Commentary Magazine

Military Reform

To the Editor:

What a disappointment it was to read Alvin H. Bernstein’s review of America Can Win by Gary Hart and William S. Lind [Books in Review, October 1986]. There is a case to be made against some of Senator Hart’s ideas for Pentagon reform, but Mr. Bernstein, despite obvious knowledge and a serious mind, does not make it.

The review, in fact, seems more of an attempt to dismiss the book than refute it. Mr. Bernstein regularly misstates what Lind and Hart have written—always in a way calculated to make the authors appear silly.

Mr. Bernstein writes, “Hart and Lind foresee a scenario in which war breaks out in the Persian Gulf” between “one of our (unnamed) regional allies” and the Soviets, who are “no longer frightened by our nuclear arsenal”; the crisis escalates, and eventually we “begin pushing nuclear buttons.” Well, not exactly. The section of the book to which Mr. Bernstein refers is merely posing a hypothetical case, not predicting or “foreseeing” such an event. Does Mr. Bernstein think this scenario, which he words in such a flippant way, completely implausible?

The pattern continues. Mr. Bernstein: “As the authors see it, . . . the Army misguidedly plans to fight a war of attrition.” Actually, the Army has changed those plans, a development the authors note. Here is what page xi of Hart’s introduction says: “In 1982, the Army sponsored a major conference on military reform at West Point. . . . That year the Army also adopted maneuver warfare as its doctrine.”

In discussing other ideas presented by Hart and Lind, Mr. Bernstein writes: “Some of their prescriptions are old-hat, as when they insist on the need for unit cohesion.” Well, so what? A lot of good ideas are old-hat.

Mr. Bernstein comments as follows on the book’s call for a reformed mode of troop training and military thinking: “What, then, is their solution? Astonishingly, it is brainwashing.” But the quotation Mr. Bernstein adduces hardly supports his use of the loaded word “brainwashing.” All Hart and Lind propose is to imitate what a number of private companies have done to inculcate a sense of camaraderie and an understanding of common external goals.

Mr. Bernstein goes on to describe their proposal as “odious” and “alien,” involving an “absurd utopia.” Now, really. These ideas are already in practice, and at a number of factories in the United States. From Western auto plants to China, the whole world, as Jack Kemp noted in a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, seems to be moving toward a less bureaucratic, more freewheeling, goal-oriented mode of organization—the whole world, that is, except our Pentagon.

Mr. Bernstein might have said that such reshuffling, while a good thing, is likely to achieve only limited results. Or he might have pointed out that while chastising the bureaucratic nature of the Pentagon, Hart and others have often contributed to it—creating new central bureaucracies, stretching out the procurement of vital weapons, micromanaging everything from bombers to toilet seats, and favoring pork-barrel projects for their home districts. . . Instead, Mr. Bernstein heaps scorn on a rather modest idea.

Mr. Bernstein avers that the Soviets are “cutting submarine production” but cites no evidence for this assertion. There are many who believe the Soviets are not cutting submarine production. And even if Soviet production were slowing, this hardly refutes (as it seems designed to) Hart’s arguments about the Soviet submarine threat. The Soviets now enjoy an advantage of three to one in attack submarines without further production. And their Navy has a more modest mission: the Soviet Union need only interrupt or frustrate free navigation to thwart our strategy of re-supplying Europe.

Mr. Bernstein’s central complaint, when you come right down to it, is that he wanted Gary Hart to write a book not on how to make our military more effective, but on where to send it. “Gary Hart has no strategy,” Mr. Bernstein thumps. Actually, Gary Hart has what seems to be a clear strategy. He would use force almost nowhere—at least, nowhere where there has been a conflict in recent years (Grenada, Nicaragua, Angola, Mozambique, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Berlin, Lebanon, El Salvador, Afghanistan, Iran, Syria, and elsewhere). He might send aid to some resistance movements, albeit in amounts too small for them to prevail. And he might fight for Europe, though in the meantime he would reduce U.S. troop levels there. Hart believes we will have more influence by limiting our involvement to the fighting of poverty and the conduct of negotiations with the Soviet bloc.

To me, this strategy is bad, but it is on the record for anyone to criticize. Just read Hart’s 1978 White Paper on defense, or any of dozens of speeches since. Outlining strategy, however, is not the purpose of this particular book, as Hart and Lind explicitly state: “Military reform does not seek to define a new national or military strategy.” We may as well fault Hart for not proposing an educational-voucher system, or a way to make Social Security solvent. . . .

Mr. Bernstein writes that “the authors claim that the tactical and operational are what really matter.” They don’t say that, though. They just argue that discussion of effectiveness can take place while holding in abeyance strategic issues which, they admit, are also relevant.

To attempt to settle strategic questions prior to a discussion of tactics, as Mr. Bernstein seems to demand, would be just as arbitrary as to do the opposite. As the authors write: “Of course we need a sound, clear strategy . . . but most of the issues that affect whether or not our forces can win in combat on the tactical and operational levels”—note the limited context—“must be independent of strategy, because strategy is likely to change more rapidly than we can change our policies and practices in those other areas.” Whether or not one agrees—it seems to me our strategy has been rather too slow to change in areas like strategic deterrence policy and the defense of Europe—it is not fair to suggest that Hart and Lind have swept aside strategy a priori as a matter of secondary importance.

Remember: Mr. Bernstein characterizes Hart and Lind not just as wrong, or mistaken, but as showing “a stunning lack of understanding” at best, or, at worst, as “willfully misrepresenting” others. Well, here’s a misrepresentation. Mr. Bernstein: “[Hart and Lind] irresponsibly insinuate that the way to deal with the Soviets in Europe is through a surprise attack.” I have read the book carefully and find no such insinuation. I do find clear and explicit statements that NATO should adopt a strategy of rapid counterattack should the Soviets ever launch a strike against our allies. They call, in other words, for a truly active defense—but one not based on attrition—similar in some ways to that advocated by President Reagan in his SDI program, or by Navy Secretary John Lehman in his plans to bottle up the Soviet Navy in its home ports.

To describe these doctrines as a “surprise attack” is, to me, to make debate more difficult. And that is the likely impact of Mr. Bernstein’s review of a challenging, well-written case for military reform, America Can Win.

Gregory A. Fossedal
Hoover Institution
Stanford, California



Alvin H. Bernstein writes:

  1. Do I find completely implausible the idea that an American administration would initiate a nuclear war in the Persian Gulf on behalf of some anonymous Persian Gulf ally? Yes, indeed I do.
  2. Hart/Lind write that our defense problems cannot be solved “solely through the reforms discussed previously in this book.” In the model they admire, the institution makes “a great effort to get its employees at every level to adopt . . . [its] external goals and purposes as their personal goals and values [emphasis in the original]. These goals and purposes are constantly inculcated [emphasis added] in everything the organization does, from starting the workday by singing the company song, through uniforms, . . .” etc. Mr. Fossedal does not think this amounts to brainwashing. I do.
  3. For evidence that the Soviets are planning to decrease the number and increase the quality of their submarine force, I refer Mr. Fossedal to the relevant sections of James L. George’s new collection of essays, The Soviet and Other Communist Navies: The View from the Mid-1980’s (Naval Institute Press, 1986).
  4. It should be self-evident why strategy must drive operations. The military performs the operations for which it prepares and cannot be expected to adapt at the wave of a wand to conditions unanticipated in its planning and training. That is why it is absurd to talk about military effectiveness outside the context that a national strategy establishes. In Vietnam, an army designed to be effective against the Soviets in Europe was set down in the jungles to fight guerrillas and special-operations forces. Because of the way it had been trained, equipped, and taught to think about combat, it developed tactics that could not produce victory. Mr. Fossedal should read Andrew Krepinevich’s recent study, The Army in Vietnam (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986).
  5. The two examples of maneuver warfare that Hart/Lind produce for their readers are Germany’s invasion of France in 1940 and Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982, both surprise attacks. How would such tactics work for NATO in Europe against the forces of the Soviet Union?

Mr. Fossedal admits that he does not object to clichés; he does not seem to mind slogans and catchwords, either.



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