The Military as Metaphor

The United States defense establishment is approaching the verge of open rebellion and internal collapse. If Mr. Clinton is re-elected, it will probably happen in 1997. If Mr. Dole wins, it might take a little longer. At this point, perhaps the only thing that can avert it is getting the American people involved. The most pressing defense issue in this country is now the need for a new covenant between the people and the military they support with their treasure, their lives, and their blood.
The revolt will begin over money. It no longer matters whose figures you play with; the money to sustain and modernize the armed forces, in their present configuration, simply isn’t there. After the 1997-1999 projected cuts, an additional twenty percent force reduction (personnel, weaponry, readiness) may be inevitable. “Rationing the poverty” among the services is no longer an option. Nor should it be, given the long-acknowledged and long-ignored need to restructure for the 21st century.

The rebellion could begin with a single service, reminiscent of the 1949 “Revolt of the Admirals” after cancellation of the “supercarrier” that eventually evolved into the modern aircraft carrier. It could easily erupt into open and vicious inter-service rivalry and turf battles, with each service protecting its favored systems, and the roles and missions that justify them. (One of the great technological truths of 20th century warfare is that, while weapons systems have proliferated, effects have converged. It is now possible to do things in many different ways: a fact studiously ignored when it points to the need for major changes in service tasks.) The revolt may also have an intense–and intensely public–reserve aspect, as the services attempt to siphon dollars to the active forces. However it happens, it won’t be pretty.

The internal collapse will come about – indeed, it’s already underway – because of money, and because of the continuing subjection of the military to civilian social and cultural agendas and experiments, and the continuing refusal of the senior leadership to (as the beer commercial has it), “know when to say when,” even at the cost of their careers.

Jim Webb, decorated Marine veteran and former Navy secretary, made the point loud and clear in his recent speech at the Naval Academy. But Jim Webb can’t do it alone. It’s time for the American people to get loud and be clear about what they expect from their military.

A new covenant between people and military might sound something like this.

“Listen up, Pentagon. You too, Commander-in-Chief (assuming that you happen to be on active duty). You’ve got three primary missions. The first is to defend We the People against that which threatens us the most. Currently, that’s weapons of mass destruction, especially small numbers of crude weapons in the hands of small, crude nations and unlovely subnational groups. Deterrence can’t do it all. We expect to be defended, even if it means interfering with some of your bureaucratic priorities. It’s doable. Just do it.”

“Your second task is to maintain conventional forces strong enough to deter conventional aggressors, or whup them handily. This doesn’t mean large standing forces. It means restructuring to take maximum advantage of U.S. technological superiority (especially in aerospace), and making maximum use of the reserves and National Guard. Mobilizing the reserves is We the People’s de facto veto on going to war. If you don’t have the political support to invite us along, don’t go.

“Your third task is to conduct (from time to time) humanitarian and short-of-war operations, such as Bosnia, also with maximum use of the Guard and reserves. We don’t want to be the world’s policeman; we’d rather not be the world’s nanny, guru, or sociopolitical therapist. But sometimes we’ll need to use a little muscle, just to remind the planetary DINGOs (Disturbers of International Good Order) that we’re capable of it. “Now, regarding who serves, and how, and why.

“Get two things straight. (And pay attention, federal government, because we’re demanding some major policy and legislative changes here.) First, nobody has a right to serve. Second, nobody should be excluded from service simply because somebody else doesn’t like his, or her kind messing up the club. As a society, we’re dedicated to equality. But equality doesn’t mean sameness. And equality of opportunity includes the right to honest failure.

“Minorities, women, and gays are in the military to stay. They should have exactly the same rights, and be held to the same standards, as all others in their positions. It’s no disgrace for a woman not to be able to fly an F-14; few people can. (By the same token, the Air Force has no need of white male pilots; women and minorities can provide adequate numbers and skill levels.) It’s no disgrace for most women to be weaker than men. But it is a disgrace for people to be recruited or promoted according to quotas or “guidelines.” It is a danger for people to fly airplanes they’re not qualified to pilot. And it is preposterous when the Army, for example, evaluates co-ed basic training on the basis of “equality of effort,” not equality of results.

“There are no gender-normed battlefields.”

“And speaking of battlefields, let’s talk about sex. When homosexuality is practiced within a unit, that unit becomes vulnerable to collapse. Ditto heterosexuality. Sex within the same chain of command compromises that chain. Sexual harassment is abhorrent. Zero tolerance. But the criterion for action against offenders should be behavior, not gender or inclination It certainly should not be unsubstantiated and anonymous allegations, the Tailhook Transgression (guilty by virtue of just being there), or a single slip of the tongue, no matter how boorish.

“Finally, we’re going to help you do all this in two ways. First, we’ll give you about a quarter-trillion a year to play with. More when you’re out there doin’ it for fair. That should be enough, if you get your priorities in order and use it right. Second, we’re going to lessen the social and cultural pressures upon you by severely limiting your vulnerability to lawsuits from the civilian sector. Your minorities, your women, and your gays are, by and large, competent and dedicated. But many of their self-styled civilian defenders are more interested in scoring points–and wrecking institutions–than in providing for the common defense. They impose their agendas on you, whose reason for being is to defend us, not submit to their demands. We want you to be free of endless predatory litigation and threat of litigation while you’re figuring out how to function in this post Cold War world and this post racist, post patriarchal, post homophobic society that We the People–fine People that we are–have become.”

Of course, there is no reason to believe that, short of national emergency, the American people will devote much thought to their military. They rarely have before, and for that reason, many worry about the military becoming a world too-apart. Yet perhaps the opposite is happening. In many ways, the military has become a metaphor for the larger civilization–the loss of purpose to peripheral concerns; the surrender to intimidation and expediency; the vicious, wanton destruction of reputations, careers, and life. Why should Americans think about the military now? Because it’s like looking into a mirror.

Do we like what we see?

Philip Gold is director of defense and aerospace studies at the Seattle-based Discovery Institute.

Philip Gold

Dr. Philip Gold is a senior fellow of the Discovery Institute, and director of the Institute's Aerospace 2010 Project. A former Marine, he is the author of Evasion,: The American Way of Military Service and over 100 articles on defense matters. He teaches at Georgetown University and is a frequent op-ed contributor to several newspapers. Dr. Gold divides his time between Seattle and Washington, D.C.