The Next Shoe to Drop


We seem to be living in an age where so much that we thought certain and permanent crumbles into dust be fore our eyes. Our once robust economy founders while our once cherished personal liberties fade away.

Less apparent has been the ongoing decay and corruption that could lead to a crisis for our nation’s armed forces.

Many of us view our military as the one sound institution we have left. The press and, of course, the military’s own leaders call it the best in the world. It claims to dominate the full spectrum of conflict from disaster relief to all out war while remaining apolitical and under constitutionally prescribed civilian control.

Yet its constitutional controls are eroding. Although Congress retains authority over the military budget, it has, since 1950, all but formally abrogated its power to declare war. This has left the president, as commander in chief of the armed forces, with de facto power to take us to war on his own. Most presidents have exercised this power with results that have ranged from disappointing to calamitous.

The press has credited the winding down of our war in Iraq to a modest reinforcement of our troops, called the surge. In reality, it took a Sunni-Shia civil war, Iranian intervention and some hefty bribes to persuade enough Iraqis to break off their hitherto successful insurgency against us.

While we have benefited from reduced casualties and relative calm, our real reward has been little more than the right to with draw gracefully from a country from which we had once hoped to dominate the Middle East. In Afghanistan, where our situation continues its steady deterioration, a rather less dignified retreat may be in our future.

After our short-lived success in Operation Desert Storm in 1991, both the military and the press declared that we had finally put the Vietnam War behind us. But have we? Today we fight enemies that don’t even have armies, don’t control defined territories or have recognizable economies. They lack modern heavy weapons, night-vision gear, armor and much else that we consider essential. Yet even after years of costly effort, we have failed to subdue or even to weaken most of them.

What has gone wrong? If our armed forces are not the “greatest in history,” they are certainly the most expensive. Our military budget nearly equals those of all the other nations of the world combined. Though we spend more today than we ever have since 1945, our forces are actually shrinking: Since 1986, our armed services have lost nearly half their force structure.

Worse, this shrinking force must rely on old and deteriorating equipment that our military procurement system cannot replace at affordable cost.

We have also neglected the training and selection of our military leaders. This was a consequence of our “tradition” of only mobilizing for war at the last minute and relying on doctrine that reduces warfare to the engineering problem of overwhelming the enemy with superior resources. Instead of leaders, we train technicians who could put “steel on target,” without necessarily understanding why or how or even if it would help.

Since World War II, this style of warfare has won us tactical successes, but not wars. Worse, our imploding economy coupled with skyrocketing procurement costs could make it impossible for us to continue it, forcing us to fight from scarcity rather than abundance. Even now, our enemies can negate much of our firepower by denying us targets, and letting us hurt ourselves by hitting civilians instead. Our very strength is a weakness because, when we don’t win, it makes us look foolish. When we have successes, we look like bullies and create sympathy for our enemies.

So what can we do about all this? Here are some directions in which real reform may lie.

? Realize that we have a problem. Drum-and-trumpet hoopla about how great our military is has led us to exaggerate its real capabilities and to give it missions it cannot really perform.

? Fix the finances. The Defense Department has spent literally trillions of dollars it can’t account for. It has not been able to pass an audit in decades. If we can’t even balance our books, how can we hope to control the ruinous expense of our style of warfare?

Financial exhaustion triggered by a war in Afghanistan brought down the mighty Soviet Union just 20 years ago. Could this be our fate as well?

? Re-evaluate the military’s governing authority. Should the president exercise anything like sole control over the military?

Should he even control it in peacetime? During our first 120 years, most of the military consisted of militia that the state governors controlled. A decision to go to war had to be based on a national consensus involving both Congress and the states.

That requirement preserved both our liberties and our security at a far lower cost.

? The toughest and most important direction is to find new leaders, both military and civilian, who are competent, informed and uncommitted to the status quo. What we have now is mainly technicians, politicians and bureaucrats, all dominated by special interests. Leadership reform is a subject that could easily consume a shelf of books, but the books and articles by retired U.S. Army Maj. Don Vandergriff will do for a start. Our military will never be better than its leaders.

The next administration has promised us change. Will there be any for the military?

JOHN SAYEN is a retired U.S. Marine Corps lieutenant colonel. He is the author of the introduction, “The Overburden of America’s Outdated Defenses,” to a new anthology, “America’s Defense Meltdown: Pentagon Reform for President Obama and the New Congress.”

This article originally appeared in Defense News.


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