Commentary Magazine


National Defense, by James Fallows

Of Arms & Men

National Defense.
by James Fallows.
Random House. 204 pp. $12.95.

It seems strange but is undeniably true that now, less than a decade after Vietnam, responsible American political observers agree that our military forces require strengthening. Although most conclude that this means higher defense spending, a small but growing group now argues that how much we spend on defense is far less important than how it is spent: indeed, this group claims, increased spending will hurt defense if the Pentagon continues to waste money. Among professional politicians this view is most articulately expressed by Senator Gary Hart; among journalists it has found an effective spokesman in James Fallows.

Fallows most recently made a name for himself by writing two acid portraits of President Carter for the Atlantic shortly after he left the Carter staff, where he had served as speechwriter. His new book is “designed to give the general reader better ways of thinking about defense.” It is a clear and forceful exposition of the new school of thinking about defense, but one which also reveals the profound flaws of this approach.

The core of Fallows’s argument concerns the structure and equipment of our conventional forces. The book’s twin assertions are that American forces are deficient because the Pentagon buys excessively complicated and expensive weapons, and because military leaders lack an appreciation of the “intangibles” (a favorite word) of war fighting—they lack “fighting spirit.” In both cases Fallows concentrates on the perverse dynamics of the military establishment. He argues that a “culture of procurement” (rather than, for example, the cupidity of the defense industry) causes the Pentagon to buy wonder weapons that perform perfectly on clean test grounds but fail in the dirt and chaos of the battlefield. Similarly, Fallows criticizes careerism in the officer corps and a host of personnel practices (e.g., rotation of individuals rather than units) that subvert the cohesion of social groups and thereby undermine morale and spirit. In the same vein he denounces the “civilianization of the military,” its reliance on “management” rather than “leadership,” and its substitution of the ethos of business for that of war.

Throughout the book, Fallows makes copious use of articles by and interviews with officers, bureaucrats, and consultants who have long criticized the Pentagon from within. He concludes his analysis with a chapter on “changes”—reforms which, he maintains, would help create psychologically rugged armed forces equipped with cheap but potent weapons.

Only one of seven chapters deals with nuclear weapons, and that in a tentative way. Fallows calls such issues theological, which suggests that they are too abstruse to understand and not really worth the effort. A preliminary chapter makes the case that it may be economically impossible to spend more on defense. How we managed to spend 8.5 percent of our gross national product on defense under Kennedy but cannot afford to spend 6 percent now, Fallows does not explain. He does not have to, really, because, as he makes quite clear, he would advance the same arguments even if there were no economic constraints to be considered.

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Fallows begins his indictment of American military technology with a case-study of the army’s acquisition of the M-16 rifle during the Vietnam conflict. “During those years [1965-69] in which more than 40,000 American soldiers were killed by hostile fire and more than 250,000 wounded, American troops in Vietnam were equipped with a rifle their superiors knew would fail when put to the test.”

Leaving aside the fact that the M-16’s problems were cured by 1968, we see that Fallows has loaded the dice by suggesting that American soldiers died or suffered wounds because their weapons did not work. In fact, however, most American casualties were caused by booby traps, mines, mortar or rocket fire, or the opening bursts of an ambush, and so had nothing to do with weapons carried. Fallows calls the M-16 story “the purest portrayal of the banality of evil in the records of modern American defense.” Being a Harvard graduate and a Rhodes scholar, Fallows undoubtedly knows that he thereby puts those who bought the M-16 in the same category as Adolf Eichmann, and their actions in the same class as those that took place at Buchenwald and Treblinka.

Innuendo aside, the story that Fallows presents is distorted beyond recognition. He has nothing but contempt for what Thomas McNaugher, the most thorough student of the decision to buy the M-16, has called “a notably successful case of weapons innovation.” The M-16 did suffer initial problems, no doubt, but, as McNaugher has pointed out, military innovation, particularly in the field of small arms, is tremendously difficult because of the inevitable constraints caused by technological uncertainty, the military need for logistical simplicity, and the effect of military traditions—in this case the desire for weapons accurate at long ranges—which have something to do with “fighting spirit.”

The way in which Fallows handles the M-16 controversy can be judged from the following typical note concerning the history of the army’s weapons purchases. Fallows records that the army dropped the repeating rifle from its arsenals after the Civil War. “Many of the purchasers were Indians, who used it on their marauding raids—including their attack on George A. Custer at the Little Bighorn. Near the bodies of Custer’s men were found their standard-issue army rifles, the [single-shot] Trap-Door Springfields.” This melodramatic portrait of humble soldiers paying with their lives for the criminal blindness of their superiors should be set against McNaugher’s version of the army’s acquisition policy in those years, which Fallows does not cite:

Many critics attribute the army’s reluctance to adopt a magazine rifle to the Ordnance Department’s hidebound attachment to the army’s rifle tradition. . . . They fail to note the “user’s” role in the process. Troops who line-tested various magazine guns in 1882 uniformly rejected them in favor of their single-shot breechloaders.1

In the rest of the book, rather than denouncing the military for Blimpish attachment to outmoded ideas, Fallows prefers to damn it for being seduced (or occasionally bribed) by the high-technology equivalent of snake-oil salesmen. The result, he tells us, has been a whole series of costly but worthless gadgets. An example is the Tube-launched Optically-tracked Wire-guided antitank missile (TOW), which requires that its operator stay exposed for about ten seconds while homing in on a tank—a requirement that endangers the operator considerably. What Fallows fails to suggest is an alternative—no portable antitank weapons? A return to guns, which are quite as vulnerable if not more so, and less efficient to boot? Invention of “fire-and-forget” missiles—even more expensive than TOW?

In the field of fighter aircraft there is an alternative, Fallows asserts. As in the case of the M-16, he has a villain, the technology-crazed air-force generals who bought the F-15—a large, expensive, multipurpose fighter-bomber—and a hero, or rather two heroes: Pierre Sprey, a dashing young systems analyst, and John Boyd, a grizzled Korean war ace who helped design the F-16, a lightweight fighter plane. (In Fallows’s drama the heroes are robbed of victory because the air force succeeds in adding various gewgaws to the plane.)

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Now, the F-16 under certain circumstances is indeed a better dog-fighter than the F-15, because it is extremely small and maneuverable. But Fallows fails to take seriously the arguments for the F-15. For example, the F-15 with its sophisticated radars is an all-weather aircraft, whereas the F-16 is basically a daylight, fair-weather plane—and one cannot assume that the Soviets will be so gracious as to fight only during the daytime in nice weather. Extremely cheap small fighters are good for only one purpose—dogfights—but suppose an air force must suddenly help contain enemy ground forces? Furthermore, an airplane like the F-15 is necessary not merely to protect one’s own airspace but to win superiority over enemy lines in order to cover other aircraft on bombing missions and the like—and for that it needs more endurance and radars than might a pure dogfighter. Finally, the Israeli air force, for which Fallows has nothing but praise, buys and uses F-15’s—should he not have asked himself why?

There is a case for the F-16—in fact, when combined with the F-15 the result is a very formidable air-combat team indeed. And it is true that the Pentagon sometimes buys needlessly expensive and complicated or downright inferior weapons. But Fallows is preoccupied with matters that have nothing to do with the merits of the case. His aim is to depict a constant struggle between a few doomed but valiant rebel insiders and a horde of bureaucrats who are parochial at best and vicious at worst. And he wishes to condemn all expensive technology. (That which he cannot condemn he ignores—there is only one, dismissive reference to the E-2 and AWACS flying radar command posts, which are both costly and extremely useful.)

Having assailed the armed services for being at once hidebound and spendthrift, Fallows flays them for paying insufficient attention to those intellectual and social-psychological elements which make armies fight intelligently and well. Here criticism is indeed justified. The “civilianizing” and bureaucratizing of the military, the neglect of strategy and the too great reliance on a war-fighting tactics of attrition, the pernicious consequences of excessive rotation of personnel—all come under deserved attack. Fallows invokes Army Chief of Staff General Edward Meyer, James Webb, S.L.A. Marshall, Richard Gabriel, and Edward Luttwak to show that the army (which bears the brunt of his critique) has paid little attention to the cultivation of fighting spirit—the creation of a corps of spirited soldiers led by intelligent warrior officers.

But Fallows again dodges the hard questions. The “fighting spirit” he calls for surely requires the cultivation, and enhancement, of typically male qualities and relationships, yet Fallows is virtually silent on the introduction of women into many units of the armed forces, a development which the apparent logic of his position should lead him to deplore. When he senses a clash between the requirements of “fighting spirit” and his liberal convictions, he simply rejects the implications of his own critique: “Much of the grumbling about today’s army from tough-guy type officers is nothing more than whining about any departure from the days when men were men and dames were dames and civilians knew their place.”

In his discussion of the American army’s reliance on attrition strategies, Fallows is on surer ground, although he underestimates the extent to which attrition was a concept imposed by civilian analysts (who for the most part are dealt with more lightly than their military counterparts) in search of quantifiable measures of tactical success. Responsible experts disagree over the question of whether wheeling maneuvers will be possible in another European war, given the extraordinary density of forces in relation to front—which, after all, was the source of military deadlock in 1914-17. What Fallows does not seem to accept is that clever strategy counts only for so much in dealing with a canny and determined opponent.

A brilliant British officer who served under Orde Wingate in Burma, John Masters, put this point succinctly:

. . . [A]gainst a brave and well-led enemy all war hinges on the ability to destroy the enemy’s main armed forces in pitched battle. . . . The reason for this stark fact is that sooner or later one side will attack something—a city, a port, a supply line, the army itself—which the other side must defend. Civilian leaders have always hated the idea and tried in a thousand ways to find a way around it. But—to take recent history alone—after needless expenditure of blood, time, and treasure they have always had to call on the Grants, Pershings, Fochs, Haigs, Montgomerys, and Slims to do the job. None of these men necessarily did the job in the best possible way; they commanded their nations’ armies because they had a single-minded grasp of the nature of the job itself.

Here, I think, we have the main issue. Fallows and other theorists of a cheaper (but of course better) defense generally avoid facing the reality of war as a hideously costly and unpredictable venture. Rather than accept the notion that war occasionally becomes a grim slugging match, they delude themselves with visions of a knockout early in the second round. When it comes to weapons, rather than tolerating expenditure on a variety, some of which will turn out superbly while others will fail miserably, they hope to find the single, simple cheap solution.

This solution does not exist in weapons any more than it does in tactics. It is no accident that the same British arms industry that produced the Spitfire produced the pitifully slow and undergunned I-tank, as it is no accident that the Israelis who so daringly smashed the Egyptians with deep tank thrusts in 1967 suffered defeats six years later because they practiced too little the more ponderous arts of combined arms operations.

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Fallows is not a kind or even a fair critic. He has made an impressive effort to learn the details of the current defense debate without learning to empathize with most of his interlocutors. In the case of the M-16 and elsewhere he is all too willing to stoop to innuendo and insult. In a self-serving section on “extra-rational” factors in the conduct of the debate over America’s defenses, he makes much of the fact that a number of well-known conservatives have done no military service. So what? In the introduction to this book Fallows tells us that he was a Vietnam draft-dodger: after this confession (if it is such) the message of his ad horninem attacks seems to be that whereas he has overcome his irrational biases (because he flaunts them), others can be dismissed because they have yet to do so.

Fallows wants a strong defense: for what? It transpires that he believes force would be useless in securing oil supplies in the Persian Gulf. Aside from that, all he seems to wish us to prepare for is war in Europe. But even this is concealed by his peculiar claim that defense policy can somehow be discussed separately from foreign policy. In fact, Fallows says that “foreign-policy discussions usually aggravate the worst tendencies in thinking about defense.” To the contrary, it is of prime importance that the discussion be linked, if only so that we may learn when we are asking defense policy to do contradictory or incompatible things—such as preparing for small wars on the Eurasian periphery while also training and organizing for a large conventional war in Europe.

This book has a number of the details right, but the overall argument is wrong, and the depiction of persons and groups is grossly, and sometimes viciously, unfair. Contrary to Fallows’s premises, war is expensive, war is bloody, and war is about politics. No strategic or technological sleight of hand can make it otherwise; neither can such legerdemain make the preparation for war anything but a costly and unpredictable business.


Footnotes

1 “Marksmanship, McNamara, and the M-16 Rifle,” Public Policy, Winter 1980.

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