Commentary Magazine


America Can Win, by Gary Hart, with William S. Lind

Warring on the Pentagon

America Can Win: The Case for Military Reform.
by Gary Hart, with William S. Lind.
Adler & Adler. 301 pp. $17.95.

The first two-thirds of this book by Senator Gary Hart and William S. Lind chronicle in laborious but loving detail, and without the benefit of a single serious counterargument, what the authors take to be the misdeeds, defects, and outright idiocies of a deeply-flawed military. This is the story of a military that was defeated in Vietnam, lost forty-one Marines trying to rescue forty seamen aboard the Mayaguez, failed ignominiously at Desert One on the way to the U.S. embassy in Teheran, and carelessly allowed another 241 Marines to become the victims of a lone terrorist bomber at Beirut airport. Well, did not the Grenada operation, at least, succeed? No: Hart and Lind reveal that the 82nd Airborne Division disgraced itself and marred the enterprise by its inability to handle a few hundred Cuban construction workers. Though last April’s bombing raid on Libya occurred too late to figure in this book, one can guess what the authors would want to say about it; indeed, the dust had hardly settled over Colonel Qaddafi’s bunker before Senator Hart rushed onto television to expose that mission’s shortcomings as well.

This string of botched assignments, the authors gravely warn, “reveals a military system that threatens our existence as a nation.” This is no trivial threat. We face nothing less, according to this book, than annihilation, which will fall on us through a combination of inadvertence and incompetence. Hart and Lind foresee a scenario in which war breaks out in the Persian Gulf between the Soviets, who are no longer frightened by our nuclear arsenal, and one of our (unnamed) regional allies. When we are forced to go to the ally’s defense, our military will inevitably fail us yet again—and this time, to prevent a humiliating defeat at Soviet hands, we will begin pushing nuclear buttons, thereby triggering the nightmare that haunts us.

Senator Hart thinks he can save us and the world from this fate, but it will not be easy. His indictment covers virtually every aspect of our military system, from the way it is organized to the way it performs to, above all, the way it thinks.

As the authors see it, our operational concepts invite disaster. The Army misguidedly plans to fight a war of attrition (Verdun-style) against the Soviets, an absurd idea when the Soviets have 200 divisions and we have only 20 (if you count both the Army and the Marine Corps). Our Navy depends upon an antiquated, World War II force structure, based on the aircraft carrier instead of the true capital ship of the 1980′s, the submarine. Worse still, the admirals of our fleet have developed what they perversely call a maritime strategy which, in the early days of any global conflict, would deploy our naval assets in forward positions hazardous both to the carriers and to our badly outnumbered submarine force. As a result, we would almost immediately lose them all, and so the war at sea. This would deprive us of the ability to sustain a land war either in Europe or in the Middle East.

As for the Air Force, our generals still consider part of its role to be strategic, whereas they should have figured out that strategic bombing is passé—it only makes a populace more determined to resist—and that tactical bombing must be the new name of the game. The Air Force should rather think of itself as a sort of flying combat artillery, soldiers first, fliers a distant second. This, however, it has considerable difficulty doing since, like its two sister services, it lacks the capacity to think operationally.

Beneath the level of operational planning the authors find that the military services do not get much else right, either. Weapons procurement is irrational. The services choose complicated, hi-tech systems that will not function in combat. Training is hopeless: not enough time is allocated for it—a U.S. Marine gets less than half the training time of a Royal Marine—and that time is badly used in rehearsing rigid set pieces that bear little relation to actual combat. Our troops are sent out with too little ammunition, not enough spare parts. They endure incessant rotations, which destroy unit cohesion, that special ingredient of personal loyalty and pride that builds up over time and keeps men fighting in the face of danger and possible death. Their costly field radios could be purchased much more cheaply at Radio Shack, and anyway encourage them to talk too much on the battlefield, “micromanaging” each other’s actions to a fault.

There are—the bill of particulars goes on—far too many officers; where at the end of World War II there was one officer for about every 100 enlisted men, now there are more than five per hundred. All the services have too many support personnel. In Vietnam it took 550,000 people in the country to keep 80,000 in the field. Our Air Force needs 170 people on the ground for every plane it puts aloft while the Israelis require only 30, the Swedes 27. This unfortunate and unnecessarily cumbersome “tooth-to-tail” ratio (about two and a half times higher than it need be) is a large part of the reason why we and our allies are badly outnumbered both in Europe and in Korea, where population figures suggest our forces ought to be numerically superior.

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This is only a sampling of the countless faults the Hart/Lind team finds with our military. To their credit, let it be said that the authors rarely issue a specific criticism without suggesting a way to improve things. Some of their prescriptions are old-hat, as when they insist on the need for unit cohesion. Some of their points are just silly: how compare the tooth-to-tail ratio of the Israeli or Swedish air force with our own without comparing the range of their global obligations with ours? Much of their criticism shows that the authors have only partly understood or are willfully misrepresenting the views of those they ridicule. Thus, they attack our Navy’s force structure but do not try to comprehend why the Soviets themselves are cutting submarine production and have begun to build large aircraft carriers modeled on ours; they criticize forward deployment in a war with the Soviets but fail to acknowledge that without it, the oceans could be filled with the very Soviet submarines they so admire; they write about attrition as though it were an option and not a condition of warfare, and they irresponsibly insinuate that the way to deal with the Soviets in Europe is through a surprise attack. The authors are happiest when deepest into the weeds, dealing with the minutiae of weapons procurement and management. At such moments they sound like nothing so much as throwbacks to the era of Robert S. McNamara when planning was king and strategy a forgotten art.

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Cumulatively, however, the aim of this picayune and boring handbook for the military reformer (certainly not for the general reader) is not really to put right all the things wrong with the American military establishment. Through the very exhaustiveness of its litany of defects it means, rather, to reveal the absurdity of resorting to a series of ad hoc measures. What, after all, would be the point of sewing countless silk patches onto a gigantic, incorrigible, and uncamouflageable sow’s ear?

The authors’ real agenda lies elsewhere, in nothing less than a transformation of the military mind. According to Hart/Lind, the reason the Pentagon, the officer corps, the military-industrial complex, and even the Congress are all hopelessly misguided when it comes to the defense of the country is that their thought processes are inadequate to the task. This is a particularly unforgivable deficiency in the denizens of the Pentagon and in senior officers whose business should be the art of war but who have forfeited the right to call themselves warriors, having become instead bureaucrats in uniform, “milicrats” and “courtiers.” Their mentality, the way they are educated, the traits for which they are promoted, their unabashed career-ism, all serve to stifle critical and innovative thought, and this in turn is what has created the current, perilous status quo.

In the judgment of Hart and Lind, it is above all these mental processes that must be reformed. What, then, is their solution? Astonishingly, it is brainwashing, Japanese-management-style. Let the social engineers speak for themselves:

If the contradiction between the bureaucratic organizational model and the kind of institutional behavior and people we need for success in combat is evident, what is the solution? The answer is another organizational model, known as the “corporative” model. . . .

How does it work? The institution . . . makes a great effort to get its employees at every level to adopt the institution’s external goals and purposes as their personal goals and values. These goals and purposes are constantly inculcated in everything the organization does, from starting the workday by singing the company song, through uniforms, the sharing of onerous tasks by management and workers alike, and the way the rewards and promotion systems work.

The task is an enormous one, because it means changing the way people think and behave. . . . But it must be done. . . . If we just change the superstructure while perpetuating bureaucratic behavior, we will freeze in a new mold that will, in time, become as irrelevant as the present one.

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Any genuine issues Hart and Lind have together managed to raise are trivialized by this final prescription, which is vastly more odious than the disease it is designed to cure. In this absurd utopia, some new President (guess who?), a Great Warrior in the Sky, would presumably hand down the principles for his faithful minions to inculcate in the childlike masses. (One envisions vast Department of Defense choirs intoning their martial service songs in the Pentagon’s parking lots at daybreak.) Can one conceive of a President, or a presidential aspirant, so out of tune with the values of his own country that he can suggest the creation of a military patterned on a model completely foreign to U.S. tradition? Such a creation would be an alien appendage grafted inappropriately onto a libertarian body politic, inevitably to be rejected by it.

No sensible observer would maintain that the U.S. military is perfect as it is, and any institution worth its salt should be constantly on the lookout for ways to improve itself. In fact, although one would hardly know this from reading America Can Win, the American military has spent much of the last decade floundering in self-doubt, trying to recover simultaneously from the trauma of Vietnam and from rejection by large and vocal segments of American society.

One cause of this self-doubt—and a better candidate for the Hart/Lind list of “failures” than any they adduce—has been the military’s inability from Vietnam on to deal successfully with unconventional operations. Trained primarily for conventional combat, the armed forces have only recently begun to develop their ability to cope with guerrillas and terrorists. This is only part of the problem, however. The other, related part has to do with our sense as a nation of what our position in the world is and should be, and what means we are willing to use to maintain it. In other words, we need to answer the question, what is our national strategy?

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Gary Hart has no strategy, and this book actually brags about the fact, deriding those of his colleagues in the Congress who insist that, “You must tell us what the strategy is before we can decide anything else.” In a passage that shows a stunning lack of understanding of their subject (and of anything that happened in Vietnam), the authors claim that the tactical and operational are what really matter, and that these must be independent of strategy because strategy is likely to change more rapidly than we can change our policies and practices.

How, then, are we to design a military without having a clear conception of the kinds of operations we expect it to perform? How set priorities, choose among weapons systems and the operational techniques to be emphasized in training? How think about the use of the military in the absence of any conception of where, when challenged, we should or should not respond? How even talk about combat effectiveness without a framework that tells us how vital, in a global conflict with the Soviet Union, such countries as Turkey, Norway, Pakistan, the Philippines, or Japan (to take but a few examples) are going to be?

The answer is that none of these things is possible. Senator Hart, however, is pleased to pretend otherwise—and one can even understand why. Were he to hint in public that there are actually places and interests worth fighting and dying for, he might alienate a substantial number of the left-wing Democratic voters he is trying to woo for his presidential candidacy; if, on the other hand, he were to reveal himself as an isolationist, he would risk perpetuating his party’s recurrent error of appearing weak on national defense. Given his own global aimlessness it is little wonder that Senator Hart can envisage us drifting into a nuclear war with the Soviet Union on behalf of some anonymous Persian Gulf ally. With his blinkered emphasis on effectiveness, and his complete lack of strategic vision, he might well have us either retracing the route taken under McNamara, or fiddling while the Third World burned.

Hart and Lind have served their readers an indigestible stew of Japanese “corporative” meat, sprinkled liberally with McNamaran cost-effectiveness, garnished with shredded military history, all haphazardly stirred together like Jimmy Carter’s foreign policy. When faced with complexity they simply throw up their hands and cry, “Change everything!”

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