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The Dr. Seuss Defense Debate

Were history honest, the 1990s would already be known as the era of the Dr. Seuss Defense Debate. It was Mostly MRCs — a Pentagon acronym standing for Major Regional Conflict and pronounced, “Murk.” The debate centered on how many it might be nice to fight at the same time, one or two, and on how to go about it. The ground-force “green-suiters,” the Army and, to some extent, the Marines, took on the “blue-suiters” of the Air Force and, to some extent, the Navy. And so it went:

One MRC

Two MRC

Green MRC

Blue MRC

Fortunately, the MRC debate ended last spring, when the Pentagon’s Quadrennial Defense Review, in classic style, solved the problem by changing the acronym. It’s now MTW (Major Theater War) and, even though we could barely handle one with forces available, two remains the official favored fantasy. Still, this resolve to plan to fight two MTWs in “overlapping time” instead of two “more or less simultaneous” MRCs has had one beneficient effect. It freed the defense planners and intellectuals to concentrate on another phase of the debate. This is usually called the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA), but might more aptly be known as “Von Neumann’s Revenge,” after John Von Neumann, the mathematician who predicted forty years ago that the computer would ultimately prove more ultimate a weapon than the nuke.

And indeed, the military world’s awash in cyber-faith. Computers will do it all, “Digitize It” can now safely replace “Semper Fidelis” as the warrior’s credo, and in the military, as in all else, the geeks will inherit the earth.

No doubt. However, a potentially vexing question remains. Whom shall we fight?

There is, of course, no shortage of potential threats, and of lists of potential threats, many resembling those Old Testament inventories of the nasty nations surrounding the Israelites. But today it’s not the Philistines and Jebusites and Edomites and Ammonites. In addition to our chief potential MRCy adversaries (North Korea, Iran, Iraq), there are, or seem to be, or might be, “emerging peer competitors,” “rogue states” other than the aforementioned, “subnational groups,” “asymmetrical threats,” “weapons of mass destruction,” and on, and on.

How a nation without a single mortal foe, a nation that spends over a quarter trillion a year on defense, can manage to be so vulnerable, must rank as one of the great unintended ironies of the late 20th century.

But we are vulnerable. Eerily so. It’s hard to avoid that dim 3:00 AM sensation there’s something out there, something bad, and it’s headed our way. So perhaps it’s time to risk unilateral rationality — to put aside all the gibberish and bureaucratic games and service rivalries and just talk plainly about America’s military situation, what it is, and how to handle it.

Seven points, and one caveat, should suffice.

1) There is no post-Cold War “New World Disorder,” no incoherence waiting to be sorted out. The situation is very clear. The Age of the Wars of Ideology is over. The Age of the Wars of Identity and Ecology has begun. What started at Lexington and Concord ended in Berlin and Moscow. Religion, ethnicity, and Third World poverty — a poverty almost certain to be intensified by long-term ecological trends — are the sources of conflict now.

2) Skip the “World’s Sole Remaining Superpower”stuff, with its intimations of omnipotence. The situation is historically unprecedented, and far more complex. The United States has a defensive perimeter that starts at the subatomic level (computers, communications) and extends about 22,000 miles up (satellites in geosynchronous orbit) and beyond. The military task is to defend and exploit this perimeter, from computer-innards to outer space.

3) Within this perimeter, the United States has both inner and outer physical borders. The outer borders encompass American interests abroad; the inner borders contain the national territory and population. Both must be protected.

4) Home Defense Comes First. When you aggregate a set of activities, ranging from anti-missile defense and counter-terrorism to border security and drug interdiction (assuming drugs remain criminal) you get old-fashioned homeland defense, which is the primary mission of any legitimate military establishment. Unfortunately, the demarcations between military and law enforcement activities are no longer absolute, and must be realigned in a manner consistent with protection of civil liberties and constitutional rights.

5) Militarily, the United States is neither a land nor a sea power, as these terms have traditionally been understood. Instead, we’re the world’s first (and so far only) aerospace power. Aerospace in all its forms is our great comparative advantage. Many nations have maintained strong air forces, but we do it uniquely well, and are uniquely dependent upon it. This advantage must be exploited to the fullest, and must never be lost. As a general rule, whatever can be done from the air, should be done from the air.

6) Obviously, not everything can be done from the air. “Boots on the ground,” land forces, will always be necessary. But the era of mass armies, organized into ponderous divisions and over-officered corps, is over. The active Army must be restructured in two ways. Combat units should be smaller, more agile, and more lethal. And the Army must recognize that extended “operations other than war” (peacekeeping, humanitarian intervention, etc.) should be handled by units specially trained for the task, not by combat forces. If this means creating, de facto, two armies, one for combat and one for non-combat operations, that may be a better — or less bad — structure than maintaining the fiction of “general purpose” forces.

7) And finally, it’s time to realize that the National Guard is not some relic of the Cold War era . . . or of the 18th century. The Air Force and Marine Corps have demonstrated how much can be accomplished with reserves. Only the Army regards its major reserve component as an enemy. This hostility notwithstanding, the preponderance of the nation’s land forces should reside in the Guard. Part-time forces are cheaper. Mobilizing the Guard provides a “people’s veto” over going to war. If a president lacks sufficient political support to mobilize, he shouldn’t be doing whatever he’s doing. And finally, Guard forces, with their community roots and dual loyalties to state and federal government, should be used in domestic emergencies and contingencies requiring military force. Regulars should be the last resort.

In sum, we’re in a new historical era, in an unprecedented military situation, blessed with considerable assets, but also subject to considerable perils. However, in one sense — and here is the caveat — nothing has changed.

Three times in this century — two World Wars and the Cold War — the United States made the decision not to try to live, as theologian Reinhold Niebuhr once put it, as an island of comparative security and prosperity in the middle of a global hell. The American people have not yet decided whether to make that decision again, i.e., to engage the new era of ethnic and religious strife, mass terrorism, and the effects of ecological change. Indeed, we have not yet even begun to tally the possible costs, in life and treasure and perils to the homeland.

It’s ironic. A truly isolationist America would not need a massive military, or costly homeland defenses. Many nations and peoples might hate us, but few would have reason to hurt us. Only to the extent that America exercises global leadership — or, if you prefer, messes in other people’s domestics — do we need military forces to send overseas, or to protect us at home.

Fortress America is necessary only if we intend to leave the fort. And that’s not a decision that can be made on the basis of Dr. Seuss debates.