Supporters may tell you that my prose has gotten better but at some cost, kind of like the leap from the F-86 Sabre to the F-35 Lightning II.
Detractors will say my writings remind them of the film Groundhog Day (1993), where Bill Murray is doomed to repeat the identical experience from each day to the next. This metaphor, by the way, is often used by American troops to apply to their repetitive lives on the battlefield in Afghanistan.
Most of my writing is factual. Some is opinion. In most of it, there’s no “I,” so please forgive me for making an exception this time. I’d like to share a few observations.
In my lifetime we’ve changed from a nation that goes to war reluctantly to one whose institutions appear to need to be fueled by constant conflict. We’ve changed from the citizen-soldier to the warrior ethos. And we’ve done it without having a national conversation about it.
A Reluctant Nation
I was born the month Adolf Hitler’s tanks were grinding into Poland. The following year, with the United States not at war and many of its citizens demanding that it stay out of war, the nation instituted a military draft that lasted from 1940 to 1973 (though it was briefly dormant in 1947). According to Gen. Lewis Hershey (1893-1977) who headed the Selective Service System during most of those years, for every man actually conscripted four more chose to enlist rather than face the draft. This blurs the distinction between “draftee” and “volunteer” that is the basis of a lot of discussion about what our armed forces do, and should, consist of. Contrary to myth, the majority of American soldiers who fought in Vietnam were not drafted but chose to enlist.
The draft was imperfect. The Army was imperfect. In particular, it had serious flaws involving race and gender. But the system that won World War II was successful because every American participated, everyone served in uniform or knew someone who did, and every citizen had a personal stake in the outcome on the battlefield.
On the eve of its participation in World War II, the United States — unlike today — had enormous industrial potential, the world’s highest literacy rate and a genuinely educated population that abhorred war but was receptive to being angered and ready to be mobilized. In the 1920s, a young Japanese naval attaché visited American factories and was impressed. More than a decade later, Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto devised the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor but is said to have questioned, afterward, whether it was the right move. “I fear we have only awakened a sleeping giant and filled him with a terrible resolve,” is a quote that accurately reflects Yamamoto’s insights. It hardly matters that Yamamoto never uttered those words. A screenwriter invented them for the movie “Tora! Tora! Tora!” (1970).
Industry, literacy and education were the hallmarks of an America that couldn’t fail. We won World War II, achieved our purpose in Korea, and prevailed in the Cold War primarily because American citizens had a direct stake in what their armed forces were doing. If the system wasn’t 100 percent fair, at least it could be perceived as fair so long as the farmer and the city slicker, the rich and the poor, and even Elvis Presley and Willie Mays could be drafted. A smart, savvy population, booming industry and the citizen-solder took us all the way to the edge of the abyss that was Vietnam.
Contrary to the myth that Germany produced the most capable soldiers, the American citizen-soldier of the mid-twentieth century was admired around the world and held up as a model by other armies. That’s partly because, more than in any other army, we delegated authority to the bottom of the chain of command — more so then, than today. Think of the opening scene in the film “Saving Private Ryan” (1998). At Dog Green Sector on Omaha Beach where plans went terribly awry, a handful of very junior officers and sergeants improvised, took the initiative on the spot, and prevailed.
We halted the draft out of frustration with our failed adventure in Vietnam just weeks after Eugene Cernan became the last man to walk on the moon. Yes, that’s right: we went to the moon and then lost interest.
In effect, John Q. Public and his wife Jane made a deal with everyone who chose to enlist after 1973. It wasn’t written in ink but the contract went like this: “We’ll give you a good career, good pay and benefits, family care and a decent retirement if you’ll go off and fight our wars for us so that our sons and daughters won’t have to.” America created the all-volunteer force so its children wouldn’t be swallowed up by the next Vietnam.
We shifted to a professional army that got off to a shaky start but evolved into a finely sharpened fighting machine. The volunteer force that fought the 1991 Persian Gulf War was technically the most proficient ever sent into battle in all of history — superior to today’s. Those Americans fought with considerable involvement and support from their fellow citizens. Sadly, while they were serving us so well in Desert Storm, our standards back at home were in a nosedive.
A 2002 study by the National Center for Educational Statistics found that 21 to 23 percent of adult Americans — or some 40 to 44 million of the 191 million adults in this country a decade ago — demonstrated literacy skills at the lowest level. These adults could perform “simple, routine tasks involving brief and uncomplicated texts and documents. For example, they were able to total an entry on a deposit slip, locate the time or place of a meeting on a form, and identify a piece of specific information in a brief news article.” Some were unable to perform even these tasks and some had such limited literacy that they were unable to respond to much of the survey.
A 2010 survey by the Ralston Institute, a nonpartisan California think tank, concluded that two million college-educated, adult Americans between ages 28 and 42 do not own a single book unless it was required for school or work.
That’s right. In my lifetime, we’ve gone from being within a decimal point of 100 percent literacy to about 77 percent. Another study shows we’ve gone from being no. 1 in literacy in the world to no. 37.
Small wonder, then, that we allow a tiny proportion of our very best young adults to volunteer for our very capable armed forces while the rest of the nation sinks ever farther into a coarse culture of superficial pursuits and ever-deepening apathy. A clue to where we are today: military matters, including the war in Afghanistan, were barely mentioned in the 2012 presidential election campaign. When we were attacked on Sept. 11, 2001, we set forth to clean out Afghanistan and kill or capture everybody who attacked us. It should have taken six weeks. We invaded the wrong country — Iraq — two years later and the Afghanistan war is now in its 12th year.
To win World War II, we expanded production of weapons and induction of service members. They were led by great men with names like Marshall, Eisenhower and Nimitz. Those flag-rank officers would never have considered taking a job later in life with the very companies that manufactured weapons for their troops. That would have been beneath them. Other kinds of good jobs were plentiful. Eisenhower became president of Columbia University. Gen. Lucius D. Clay became CEO of Continental Can Co. Tanks, planes and ships were designed and manufactured by civilian industry experts. The weapons and equipment for our troops were usually delivered on time and on budget.
We still have some fine generals and admirals but too many are perceived — especially by troops — as using flag rank not to command but as a temporary staging ground for a subsequent job in defense. One recent study shows that 70 percent of retired flag officers are now executives or board members in aerospace or security companies. With one exception, every Air Force chief of staff since 1980 now has one or more jobs in the defense field. Too often today, the Joint Strike Fighters, littoral combat ships, and Expeditionary Fighting Vehicles for our service members are delayed, over cost, and plagued with technical glitches.
Today’s U.S. armed forces set a shining example in their handling of issues of race, gender and — of late — sexual orientation. In that respect, I’d like to feel they represent you and me. But the sad truth is that the American airman, Coast Guardsman, Marine, sailor and soldier doesn’t any longer represent a citizenry that has a stake in military operations and conflicts. The sadder truth is that while Americans in many fields of endeavor are still the best in the world, we no longer have the educated populace, the industry, the know-how, or the commitment that won World War II, prevailed in the Cold War, and put boots on the moon.
If our leaders aren’t going to talk about a war during a presidential campaign, they shouldn’t get us into one. If I could decide, we would enter a war only with a formal declaration by Congress and only with clear goals and total commitment. If it were up to me, education and literacy would receive more government spending. A good way to pay for it would be to close the huge number of unnecessary bases we maintain and trim the number of flag officers.
As a cultural matter, we need to get away from the idea that a “warrior ethos” is a good thing. Americans should be reluctant warriors.
In America, no one has absolute power and no one should. But if I held such power for just 24 hours, we would bring everybody home from Afghanistan, stop provoking Iran, and use our status as a world power selectively, in the manner of a scalpel instead of a sledgehammer.
If I could decide these things, there would be a law flatly prohibiting retired flag officers from holding employment in defense or security corporations. We would impose rigorous structures on lobbying. Above all, the nation would return to some form of mandatory public service for all young people so that everyone among our citizenry — not just a tiny handful — would have a direct stake every time our leaders make a policy decision.