The Need for Prudent Rebuilding

Feb. 1, 1981
The emerging battle over the MX is going to be a fierce one, judging from the sounds coming out of Utah and Nevada, the chosen lands for the 200 missiles and their 4,600 silos. Neighboring states have also begun to worry aloud about the effect MX deployment will have on water, ecology, and lifestyle of the Rocky Mountain region in general. However the battle comes out, it seems certain to occupy a considerable amount of the Reagan Administration’s attention in the next several months.

There is, for instance, the multi-volume, $16 million environmental impact statement that must presumably be addressed. Then there will be the advocates for various alternatives to a land-based MX. They have been heard from before, but not by the folk now occupying the Pentagon’s E Ring. Then again, with Salt II no longer a determining factor, maybe the new Administration will finesse the whole argument by adopting a shell-game approach around existing Minuteman sites. Whatever the final decision, we can look forward to a spirited debate, one that will tend to overshadow other important, if comparatively mundane, matters.

Not to play a broken record interminably, but the general state of readiness, esprit, and well-being of our volunteer regular forces is one of the matters that may be put in the shadows. It would be nothing new. For a good many years now, these problems of readiness and morale have been treated as abstract ones, not to be approached either too closely or in too much detail.

Instead, we have been comforted with platitudes, attributed to one senior official or other, about the high quality of our volunteer force, despite disquiet reports from senior noncoms and officers not governed by the party line. The reassuring claims of readiness and competence are also at odds with the occasional items—failed operational readiness inspections, ships unable to said, tank gunners who cannot shoot straight—that come from public view.

Part of the solution in this readiness problem—an essential part—lies in the time-honored American custom of throwing money at it. If the new budget shows a substantial increase in operating and maintenance funds along with a generous new pay package, then we will have made a start back up the hill. There is, however, more to the solution than that.

In looking back of the years since the United States ventured into the world at large as a great power, which is to say since 1941, it is clear we have had our military ups and downs. The time just before Pearl Harbor was one of the downs as soldiers maneuvered with wooden guns, pilots took turns flying the squadron’s two or three airplanes, and the graffiti slogan OHIO—“over the hill in October”—was a familiar ornament on military walls.

The demoralizing tragedy of Bataan and Corregidor was following in a remarkably short time by some upbeat years, years in which the American fighting man was a pretty glamorous figure. V-J Day saw us forget everything we had learned in 1941 about the dangers of unpreparedness. The demobilization was both disorderly and complete. Besides, we had the atomic bomb, so what need was there for the dreary business of military preparedness in the traditional sense?

Korea caught us flat-footed, our occupation troops almost driven into the sea before they rallied, as the years of false peace along with Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson’s budget meat ax had done their work. The early fighting in Korea, like Wellington’s description of Waterloo, was a near run thing. We were strategically powerful but militarily weak. There are disturbing similarities to the present.

The solution to military strength is a complex one, and it involves far more than money. Some units fight well in combat and some do not, even though they all get the same pay. The difference invariably lies with intangibles like leadership and esprit.

The past decade has seen the military as a laboratory for sociological experiments and managerial innovations. Some have been successful, some have been disasters, but that is not the point. The trend has been steadily away from the age-old verities that contributed to morale, verities like unit pride and tough discipline, and toward a faceless corporate image of efficiency.

Our new President is right to worry about the strategic balance. We can all hope the MX fight is not a prolonged one. Ecological arguments notwithstanding, there are far bigger matters at stake on that one. But President Reagan will also be on the right track if he tells his military chiefs he is worried about the state of readiness and morale in the volunteer force and, what is more, he wants to know what is needed to improve matters. Whatever it is, the answer will not be found in a computer.