Washington's Biggest Scandal
The biggest Washington scandal by far has nothing to do with Arkansas real estate, is not being investigated by either Congress or a special prosecutor, and has made no headlines at all. In fact, the media have utterly failed to uncover the story even though hundreds of present and past government officials and military officers know all about it, as do some of the more attentive members of Congress. The scandal in question is nothing less than the collapse of civilian control over the military policies and military strategy of the United States.
Without even the need of a coup d’état, the power of decision that our civilian President is supposed to exercise through his appointed civilian officials has been seized by an all-military outfit that most Americans have never even heard of: the mixed Army-Navy-Marine-Air Force “Joint Staff” that serves the chairman and vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
It was not ever thus. On the contrary: in the days of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, it was civilian officials who notoriously interfered with purely military decisions, beginning in a small way with Kennedy’s second-guessing of the U.S. Army’s choice of jungle boots, and ending with Johnson’s insistence that his own civilian aides of no known aerial expertise should decide just how many bombs of what exact type might be dropped at which end of what particular bridge in Vietnam. Air crews were killed or captured and cruelly imprisoned because of those decisions, which routinely disregarded the views of both expert air staffs and commanders on the spot.
In this as in other matters, it was Johnson’s destiny to systematize what Kennedy had toyed with, for good or ill. It was so with civil rights, and it was so with military policy. Much interested in “guerrilla war” as he imagined it from the books he had read (all about derring-do in the jungle, rather than the invisible subversion of villages and towns by terror), Kennedy started interfering early on, to support his beloved Special Forces against the military hierarchy he regarded as incurably conventional.
As against Kennedy’s vision of Special Forces teams outfoxing the Vietcong in jungle combat, and winning the loyalty of contested villages by field medicine and pep talks, the generals could not overlook either the essential primacy of the cold war in U.S. global strategy, or the decisive role of terror in Vietnam itself.
The demands of the cold war meant that the U.S. Army and Marine Corps had to remain structured to fight a conventional war in Europe, and could not therefore be turned into an Asian constabulary to protect the 20,000 villages of Vietnam. Terror meant that it was no use winning over villages, because they could not be protected forever after.
The reason terror guaranteed the failure of the Special Forces, and of the entire “hearts-and-minds” strategy, is best explained by Marlon Brando at the very end of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, just about when the average viewer has had enough of the fat man’s monologue and starts rewinding the tape. The bit about the Vietcong so possessed by the pure diamond-hard force of ideology that they cut off the arms of villagers who had allowed themselves to be vaccinated by U.S. medics may have been apocryphal, but it was certainly of no use to make nice to villagers who would soon be tortured and killed if they cast their lot with passing Americans.
Before Kennedy had the opportunity to discover his basic error in Vietnam, the Cuban missile crisis intervened to reinforce his contempt for professional military expertise. Having learned that in the nuclear age even the most detailed tactical decisions could have awesome strategic consequences (should Soviet blockade-runners be sunk after a classic over-the-bow warning shot, or could shots be accurately aimed to disable their rudders?), Kennedy and, long after him, Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara misapplied that lesson to non-nuclear combat in Vietnam. The result was the displacement of military judgment and the operational art of war by typical business-school numerical indices of success, of which the “body count” was only the most notorious.
War being the domain of paradox and contradiction, it was not only that McNamara’s numbers were not right—they were not even wrong (to borrow I.I. Rabi’s classic formulation). When a village was counted as secure because its chief could sleep at home, it could indeed be secure—or else the chief himself could be Vietcong, and the numbers would never show the difference. Soon enough, everyone knew that the numbers were worthless, but from generals down to privates, U.S. troops were still forced to participate in the farcical record-keeping that added one more frustration to the bewildering landscape of futility that was Vietnam.
Given the twin American refusals either to invade the North or directly govern the South, defeat was in any case assured. But McNamara’s attempt to fight the Vietnam war by statistical remote-control from his desk, along with the absurd micromanagement of the bombing direct from Lyndon Johnson’s White House, gratuitously demoralized the officer corps, which already furiously resented the antiwar movement at home.
With the civilian chiefs themselves having turned civilian control into a sinister parody of their constitutional prerogatives, the smart set of younger officers, typically battalion commanders (as Colin Powell then was), thought long and hard to find remedies. Several of these remedies were eventually employed with great success during the Gulf war. To have no media around except under very firm control, and to brief civilian chiefs on war plans only after they had been worked out in too much detail to be changed, were only the most elementary countermeasures.
Much more sophisticated was the remedy for the civilian proclivity to limit strategic risks by only committing forces bit by bit, and for the presidential tendency to limit political risk by fighting wars without declaring them and without mobilizing the country. The former made combat more dangerous, the latter undermined public support for the armed forces, leaving them to fight on their own, morally isolated from a society still at peace. Both tendencies were neatly preempted by transferring virtually all logistic support forces to the reserves, forcing their mobilization for any combat to speak of, and by designing carefully interlocked expeditionary “packages” that could not be taken apart without losing much of their combat power.
In the period leading up to the Gulf war, civilian-defense officials knew in a general way what was going on, but they wrongly believed that these were merely procedural steps, examples of the administrative tinkering that diverts overstaffed military headquarters in peacetime. When, however, President Bush ordered a military deployment to Saudi Arabia in August 1990, it turned out that combat and support forces, active and reserve forces, were so wedged into each other that he could either send 200,000-odd or practically nobody. It also emerged that he had to call out the reserves from the very start, giving him no choice but fully to engage the country along with the armed forces.
Much had happened by then to make such bureaucratic contrivances by the Pentagon feasible, and to make them stick. One agency of the military resurgence from the nadir of Vietnam was a revulsion against the excesses of the antiwar movement, whose basic contention was tragically contradicted by all those boats full of misery that kept fleeing from the Communist peace. Another was the advent of the anti-antiwar Reagan administration, many of whose officials were not merely respectful toward the military and their views but positively deferential, and whose budgets financed the largest military build-up since the Korean war. After long years of severe economies since the early 1970’s, the sudden abundance of money after 1981 naturally raised the morale of the armed forces, and it enormously enhanced the self-esteem of the officer corps.
The fat Reagan budgets also had a side effect that indirectly reduced civilian control: with all services and branches so generously funded, they were much less inclined to fight one another for money, allowing that much less opportunity for civilian officials to referee military quarrels, imposing their own authority in the process.
In the end, however, it was not the blind force of the tides of opinion, nor a deliberate choice by the Reagan administration, that drastically diminished civilian control, inaugurating the reign of the Joint Staff. In a prime example of the law of unintended consequences, it was a major piece of legislation, the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1987, that did the deed.
Vehemently supported by most of the self-described “military reformers,”1 the Act provided, for the disease of interservice rivalry, the cure of a powerful Joint Staff and a chairman raised above the service Chiefs of Staff. Legislated in the wake of combat debacles caused by the uneasy cooperation of ever-competing services that gave us Jimmy Carter’s Iran rescue attempt, with its Navy helicopters, Marine pilots, Army commandos, and Air Force transports that nobody could truly coordinate, the Great Pentagon Reform has since shown us that the only thing worse than interservice rivalry is interservice harmony.
By the time Goldwater-Nichols was passed, civilian control had already been eroding, and though the Act certainly furthered the process, it was not fully consummated until the accession of General Colin Powell to the position of chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1989. And it was not until the election of Bill Clinton as President in 1992 that the degree to which the civil-military balance had changed became fully visible. Whether the issue was military service for homosexuals, post-Soviet budget levels, or military action in ex-Yugoslavia, Powell overruled the newly inaugurated Clinton with contemptuous ease.2
Powell has now been replaced by General John Shalikashvili, who does not share his predecessor’s delight in outmaneuvering Presidents, but the power of the Joint Staff persists undiminished, at the expense of the civilians of the office of the Secretary of Defense. To be sure, we are not yet as Latin America once was, and the Joint Staff will not resist a direct order from the Secretary of Defense. But it is one thing to ban indoor smoking by royal command, quite another to obtain responsive staff work in all necessary detail from a military bureaucracy determined to have its own way.
Thus, for example, civilian Pentagon officials distressed by the massacres in ex-Yugoslavia ask for specific military options only to be ignored, and are then ridiculed as irresponsible armchair warriors if they persist. Presidential appointees concerned by what might happen if Kim Il Sung of North Korea decides to attack after all are not even allowed to examine the contingency war plans for the defense of South Korea—a privilege restricted by the Joint Staff to a small “cell” of selected officials.
But the everyday business of the Pentagon is dollars-and-cents “force-planning”—i.e., force-buying—rather than blood-and-iron war-planning, which anyway mostly belongs to the geographic commands for Europe, the Pacific, Latin America, and the Middle East. And it is precisely over roughly $260 billion worth of force-buying decisions that the Joint Staff now has a monopoly franchise as Washington’s only official source of multiservice military expertise.
How the Joint Staff exercises that franchise can be seen from the way it conditioned the much publicized “Bottom-Up Review” launched by Clinton’s first Secretary of Defense, Les Aspin (who has since been replaced by William Perry). Charged to define an all-new military structure for the post-cold-war era, the Joint Staff duly cogitated and calculated and coordinated—only to come up in the end with much the same old mix of ground, air, and naval forces as before. Itself manned by fixed ratios of Army, Navy, Marine, and Air Force officers at each hierarchical level, the Joint Staff predictably obeyed the logic of its own composition by resisting any genuine reappraisal of the mix of U.S. military forces. Yet that had been the key aim of the Bottom-Up Review.
At a time when defense spending has fallen below 5 percent of the GNP (it was 12 percent at the height of the cold war in the early 1960’s), the country can certainly afford what the Joint Staff wants. But what the Joint Staff wants does not meet either old or new security needs that happen not to correspond to traditional service preferences—needs as broad as low-casualty or noncasualty forms of aerial and robotic military strength for keeping the peace in a world increasingly disordered, and as narrow as penetrating weapons for use against underground nuclear-weapons facilities.
In the past, a Secretary of Defense might have overruled the Joint Staff, or he might have turned to his own civilian analysts to come up with alternatives that would reflect the oceanic transformations of recent years. But in our day there was no chance that any genuine alternatives for the established array of forces would even be examined, let alone seriously evaluated. As of now, therefore, the Clinton administration is committed to finding the money to pay for a fiscal-year 1999 military structure that looks very much like the one we already have, except for piecemeal reductions all around.
Soviet naval power is now a historical memory, the navy of the Russian federation is rapidly melting down, none of the plausible “threat countries” (Iran, North Korea, maybe Iraq) has anything larger than a smallish destroyer. Yet the U.S. Navy is to retain 346 warships, including twelve of the thirteen aircraft carriers it now has.
The Soviet army is no longer poised against NATO’s front line, indeed there no longer is a NATO front line, and, more to the point, American society refuses to accept the casualties of peace-enforcement with U.S. ground troops. Yet the U.S. Army is to retain ten out of its fourteen active divisions—and all of them expensively kept at high states of readiness for instant deployment.
On the other hand, Air Force tactical fighter wings (with 72 aircraft each), both active and reserve, are to go down from 28 to 20. Yet the air power of all services is the most usable military instrument we have, because it risks the fewest casualties. The U.S. Marine Corps, by contrast, is to keep 174,000 out of its current active-duty strength of 182,000, a truly trivial reduction, even though as a predominantly infantry force it is especially constrained by the fear of casualties, while its costly amphibious vocation has become very dubious indeed—Inchon was its last combat landing, in 1950.
This miracle of continuity has been achieved by an intellectual construct of fine bureaucratic artistry. First, an overall force was designed that would enable the United States to replicate the Gulf war—not the war that was actually fought, a mix of 90-percent bombing and 10-percent ground combat, but the war that was supposed to have been fought, complete with the Marine landing that had to be canceled because of Iraqi sea mines, the vast fleets that filled the Persian Gulf to no purpose in the absence of Iraqi warships, and the two army corps elaborately supplied for the march on Baghdad that was very soon called off.
The Joint Staff might have paused to reflect that a Gulf War II would very likely resemble the real Gulf war, for the very good reason that precision air attack is now a routine accomplishment rather than a rare virtuoso performance. But to do that would have greatly favored the Air Force, violating the iron logic of the Joint Staff’s balanced composition. So the array of forces it came up with to win a “major regional conflict” was duly balanced: eight active and six reserve Army divisions; eight Navy aircraft-carrier battle groups with cruisers and destroyers in attendance; five active Marine brigades and one reserve division; and ten active and six reserve fighter wings.
Notice the neat sleight-of-hand right from the start: evoke the Gulf war so recently fought for realism, quietly replace it with the planned war that was never fought, and then base the required forces on the latter rather than on the former.
But now another problem arose, in the form of the major cuts that would result from this “one-war” force. To avert the danger of being stiffed with its own scenario, the Joint Staff came up with its next bit of artifice. With seeming plausibility, it argued that if U.S. forces were sent off to fight a major regional war somewhere, that would be the perfect opportunity for another aggressor to attack elsewhere. A one-war force would therefore practically invite a second war, launched in the knowledge that the U.S. military was already fully committed.
In a world which contained ten or twenty potential aggressors of respectable strength, all of them poised to attack countries that we were actually inclined to defend—unlike Bosnia or Moldavia, for example—that would be a perfectly sound bit of strategic thinking. As it is, with only Iran and North Korea as bona-fide threats of any importance, the argument is paper thin to begin with, and in any case politically unrealistic to an extreme degree. It is not by accident that North Korea remained on its best behavior when most of the deployable U.S. forces were in the sands of Saudi Arabia, irremediably tied down by “Desert Shield.” For what invites aggression is not action but inaction, as in Bosnia for so long. Faced by a United States demonstrably willing to fight a major regional conflict somewhere, that hard-to-find second potential aggressor of the scenario writers is much more likely to be dissuaded than encouraged. Which is to say that an American President who orders U.S. forces into combat is a powerful deterrent in himself.
As for having any forces to fight with once a “major regional conflict” is under way, that is what the reserves are for, in addition to the leftover active forces. Still, it is undeniably prudent to keep some extra forces to contain a second aggressor while winning a major regional war. This “win-plus-hold” scenario called for two more active Army divisions, two more Navy carrier battle groups, and four more fighter wings.
With those forces added to the total, the Clinton administration could still have saved a bit of money, even if the Pentagon’s research-and-development budget were also kept in funds. But it was not to be. The next move of the Joint Staff was to condemn the win-plus-hold scenario as shamefully inadequate, wheeling in what were said to be Korean and Japanese complaints to make the case, on the assumption that it is in Korea that the United States would “hold” while winning a war elsewhere.
The South Koreans do not normally barge in to protest the interim results of Pentagon staff studies in progress, so it is more than likely that their objection was deliberately elicited, if it was voiced at all. But even if it was voiced, why should it have been treated with such deference? That North Korea is a fierce, heavily armed enemy in spite of a crumbling economy is not in doubt, but neither is the South Korean refusal to spend its own money to defend itself in the manner of other threatened countries: as against Israel’s 10-12 percent of its gross national product, and our own 5-percent-plus, South Korea has not reached 4 percent in recent years. It seems that the North Korean threat is more treasured by Pentagon military planners than feared by South Korean economic planners.
As for the supposed Japanese complaint, it is deliriously implausible. Unwilling as they are to increase their own military spending above 1 percent of their gross national product (for good reason, given Asian fears of their military potential), the Japanese never complain that they are poorly defended, to forestall the obvious rejoinder that they should do more for themselves.
However contrived and implausible, the Korean and Japanese “objections” were the crucial step in the reasoning that yielded the final “win-two-nearly-simultaneous-major-regional-wars” scenario.
In short, in a world bereft of the Soviet threat, the Joint Staff planners had ingeniously succeeded in justifying the array of forces they had wanted all along—forces of imposing size and (a key priority) of balanced composition as among services and branches. For when military staffs are left to decide which kinds of forces should be kept for the future, their choices almost inevitably reflect the service and branch origins of their members; and because staffing ratios among the different services and branches just as inevitably reflect the combat needs and glories of prior wars, the past becomes prologue. How else did the horse cavalry survive into the 1930’s, long after the advent of barbed wire and machine guns?
Even then, one more bureaucratic maneuver remained, of such true elegance that it will long continue to evoke the admiration of aficionados. The two-war scenario was actually crafted to require a force significantly larger than the one finally planned for fiscal year 1999, with 20 instead of 15 Army divisions, 12 complete carrier battle groups instead of 11, and 24 instead of 20 fighter wings.
How could the planners have thus ignored their own supposedly compelling calculations to accept less? In a one-step-back, two-steps-forward minuet, the Joint Staff first demanded the larger force, and then graciously conceded that the United States could perhaps survive with a little less—if, that is, a great deal of additional money were first spent on a long list of “critical force enhancements.”
Contrary to what one might presume, this was not a clever way of asking for innovative equipment—minesweepers; nonlethal weapons for peacekeeping; remotely-piloted vehicles; target-specialized missiles and bombs; robotic sentries; etc.—now underfunded because it does not conform to the classic service preferences. Nor was it a way of getting more strategic air power of global reach, as opposed to the Army’s beloved tanks, the Navy’s carriers, and the Air Force’s fighters. Instead of any of that, the list of “enhancements” is a typical Joint Staff product that reflects its predominantly ground-force composition: more Army equipment prepositioned overseas; Army National Guard combat readiness; improved support-force readiness for the Army Guard and reserve; improved anti-armor weapons; and even more Marines than Bush had planned to keep, as well as added airlift and sealift, and improved command and control.
This egregious list having been accepted by the Pentagon’s civilians, the Clinton administration is now committed to pay not only for the Bottom-Up-Review force but also for the extras, which include such beauties as two brigades’ worth of Army equipment to be kept in Korea, a country that could easily pay for that and much more. All this is now in the Defense Department budget request for 1995 sent to Congress by President Clinton in February.
Strategy is choice, and we ought to be making fundamentally new military choices to fit a world greatly transformed. But it seems that the United States is now suffering from an Acquired Strategic Deficiency Syndrome, caused by the Joint Staff virus of interservice harmony at all costs.
The officers of the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force—the impressively competent, routinely brave, yet reassuringly human protagonists of the Gulf war whom we met through CNN—do not mutate into budget-devouring bureaucratic monsters as soon as they are posted to the Joint Staff. But as we all know, Organization Man is only distantly related to homo sapiens, and will routinely do all sorts of things that he disapproves of as an individual human being.
Because we do need a unified brain for the different services, we cannot simply disband the Joint Staff. Nor should we seek to weaken it, thereby assuring greater civilian control only at the expense of being left with less effective planners. The only true remedy is to keep a very strong Joint Staff, but to balance it with the counterweight of equally assertive civilian leadership.
But that, of course, is now the problem, because, of all his different roles, Bill Clinton is least persuasive as our Commander-in-Chief. Elected in spite of having artfully evaded military service in a time of war, after a campaign in which he said as little as possible about the national defense other than the fact that he was for it, Clinton scarcely has a mandate to reform the Pentagon. The chances are, then, that he will be unable to reassert civilian control, and that this particularly perverse legacy of Vietnam will continue to deform our Constitution and incapacitate us in dealing with the post-cold-war world.
1 Very much including the present writer. Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa, Goldwater-Nichols was supposedly inspired in some part by my own book, The Pentagon and the Art of War, and I certainly testified for it before congressional committees, ignoring the sober warnings of my elders and betters.
2 In reaction to early suggestions that Serbian artillery in Bosnia might be silenced by the threat of air strikes—the very policy finally adopted a year later, after many tragedies, after he had gone—Powell kept a photograph of well-camouflaged Serbian gun positions in his office, which he would show to visitors in order to ridicule the military ignorance of those who advocated the use of air power, including Clinton, of course. It was typical of this most manipulative of generals that Powell carefully avoided explaining the difference between a one-time air attack, which can indeed fail completely because of enemy camouflage or merely bad weather, and sustained reconnaissance-and-strike patrols over many days and weeks, which would certainly spot and destroy enough artillery pieces over time to stop the bombardment of Bosnian cities.