and the military that I know of from the late 1970s is what I refer to as the “awful army.” It was, in fact, an awful army, as we worked through the issues of bringing on to duty many people who were not mentally capable of it. We had many drug problems and we didn’t have the money to train our soldiers; it was really a terrible time in the Army. I look back on it and I ask people, “how did we transform the military from the awful military of the mid-to-late 70s to today’s remarkable institution?” As one of those that stuck around in the 1980s and helped rebuild it, I say three things: Ronald Reagan, the Goldwater- Nichols Act of 1986, and urinalysis. Ronald Reagan gave us a pay raise that kept people in the military, Goldwater-Nichols without question forced on the chiefs of the time the command and control structure the Army needed, and urinalysis allowed us to remove drug users from the military.

How was that “awful army” affecting our operational capacity?

It was being affected without question. The president in 1978 drew a line in the sand when everyone was concerned that the Soviet Union was going to go into Iran. He said that if they went into Iran, we were going to stop them, but the only way we were going to stop them was with nuclear weapons. We didn’t have the force capability to do otherwise — we weren’t trained, we weren’t ready. Anyone from my generation who would tell you anything different has conveniently forgotten.

What is something that you fought for during your time in the military, especially while in leadership?

You can only change the things over which you have direct control and effect. I constantly tried to make every unit I was in a better unit from my being in it. I worked hard for better integration, the inclusion of women, racial diversity, and I was a proponent of LGBT inclusion in the Army long before it gained popular traction. However, when you’re a captain, you’re just a small cog in a big machine. The higher I rose, the more I realized it is hard to change the things you once thought you could change once you reached a certain rank. It’s a hard, ponderous machine.

In the lower-ranking roles that you have held, how much power did you have to reach your goals of increasing diversity?

You can only work within the rules of the role that you’re given. I had a leadership philosophy of trying to work one soldier at a time. I tried to change people one view at a time. The higher I got up, the more people I could change, or at least influence. Everyone wants to be treated with dignity and respect, and I insisted that everyone that worked for me treated everyone [else] with dignity and respect.

How have you worked with orders with which you disagreed?

Were there opportunities to indicate that you disagreed? In my entire career, there were only one or two people I worked with whom I look back on and reflect that I couldn’t dissent or have an opposing view that I couldn’t discuss. If you are playing the greatest team sport that there is, and that is in fact the US military, you want your teammates to be active teammates, and that means that they have to have a voice. You might not take a vote, but you need to ensure that you’re getting all the right information. I had a philosophy that a good commander knows that he or she needs protection from himself or herself. You have to have someone that walks in and says, “excuse me, are you sure?” and the smart leader listens to those dissenting views and adapts the decision-making process to them. I never believed that I was omniscient in anything.

In your time as commander of SOUTHCOM, what were some challenges that you had to face?

While at SOUTHCOM, I dealt with a lot of issues, but the single issue that I am most proud of is the recent peace deal reached in Colombia with FARC [the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia]. I received an invitation from the Colombian president to attend the ceremony, but unfortunately I couldn’t go. I have tremendous pride for what the United States did and for what I did personally in Colombia. I took over as combatant commander, and essentially within a day or two, President [Álvaro] Uribe took over as president of Colombia. I was in Colombia at least once a month for the entirety of my time at SOUTHCOM, almost never without seeing President Uribe and senior military leadership. What we accomplished together saved what was rapidly becoming a failed state, and along the way, we saved many lives. I will also say, however, that my single greatest privilege and honor in the US military was being an infantry commander in Vietnam. I still see leading American soldiers in direct combat as my biggest privilege.

What is a hope that you have for the US military of the future?

The reality is that the army that I began serving in was a draftee army that eventually moved into an all-volunteer force. The all-volunteer force, as good as it is, is probably not sustainable over time. Because of funding issues, if only one in four young adult males is even eligible for service, then we need to figure out how to enlist them and keep them. Certainly, we’ll need to figure out how to include more women. We really must take a hard look at the all-volunteer force, structure-wise, mission- wise, and cost-wise, in order to sustain it. There’s no one that I know of that would bring back the draft. The all-volunteer force is the right way to go, but we’ve got to work hard to reshape it, and more people need to be talking about it.

What do you think needs to happen?

Those in leadership are going to have to figure out force structure, figure what we really need, and alter some standards. For example, do we need everyone in the US Army to be at the same physical standard? I’m particularly heretical in my views on the subject. Do we need everyone to be in top physical shape, or can we have someone out of shape who we know is never going into combat because he’s working with computers? Why are we holding everyone to one standard when we don’t need it that way? Additionally, those with physical disabilities still have roles that they can fulfill in the military. I think that we have to come to grips with that. Furthermore, do we physically need the number of people we have in a combat zone? When I was retired, I went to Iraq to visit Camp Victory, which was right around the Baghdad airport and was where we had a lot of people. There was a huge military presence — 46,000 soldiers at its height. The reality is that 95 percent of those people landed at the Baghdad airport, never left the confines of Camp Victory, climbed on an airplane a year later, and flew back to the United States. What were they doing at Camp Victory that they couldn’t do back in the United States, especially with the Internet? Why did we have them in Iraq? We’re going to have to think through those types of things.

If you were to boil down your 36 years in the military to a single lesson, what would it be?

Treat every human being with dignity and respect, and almost everyone will respond accordingly.

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David Gevarter