During the election, both parties had reasons of their own to avoid mentioning one of the most scandalous results of the Iraq War — a dramatic and disturbing plummet in U.S. military readiness. The Republicans were, naturally, not going to draw attention to what has happened to the United States Army, which has ceased nearly all war-related training or large unit exercises, instead converting nearly all of its battalions into glorified urban swat teams. When Bill Clinton left office, all of our brigades were rated fully combat ready. Now, that number is zero — a stunning and terrifyingly perfect reversal, almost as surprising as the fact that it has gone unmentioned in the press.
So, why did the Democrats refuse to raise such a blatant decline in readiness, during the campaign? (I've been hectoring folks about this for four years.) Possibly, it never occurred to many liberals to examine military matters closely enough to notice what's happened. But I don't think it applies at the highest levels. No, a clue is to be found in the retention of Secretary of Defense Gates. His continuing in service under Barack Obama screams verification of something I've long maintained: that there was a quiet revolt of the US Officer Corps, a couple of years ago.
The forced ouster of Donald Rumsfeld from the Pentagon was only a surface manifestation that the public saw. In effect, the Bush-Cheney clade had their hands pried off of the tiller of American defense policy, restoring adult supervision where it mattered most. A further sign of this can be seen wherever the Navy has risen in influence — e.g. Adm. Mike Mullen's elevation to JCS Chairman, or retired Adm. Dennis Blair being appointed National Intelligence Director, or the appointment of former Navy Secretary Richard Danzig to be Gates's understudy and eventual replacement at Defense. All of this is indicative to those who pay attention, since the Navy is the one service that was least damaged and that proved most capable of resisting political pressure across the last eight years.
I predict — it goes beyond a mere suggestion — that the Obama Administration will rapidly zoom in on rebuilding the Army, and military readiness in general. Despite all our economic distractions, the incoming group of adults can see what needs to be done, and urgently.
Now comes the truly pertinent question. As a young John F. Kennedy wrote in Why England Slept, the most dangerous time is after your nation has awakened to a crisis — at the inflection curve. That's when it seems most appropriate to be wary and worried.
Even more important: we must save the Reserves! This deterioration of U.S. military readiness has an aspect that is even more worrisome. After seven years of attrition, our National Guard and reserve units are in very bad shape. It is a problem not only of neglect and mistreatment, but also of design. The men and women who signed up to train for a month each summer, and a dozen weekends a year, were always ready to serve either their communities or the nation, in an emergency — say a natural disaster or sudden armed conflict. What they never expected was for that word 'emergency' to be so abused, nor to be torn away from their careers and families for several deployments stretching longer than a year. (Note: this theme repeats one I posed earlier about another long-suffering group, the members of the U.S. Civil Service.) Repairing the damage that's been done to America's reserves will take more than time and money.
In order to restore a sense of trust, serious attention should be given to the inherent difference between two kinds of war. To use medical terminology, an 'acute' crisis is a bona fide emergency, when the nation must call up whatever resources it can, in order to confront a surprise threat. The events of 9/11 certainly seemed to qualify. However, there is no such thing as a legitimate seven-year 'acute crisis.' Over longer time scales, words like 'crisis' become crutches, or even excuses for corruption.
When a serious situation shifts from acute to chronic, we have no business using up and draining reserves. (Which would be like running up repeated deficits in good times, leaving nothing to spend during economic hardship. And who would do that?)
The key point: if it seems that some long term situation or commitment will require a larger Army, we should go ahead and build it! This especially applies to all non-emergency wars of national policy, no matter how well-justified they may be. (The medical equivalent is 'elective surgery.') Unlike many others, I believe that such wars can be justified — under a stiff burden of proof. But they should never again be driven by a trumped-up sense of crisis.
The Obama Administration should make clear that it understands this distinction, even if its predecessors didn't. The brave and dedicated men and women of the reserves need to be assured they'll never again be treated this way.
James Fallows, a columnist for The Atlantic whom I have long respected and cited, recently commented on a theme that I've oft-reiterated — that we should shift a bit of our managerial emphasis away from obsessive professionalism and efficiency, back toward equally valuable but long neglected traits like resiliency and local self-reliance. He mentions the same brittleness trap that I did — just-in-time industrial practices. Moreover, alerted by a mutual fan, Fallows kindly mentioned my overlapping interest.
Copyright © 2009 by David Brin. All rights reserved.
"Restore Military Readiness" (published in full here) was one of a series of 21 "Unusual Suggestions" Brin posted following the election of 2008, when it seemed that everybody — columnists, political sages, bloggers and citizens — wrote missives about "what I'd do if I were president."
David Brin, "Betraying America's State of Readiness"
David Brin, "The Bug in 'Just-in-Time' Economics"
David Brin, Repair the U.S. Civil Service
James Fallows, "Pensée dept: followup on the 'no buffer, no resiliency' economy"
John F. Kennedy, Why England Slept (book)
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