Exclusive Interview: Col. Doug Applegate – Talking Afghanistan & Being a Marine

Doug Applegate is a retired United States Marine Corps Colonel and a veteran of both the Gulf War and Operation Iraqi Freedom. The Colonel is running for California’s 49th Congressional district and aims to unseat Darrell Issa, who gained national attention earlier this year as one of the last Republican Congressmen to cast his vote in support of the controversial H.R. 175—ObamaCare Repeal Act.

Col. Applegate actually ran against Rep. Issa in 2016 and lost by just 0.6%. Issa is currently considered to be one of the most vulnerable Republicans in the House, having won by only 1,621 votes in 2016 while 49th swung Democratic in the presidential election for the first time since 2000, and by 7.5 points, a margin larger than Mitt Romney’s victory over Barack Obama in 2012.

Now, Col. Applegate is taking another shot at unseating Issa in the 2018 midterms.

I had a conversation with Col. Applegate about what he wants to do for our country.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Can you tell me about yourself? Where you came from, and how you ended up in the California 49th?

I grew up in a blue-collar family outside of Dayton, Ohio. My mother had her own insurance agency in a small town, [as] an independent agent, and my father worked at a GM subsidiary that made interiors for GM automobiles, and the bumpers once they started becoming rubberized. I came out west to go to college, went to junior college because I had illusions of athletic grandeur, in Glendale, Arizona, then I went to Arizona State. After I graduated I went to law school [and] ended up doing what I had no anticipation of doing: I went into an officer program for the Marine Corps in the middle of my Junior Year, and that’s what brought me to the 49th. I ended up accepting a commission in the Marine Corps, passed the Bar, went to Okinawa as an infantry officer, came back, and I’ve lived or worked, or both, in the 49th since 1981 when I returned from Japan.

Were you stationed at Camp Pendleton then?

I was stationed at Camp Pendleton, I was stationed at El Toro, I’ve done reserve duty at both of those places, around the world, to include MCRD [Marine Corps Recruiting Depot, San Diego] and Miramar, so I’ve been in San Diego County or the 49th, like I said, in one capacity or another. I resigned my regular commission, let’s see, in late ’84, opened my own office, and I actually did civil rights litigation, specifically involving police excessive force—and that was before Rodney King—and I’ve had my own law office since the mid-’80s. When I was still doing reserve duty I got activated during the Gulf War and Operation Iraqi Freedom, I was in Baghdad, Ramadi, Fallujah, over to the Syrian border in 2006.

Wow, so you’ve kind of been all over the place through the Marines, huh?

Through the Marines, though, you know, cases that I’ve handled. I represented some banks, for a very brief period of time when I was briefly with a law firm. I didn’t like being in a large firm and having to accept the cases that came through the door in order to keep the doors open, and that the partners wanted to make money off of. That’s really the reason why I’ve always just preferred having my own law firm and I can take the cases that I felt were just, and decline the ones that I felt were unjust that I didn’t want to be involved in.

That totally makes sense. So when you were at Arizona State, why’d you decide to go into the officers program? I’m assuming it was an ROTC program?

Well, the only way you can become a Marine Officer is either through Navy ROTC, and I got to be real direct and up front with you, if it was that I probably never would’ve joined. But the Marine Corps has what they call a PLC program, it’s Platoon Leaders Course, and you only go in the summers. They had their table set up on the main mall one day, I went over and just sort of glanced at the literature, and made the mistake of saying, “You know, I always thought maybe I’d be interested in this but I don’t want the commitment.” I played right into their sales pitch and they said, “Oh, no commitment! No commitment at all, you can just go to 10-week officer’s candidate school and if you don’t want to join you can decline your commission.” I just didn’t realize I was joining what’s really a gang or a cult, because once you’re in the Marine Corps you’re never going to get out.

Once a Marine, always a Marine, huh?

I’m afraid so! No truer words were ever spoken. One way or another, you aren’t going to deny it, you aren’t going to live it down, and for the most part, I’ve been very fortunate with my experiences in the Marine Corps.

I read on your website your dad was a WWII veteran. Was that something that your dad wanted you to do, or maybe didn’t want you to do, after his experience?

I would have to say that he would’ve preferred that I not. Now, by the time I had joined the PLC program, he had passed. But just from a couple experiences, he made it clear that, although service should be honored, and he was very proud of volunteering, he also made it clear that he didn’t think that necessarily I should do the same thing. I mean, one of the quietest periods in my household growing up was during Vietnam when the war would essentially come to you at the kitchen table during the evening news. He never said much about it at all. I honored his maxim, and I came to understand him even more because he often would say, when I was growing up from the time I was little, anybody that talks about combat hasn’t really seen combat. So he didn’t talk about it, and…my 32 years’ experience, active and reserve, I understand him a lot better than I ever did when I was growing up.

I think that’s something that, those of us who haven’t ever experienced that, who haven’t been part of the Marines or active duty military, I don’t think any of us could really understand that. I think that gives you perspective. I think that’s important for public service, you have a deeper understanding of our military and what it means to send people overseas.

It’s an appreciation of what it costs, at many different levels.

“Anybody that talks about combat hasn’t really seen combat.”

As a member of Congress, you would be involved in foreign policy decisions. It seems like for the past fifteen years, and you know this, you’ve been a part of this, we’ve been at war all over the world and it doesn’t seem to me like we’re accomplishing anything. I’d like to know your take on involvement in the Middle East, involvement in different places around the world, how you think we should move forward.

First of all, one of the key things that motivated me to step in to the political arena was a lack of veterans, particularly veterans with any type of combat experience, in Congress. When I was going through college, right after the fall of Saigon, 80% of Congress had military experience. Now, it’s about 15%. Which is somewhat understandable because less than 1% of the population of the United States serves in the military. There’s been huge productivity gains in military science and in defense systems and weapons systems, as well as a far greater use of the reserves than ever before in the history of the United States military. But I’m a firm believer that if you polled veterans, particularly veterans with combat tours, you’re going to find that the majority of veterans prefer peace to war.

One of the frustrations that I have with Congress, with the Democratic Party, is that we don’t go down and ask the right questions of people in the Pentagon. It is a process that, at any one given time, at any place in the world, if a military option is being considered, you’re going to have people that can come up and speak to the cost in terms of blood and treasure, and most importantly duration, based upon years of planning. Plans that are updated every 18 months no matter where it is in the world. That’s something that Congress has avoided. The Democrats have ceded the field unnecessarily to patriotism, national defense, and the military, and we shouldn’t have. Conservatives and the GOP do not have a monopoly on understanding military options. And the military, far and above anyone else, recognize that you cannot solve the world’s problems with kinetic activity. That’s a euphemism to blowing things up and killing people. And once you become more experienced at a higher rank, whether or not it’s a staff NCO and enlisted or an officer, you are trained and schooled in the concept of foreign affairs and DIME: diplomacy, intelligence, military, and economics. And if you’re going to go in anywhere, the military planners want to know, hey, we’re one letter on that acronym. We want to know where the other three are. Because it’s going to affect what we do and how we do it, and once again, how long we have to do it. The worst thing that has occurred over the last 20, 25 years, is that somehow, people in politics have been seduced by this false paradigm of, ‘we can do this quickly and cheaply.’ It’s never either.

From a historical standpoint, no matter what level of conflict, whether or not it’s total war, a war of attrition, or somewhere in between, conflicts have a life of their own, and they’re generally measured not in terms of months or years but multiple generations. If you look at Japan and Germany, everybody in the Pentagon understands that that was total war, and we wrote the Constitution, basically, for both Germany and Japan and we wrote out any type of real standing army for anything other than defensive purposes. And then we stayed.

We’re still there.

We’re still in Germany. And it’s the same at different levels of conflict. Whether or not your foe is a nuclear adversary, conventional arms, or asymmetric insurgency. You are going to be there a long time, and Congress, by not voting on the use of military force, not only do they ignore duration, they’re completely ignorant of it, or worse, they intentionally hide it. And I don’t think veterans would ever tolerate that.

“The Democrats have ceded the field unnecessarily to patriotism, national defense, and the military, and we shouldn’t have. Conservatives and the GOP do not have a monopoly on understanding military options.”

In your opinion then, what should be done about Afghanistan? We’ve been there for 15 or more years, it doesn’t look like we’re getting anything accomplished, there’s just a lot of people dying on both sides. What would be your plan of action with this whole Afghanistan quagmire?

Afghanistan is probably one of the more difficult aspects because I’m a firm believer that if you break it, you bought it. And it’s more complex because we are dealing with governments that are not strong and one government that is a nuclear power. You can’t say Afghanistan without talking about Pakistan. And I’ll give you an example of a great frustration about why Congress isn’t doing anything right now in terms of even talking about it is because the Taliban have largely been re-armed and re-constituted with the assistance of both the Russians and Iran, and it’s because of a very weak American diplomacy, and even weaker and understaffed Department of State. So I get back to the acronym DIME, diplomacy, intelligence, military, and economics. There is a reality that if you short military planners on diplomacy or economics, no matter how much intelligence you have you’re going to have to increase your military aspect. Now, I’m a firm believer that you are never going to deliver democracy or even nation building at the tip of a U.S. Marine bayonet, to paint a mental picture. But Afghanistan is one of those situations where we’re going to have to figure out some way not to allow the Taliban to move in and shift the paradigm, because then there is a direct threat to the government in Pakistan and their nuclear weapon stockpile. The troops cannot be the operational force, and, rightly so in my opinion, we’ve reduced the troop levels. Now we’re left to a President who has said, ‘I’m not going to tell you how, but we’re going to be victorious.’ And in essence he said, ‘I don’t have a strategy I’m going to tell you about, but I’m asking young Americans, our sons and daughters, to go and bleed and die. That cannot continue. There are plenty of options in areas of support that greatly reduce the blood, but not necessarily the treasure. We’re stuck in a very precarious situation in Afghanistan, and it’s far different than what we have in Iraq right now. But we have other problems in Iraq because there’s a Sunni—Shia struggle that goes on from Yemen up to Turkey and Iraq. And the other thing I get concerned about is not just a question of small number of troops and minimum US casualties, we really have to look at a long-term strategy. With an end stakes. And in both instances, I would love to be able to walk away and say ‘we’re done here’ but we’re going to have to figure out the metrics of that DIME concept I was talking about. We have to be honest about, Congress has to vote! You have to take a stand, you have to be accountable, you have to spend your political capital, and then you need to be honest with the American people. I’ll tell you that my metric will be, I’m not going to ask any American to go and write the check for their lives without knowing what the strategy is. We don’t have a strategy, really in either place, that I’m satisfied with, but part of it is we need to bring the Pentagon out of the five-corner building and hold people accountable and say okay, what are you going to vote for? Everybody always likes to say, ‘well we should’ve done something in Syria,’ the Republicans, the GOP that held the House would never bring it to the floor. But they love to chastise Obama on, well, you drew the red line and then you didn’t do anything about it; no, they didn’t do anything about it. And I’m not quite sure that kinetic activity is the right case in Syria. Personally, I would use more of a Yugoslavian model, Croatia, Serbia-

Which was…?

Which was containment, and you mark people like Assad as an international criminal, give him no quarter, that would put the Russians in a far different position. And often, in a lot of these areas, we have strategies that have worked. We’ve used them against both insurgencies and nuclear powers, it’s called containment without kinetic activity by U.S. troops, or minimal supporting arms kinetic activity. And it has to be very measured, and we did so in Serbia and Croatia. It was actually one—and we’re still there, by the way, with the smallest footprint—and that was a genocide. It was a genocide with just as historically similar hate-filled conflicts, along the lines of former Nazi supporters, Catholic, Muslim. That was a containment strategy—and once again, we’re still there, with an extremely small footprint—that worked.

“I’m a firm believer that you are never going to deliver democracy or even nation building at the tip of a U.S. Marine bayonet.”

So for Afghanistan, your idea would be, we need to lessen our troop activity, and maybe not be as involved in kinetic activity and force, but remain a voice and a presence there to try and stabilize the country through more diplomatic means?

I get back to, it has to be the DIME concept, and it has to be a real containment. Where the containment needs to be effective is that you support the nuclear power that’s threatened, and that’s Pakistan. And you can’t give free reign and just completely ignore Afghanistan, but at the same time, you have to do something to support the government and create an effective buffer against the Taliban. The fact that the U.S. and coalition-trained Afghanistan army has been ineffective is no surprise to people in the Pentagon. It’s not like an instant army, you can drop two Alka-Seltzer tabs in a glass of water and—puff! —you’ve got an effective military that can defend against an insurgency. It is a long process. A costly process. And let’s face it, historically, that part of the world, since Alexander the Great, even before Alexander, was problematic. But I’m a big believer in containment strategies because I’ve lived through them. In my 32 years, I’ve seen it, and I’ve seen it work. Korea is an example of that. And, once again, I point to what has been reduced in the whole concept of DIME, diplomacy.

Especially with our current administration.

Exactly.

You can follow Col. Applegate on Twitter @ApplegateCA49 and go to applegateforcongress.com for more information about his campaign.

Jake is a college student studying political science at UCSB.
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