Learning from History 

9/13/2013 12:00 AM 


               As I read pronouncements about the reshaping of our military forces, I have visions of a college professor projecting the following statement on to a white board and asking the students when it was written - “As in the past, it had been argued, and people believed it, as many do now, that there was no further danger of war.  Pacifism was predominant.  As the national debt had grown, partly as a result of pensions, retrenchment had been the political cry of both parties, and appropriations for defense had been constantly reduced.  The people throughout the country were almost exclusively occupied with their own personal affairs to the neglect of such considerations.  Nobody listened to those who realized the wisdom of maintaining an adequate army and advocated it.” 

                I suspect after multiple incorrect answers, the professor would announce that GEN John J. Pershing had written those words about the state of the nation in 1898!  More than one hundred years ago, the siren song of compensation cuts and reductions in defense manpower was luring the unsuspecting on to the shoals of unpreparedness for future conflict.

                When I saw recent remarks by a senior Department of Defense (DoD) official concerning the defense budget, the melody and lyrics of the 1943 hit song by Harry James and Helen Forrest came to mind – “It seems to me I’ve heard this song before”.   You see, Pershing’s reflection regarding post-Civil War defense policies highlights a trend that began just after the American Revolution, and seems to continue as a driver of contemporary decisions.   The cycle of readiness and capability juxtaposed with degraded readiness and limited abilities repeats itself in a predictable way driven by a quest to reduce spending without a conceptual framework – cuts and reductions with little relationship to reality or logical predictions about future defense requirements.

               Yet I find it particularly distressing to note that the official suggested DoD would go after military compensation aggressively.  Not only does he suggest an “aggressive” campaign directed at serving troops, but in doing so suggests to me that those who have borne the burdens of three wars are the target because by inference they are causing our fiscal problems.   DoD is going after the compensation of our most valuable weapon – the one that does not break, does not wear out, does not become obsolete, just keeps on going sometime in the face of overwhelming odds often at the cost of life or limb – DoD is going after our troops’ compensation – aggressively – after twelve years of war!

               The DoD official also said that another way to meet budget targets is to reduce manpower.  While that might save money, what would be the cost in blood?   Sadly, after almost every post-war “peace dividend” or response to “bring the boys home” cries, the ultimate result was enormous loss of life and blood in the next conflict.   

                Let’s look back in history.  After World War I manpower plummeted because there were to be no more wars.  So when World War II began it took four years to build a well-trained fighting force and another year for it to prevail.  Troop levels plummeted again and then the Korean War came, and again an inadequate force paid for the post-war peace dividend in blood.  The cycle has continued to repeat – atrophied fighting forces announcing to potential enemies that our land forces are too small, so now is the time to attack our national interests.  

                In order to have a military force that is unparalleled and unchallenged, it must be large enough to deter potential enemies, and it must be manned with personnel who are properly compensated for the rigors of a profession that is unlike any other and brings with it enormous stressors both for the personnel and their families.  While our enemies grow stronger, we must not go down the road of false savings that leave defense forces too small and too weak.  The cost of rebuilding a defense force after a crisis occurs is far greater in dollars and blood than simply maintaining it.

                 This time let us not repeat history.  Let us maintain our best weapon – our fighting men and women – at a manpower level and compensation level that will keep us from repeating the past when inevitably the next war comes.