Eliot A Cohen. Foreign Affairs. Volume 79, Issue 6. November/December 2000.
What’s Wrong with this Picture?
Last year, the U.S. military looked something like this: it had 1,380,000 troops, a budget of some $279 billion, and featured 10 active Army and three active Marine Corps divisions, about 20 active and reserve air wings, and 11 active aircraft carriers. Its forces drove M-1 tanks, flew F-15 and F-16 fighters and F-117 bombers, and sailed Nimitz-class carriers. They were organized into unified and specified commands, governed primarily by the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986.
Ten years earlier-with the Soviet Union still standing and the Gulf War soon to begin-the picture was strangely similar. The U.S. military had slightly over two million troops. With a budget of $382.5 billion (in today’s dollars), it had 18 active Army and 3 active Marine Corps divisions, 36 active and reserve air wings, and 14 carriers. Its troops drove M-1 tanks, flew F-15 and F-16 fighters and F-117 bombers, and sailed Nimitz-class carriers. They too were organized into unified and specified commands, governed primarily by the Goldwater-Nichols Act.
To be fair, the Pentagon did make some changes in the interim. The American military presence in Europe shrank to something like a third of its late-Cold War size-down to roughly 100,000 troops. Some organizations disappeared (most notably the Air Force’s nucleararmed Strategic Air Command), while others expanded in size and influence. Precision-guided missiles and bombs, once a small portion of the arsenal, came to dominate American air campaigns. And in the invisible theater of cyberspace, networks multiplied and the information flow became a torrent.
But despite these alterations, the Defense Department in 2000 closely resembles its predecessor of a decade ago, despite growing insistence by politicians that things must change. “Transformation,” and not mere “reform,” has become the catchword of the presidential defense debate. Texas Governor George W. Bush, in a keynote defense speech, promised a “revolution” that would “skip a generation of technology”; Vice President Al Gore has declared that the country must “rise to the challenge again-to transform today’s armed forces into tomorrow’s Information Age force.”
Why such bold rhetoric from both parties? What makes political leaders talk about radical change instead of mere fine-tuning? After all, the U.S. defense establishment has handsomely won several minor wars in recent years, and with astoundingly few casualties. Why overhaul a military feared by former foes and by rising antagonists? Even allies are worried by a Pentagon that spends as much on research and development (some $36 billion per year) as some of them (the United Kingdom, specifically) spend on defense altogether.
Something more than politics or the quest for novelty is at work. The Pentagon suffers from serious, long-term troubles. Although it has just begun to adjust to some of these failings, it remains indifferent to or unaware of others. These problems fall into several categories. The first is strategic. American strategy still relies on a Cold War-derived understanding of military power and fails to focus on the challenges of the new century: homeland defense, a rising China, and what can only be termed “imperial policing.” Meanwhile, American technology—impressive as it is-also still follows Cold War paths. The Pentagon tends to purchase systems suited for a war in Europe with the defunct Soviet Union rather than hardware optimized for Asia, North America, and the far-flung trouble spots where Washington tries to keep the peace. Finally, the military’s organizational structures, also adapted chiefly to the challenges of a bipolar world, require overhaul as well. And signs of demoralization have begun to appear in the backbone of the force-its junior and middle-rank officers. The military’s structure represents two outdated visions (a command structure conceived in 1943 and a recruitment and personnel system begun in 1970) out of touch with today’s needs.
The next U.S. president—whether Gore or Bush-and his administration will get the chance to change all of this. But they are unlikely to do so, since inertia overwhelms the impulse to change at the Pentagon. Having won its wars cheaply (if not decisively), buttressed by formal and informal lobbies that understand their interests well, and led by competent but harried men and women who have neither the time nor the inclination to question their institutions’ methods of doing business, the military will resist transformation. This may seem understandable at first, for failing to reform will not incur any visible penalty in the next five or ten years. Indeed, making changes will most assuredly cause shortterm pain. But the costs of not reconfiguring the U.S. military now are steep and are likely to emerge in the coming decades. The country will miss out on important foreign policy objectives, and American power will fail to sustain the global semi-peace that we now take for granted.
Four Ways to Fight
IN 1989, the Bush administration began demobilizing from the Cold War. Its basic concept was simple: the American military would slowly shrink by roughly 25 or 30 percent while maintaining a high operations tempo and reasonably generous pay, benefits, and research and development budgets. But it would slow the acquisition of military hardware. This was a cautious policy for a cautious administration that was not entirely convinced that the Soviet Union (or its successor, Russia) was down for the count. The Base Force, as the new concept became known, was a stopgap to remain until the Russian threat was clearly gone; it seemed a prudent approach for a government that dreaded the precipitate and feckless demobilizations that (it believed) had followed past conflicts.
A decade later, although Russia is no longer a threat, the Base Force remains alive and well, albeit under a different guise. Following the logic of the so-called Bottom-up Review of the early Clinton administration and then the 1997 Quadrennial Defense Review, American forces now aim at fighting two “major theater wars” (MTWS) presumably against North Korea and Iraq. America’s conventional force structure has been built toward this goal, and nuclear policy has been consigned to the realms of arms control and unilateral disarmament.
The two-MTW strategy requires almost the same force structure as did the Base Force; a dispassionate observer would be hard pressed to see much difference between the two. And neither strategy suffices today. For one thing, the defense budget simply cannot sustain the current military without substantial increases: for a decade now the Pentagon has not had enough money to replace the aging hardware that it uses around the world. Estimates of the shortfall range from $25 billion a year to three times that figure (the latest assessment from the Congressional Budget Office comes in at about $50 billion a year). But even adequate funding would not solve the problem. More than money, an entirely new strategy is needed, one that does not cling to one obsolete scenario (an Iraqi invasion of Saudi Arabia) or to a threat that may collapse within a few years (North Korea). The United States needs a strategy that realistically addresses all of America’s challenges in the next decade and beyond.
Unfortunately, the current system will not produce such a new strategy. This is because it remains captive to an excruciating bureaucratic process: the congressionally mandated Quadrennial Defense Review, which, at least in the last round, ended in a document composed by scores of subpanels of officers and civil servants, who reported to seven panels, who reported to an “integration group,” who reported to a “Senior Steering Group,” who, aided or screened by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, reported to the secretary of defense. Nor will the new strategy come from external studies by commissions acting without real authority or responsibility, worthy and wise though their participants may be. Rather, crafting a new strategy requires a small civilian and military staff working directly for the secretary of defense, protected from normal bureaucratic pressures and willing to make some hard calls. A successful new defense strategy must recognize America’s extraordinary role in international politics and the consequent ambiguity and uncertainty of the circumstances in which the United States will use its military power.
The resulting strategy should have the following four components: defense against weapons of mass destruction (WMD), conventional dominance, short-term contingencies, and peace maintenance.
Defense against WMD should supplement traditional nuclear strategy with national missile defense and domestic counterterrorism. To be effective, defense against WMD sometimes requires the military to cooperate with other government agencies, or even to let them take the lead. Already the Pentagon works with organizations such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency to prepare for WMD attacks on American cities, and there has been talk about-and some action toward-preparing the National Guard to provide first-response units for biological attacks against American cities. Depending on the level of threat that actually materializes, however, the United States may eventually adopt far more comprehensive measures to protect its borders.
An effective national missile defense may eventually require the United States to withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM). Treaty-an entirely legal option under the treaty’s terms-if it proves impossible to negotiate major changes. The moment for such a withdrawal has not yet arrived, however. National missile defense has become a question of theology rather than policy, especially in an election year. President Clinton was probably right to defer the final decision on this matter, but sooner or later the difficult choice will have to be made. NMD will make sense only if it offers protection, not only against the odd missile from North Korea, Iraq, or Iran, but against America’s main rival-China. Finally, a revised Pentagon strategy must acknowledge that the American nuclear arsenal will again become an essential element in defense against and deterrence of WMD attacks against the American homeland.
Achieving conventional dominance, meanwhile, means developing long-term superiority over any potential opponent. This will require investment not only in research and development, but also in actual systems. It may also mean stepping back from traditional but aging weapons systems such as the aircraft carrier or the main battle tank. But these will be prices worth paying. The objective should be to have— and no less important, to be seen to have-a decisive edge over any major competitor, most likely China. To remain dominant over China, the United States must not only shift its attention to the Pacific but also start thinking in entirely new ways about technology, logistics, and operations. For nearly half a century, the American military organized itself to fight a short, extremely intense battle in Europe from large, fixed bases dispersed over relatively short distances. Whatever a future war in Asia might look like, that will not be it. Winning a conflict in Asia will mean long-range warfare, with dispersed, mobile, or concealed basing, and the kinds of forces that can sustain a long, perhaps only intermittently violent, clash in the air, at sea, and in space.
Short-term contingencies are the kinds of conventional conflicts until now covered under the two-MTW concept. But whereas that construct is based on the Gulf War case envisioning the deployment of a massive, armor-heavy force supported by a vast fleet and hundreds or thousands of aircraft-what is needed now is a much more precisely defined set of scenarios, such as defense against Iraqi or Iranian aggression in the Gulf, against a North Korean attack on South Korea, and, conceivably, the ability to respond to overt Russian action against new NATO members. In each case, the kinds of forces needed will be fewer than those posited in current planning.
Finally, the United States needs a real peace-maintenance strategy. International police work is the wayward child that the Pentagon cannot decide whether to embrace (because it is the only job immediately available and because it justifies the current force structure) or reject (because it conflicts with Cold War concepts of what the military exists to do). Posturing by both parties has made the problem worse, as Republicans insist that they would walk away from all peacekeeping or peace-enforcement missions, whereas Democrats are too eager to accept such involvements without conceding the long-term problems they pose for the defense establishment.
Executing all four types of missions outlined above will involve making tradeoffs, which current Pentagon models do not accept-at least in a forthright way. For example, the kinds of units required for peacekeeping-military police, civil affairs detachments, even lowly water-purification units-are very different from those needed for conventional warfare. Training for and conducting operations that emphasize political action with only severely limited uses of force over long periods of time is at odds with the fast and intense bursts of violence that work best in conventional war.
What will make such a four-pronged strategy even more difficult to prepare for are the political obstacles to speaking plainly about these issues. To openly accept America’s long-term peacekeeping role is to expose oneself to a barrage of criticism from Capitol Hill-even if the party in opposition would otherwise be just as likely to send peacekeepers abroad as one’s own. Meanwhile, justifying long-term investments in conventional military power will mean naming potential opponents. That will be no small feat. Even during the Cold War, the Pentagon sometimes resorted to a coy euphemism, “the Threat,” when talking about the Soviet Union. Today a far greater difficulty looms, for China is not simply an adversary: the United States has a large economic interest in its well-being. Identifying it as America’s primary strategic opponent will provoke the ire not merely of those who think goodwill can reduce or eliminate the need for saber-rattling, but also of the bankers, merchants, entrepreneurs, and managers of multi-billion-dollar companies who see China as a market of unlimited potential. China’s leaders, talented as they are at manipulating foreigners’ guilt and greed, will play to the ambivalence, anxiety, and avarice of the West, aided by some of the most talented lobbyists money can buy. Like it or not, the United States must identify its potential competitors or opponents by name. Unless it does, Washington will continue to buy the wrong hardware for the wrong war.
Although pentagon planning documents and reporting seem to recognize that the Cold War is indeed long gone, in truth it lives on— even in the subtle metal alloys, exotic carbon fibers, and superabundant silicon chips that make up America’s machines of war. The Army, for example, still wants to buy a 55-ton self-propelled howitzer-even though it could hardly hope to deploy it in a timely or ample fashion to the obscure parts of the world where it will actually have to go. At the same time, the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps still hope to spend about $200 billion on the joint strike fighter-a short-range airplane that can deliver only limited quantities of ordnance on target and that would probably be inadequate for the long-range missions ahead.
To be fair, military technology often serves functions that the original designers and manufacturers never even imagined. Still, hardware is the inanimate reflection of strategic assumptions. For half a century, those assumptions were that the United States would fight the next war from extensive fixed bases in Western Europe, against a large conventional force attacking in a relatively compact and heavily built-up landscape. But those assumptions now need to change. And new equipment must take advantage of contemporary technologies.
As it stands, the American military’s current hardware is suited to only one of today’s four main missions: fighting short-term conflicts. Yet the military will have problems with even that. The hardware requires relatively long periods of time to deploy or pre-position in quantity in distant theaters. It also requires ample logistical support and secure base areas. The vast supply dumps of the Gulf War and the crowded taxiways of the Aviano air base during the Kosovo conflict typify that old American way of waging war-and its vulnerability as well.
As for the other three strategic missions that the United States should be preparing for, these will require very different kinds of technology. Homeland defense, the first of these missions, will call for not only some kind of national missile defense, but also industrial resources and stockpiles of both mundane and exotic items-vaccines, protective suits, and all the other paraphernalia needed for what is known as “consequence management.” Conventional dominance, particularly against China, will involve long-range forces, primarily aerial and naval, that could cope with events such as an assault on Taiwan. U.S. conventional forces should be tailored to handle the vast distances and more complicated basing problems of the Pacific, rather than the well-developed and more familiar terrain of Europe and the Persian Gulf As for peace maintenance, this requires long-endurance manned or unmanned aircraft to monitor and control airspace (as the United States has done for almost a decade now in Iraq), surveillance and monitoring equipment, and a kit for urban warfare not yet seen in the dusty valley of the Army’s National Training Center.
To start making these changes, the next U.S. administration should first make some dramatic cancellations. Crusader (the Army’s monster artillery piece) and the joint strike fighter are two prime candidates for such cuts. Meanwhile, the B-2 production line may need to be reopened, a variety of unmanned aerial vehicle programs should be pressed, and the Navy should be compelled to experiment with the arsenal ship-a large container for various cruise and ballistic missiles that are invaluable for the kinds of strike missions that have characterized real (as opposed to hypothesized) missions in the past decade. Even if the defense budget goes up, as it ought to, the ruthless retirement of old systems (such as the creaky B-52 bomber, older generation m-1 tanks, and squadrons of F-16s) will help pay for the new systems. More important, purging obsolete hardware will show the armed services and the defense industry that Washington is finally serious about the “revolution in military affairs.”
To construct the hardware it needs, the U.S. military must more effectively tap the exploding civilian technology market. In doing so, however, it will need to bear at least two things in mind. First, experimental technology is just that-experimental, and thus prone to (sometimes expensive) failures. Yet the current research and development system has nothing like the tolerance for risk that characterized the American military-industrial complex in the 1950s and 1960s, when extraordinarily complex systems like the Polaris sea-launched missile and its land-based counterpart, the Minuteman, went from concept to operating capability in roughly five years. Moreover, for experimental technologies to work, they must be tested in the field, and in numbers large enough for troops to learn how to use them. Simply spending money on R&D but then skimping on acquisition until a crisis arises would do a disservice both to the defense industry, which makes money on production, not R&D, and to the military itself, which trusts only hardware it has used in the field.
Second, Washington should recognize how the defense industry has changed. The pell-mell consolidation of the defense establishment in the last decade has produced a much smaller yet more unwieldy and far more conservative military-industrial complex than existed ever before. Washington should take note of this trend and its consequences and ensure that from now on it has at least two suppliers of military aircraft, advanced electronics, and large ships. The military is almost the only buyer in the U.S. defense market. Its indifference to the contraction of its supplier base has left it captive to a handful of large companies that make their money not by coming up with new products, but by churning out old ones.
Getting the right equipment will be hard enough. But the Pentagon’s largest challenge lies at its heart: how to reform the structures within which it operates and that govern the 1,380,000 people who fill its ranks in uniform and its 700,000 civilian employees. Problems today exist at three levels: the very top, the intermediate institutions of the services and their large commands, and the individual personnel system. All three need to change.
The leadership structure of today’s military was molded by the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986. The law strengthened the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Joint Staff at the expense of the individual services and, unintentionally, of the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD). This reorganization fulfilled a vision first conceived by General George C. Marshall and the Army staff in the midst of World War II: a powerful, centralized military command in Washington presiding over theater commanders in chief who wield a great deal of influence over local matters and, less directly, over defense policy at home.
In the years since 1986, proponents and critics of the Goldwater Nichols Act have overstated both its good and bad points. The act did, to some extent, abate the mixture of deadlock and compromise that made getting crisp military advice from service chiefs a frustrating affair. It also ratified, symbolically and practically, a simple fact: the services would henceforth begin overlapping and interacting to an ever greater extent. It made the Joint Staff-the bureaucracy of officers from all services who constitute the country’s central military staff-report directly to the chairman, turning it into a far more effective organization. And it gave a voice to theater commanders who could now exercise unified control over the forces in their arena without having to wage guerrilla warfare against service chiefs in Washington. These were all very real benefits.
The act’s negative consequences, however, were no less real. By making “jointness” (that is, inter-service cooperation) a matter of dogma rather than good sense in all cases, it paved the way for more logrolling, favor-trading, and a least-common-denominator approach. It does not always make sense for the different branches of the military to work together. There are, for example, many cases in which the needs of the different services mandate disparate approaches to the acquisition of military technology (unmanned aircraft being one such instance where the requirements of the four services differ utterly).
The act also threatened to reduce to one (namely, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs) the channels for giving military advice to civilian leadership. Under the act, the chairman can effectively exclude the individual service chiefs of staff from advising the secretary of defense. By elevating the Joint Staff without also strengthening the OSD, the legislation actually weakened civilian power and authority-to the point that the OSD and Joint Staff often attend interagency meetings offering separate Department of Defense views on what ought to be done.
By increasing the influence and prestige of the theater commanders in chief—who focus, understandably, on the emergencies of the moment and the likely contingencies of the next year or two (their tour of duty)-the act also undermined advocates of long-term investment and experimentation, who traditionally reside in the service bureaucracies. Finally, the legislation created a joint officer promotion system that rewards ticket-punching tours on staffs over field command, creating a personnel system that was not only inflexible, but also biased against operational expertise.
Given these flaws, the time is now ripe for a revision of the Goldwater-Nichols Act. Its deformation of the personnel system, in particular, requires examination-especially its rigid requirements for so-called joint tours. The emergence in September 1999 of a Joint Forces Command as the nominal proponent for long-term defense innovation also needs review. In theory, the JFC should be the incubator of military experimentation and innovation; in practice, it has not served that function, nor has it done much more than serve as an irritant to service initiatives along the same lines. Although the role of the chairman as the leading military adviser to the government should be preserved, revised legislation should give the civilian leadership more leeway to turn to other senior military figures for consultation. Furthermore, means must be found to strengthen the Office of the Secretary of Defense, including making it more attractive to senior civil servants and streamlining the processes of appointing qualified political candidates.
The individual services-which for more than two decades now have been cast as the myopic and parochial enemies of sound military policy-still retain responsibility to train and equip their forces. This is as it should be. Despite criticism, most notably from Admiral William Owens, former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the services remain the custodians of military culture, training and education, basic technology development and acquisition, and, most important, the long view of military power. “Jointness” notwithstanding, the individual services will remain the foundations of military organization as far as the eye can see. The truth is that the physical environments in which the armed forces operate differ radically from one another, and what sometimes goes by the name of parochialism is often a rational-if occasionally narrow-reaction to the different challenges posed by operating at sea, on the land, or in the air.
The problem with today’s military, then, is not the fact that it has discrete services, but the fact that segments of the services often work at cross-purposes. The services cling to established ways of war, and to combinations of technology, organization, and personnel systems that have come to acquire value in and of themselves-even if they are no longer entirely functional. At the same time, each service contains dissident or innovative groups of officers who are keen to experiment with new techniques that might cause as great a dislocation as the mechanization of horse cavalry, say, or the displacement of the battleship by the aircraft carrier. Civilian leaders should cultivate and support these innovators. Some Air Force generals are eager to see unmanned aerial vehicles supplement if not replace fighter aircraft; some Army generals would replace traditional heavy forces with hybrids of light infantry and long-range precision-fire systems; some admirals would invest in flotillas of semi-submersible ships that would serve as little more than barges carrying dense arrays of cruise and ballistic missiles. Behind them are far greater numbers of junior officers ready to experiment with the technologies and operational concepts that can make such notions reality.
The challenge is not, therefore, to suppress the services, but rather to open them up. And the best way to do this is through the oft-despised service secretaries-the civilian heads of the Army, Navy, and Air Force. In the past, many of these individuals received their positions as political payoffs for party or personal loyalty to the president, and many of them limit their role to that of cheerleaders and advocates for the organizations to which they have been assigned. Rarely have they made an enduring mark. Small wonder that reformers often call for the abolition of these throwbacks to the days before defense unification.
But abolition would be an error. The secretaries can provide a new administration with one of its greatest points of leverage in molding a new Pentagon-but only if they view their job properly. If they do so, the secretaries can perform two invaluable functions in particular. First, they can serve as impartial observers of institutions that-unlike so many others in the modern world-are led exclusively by men and women who have spent their entire working lives in the same institution. The secretaries also can and should enforce the policies of their administration on their reluctant service.
Second, the secretaries have the chance to get to know their service and its leaders far better than any other civilian. They should therefore be given the determining voice in selecting officers for promotion, particularly at the general or admiral ranks. Civilian leaders cannot change military institutions by fiat; they must work with like-minded officers. It is the business of civilian leaders to pick the right military leaders, and that requires the kind of time and attention that only the service secretaries-as opposed to the harried secretary of defense and his or her staff-can provide.
To the extent that civilians can control the Department of Defense, they do so less by issuing edicts (which can be evaded, watered down, or delayed by the military and civil service bureaucracy) than by grooming and selecting internal leadership. But they have another, often ignored point of purchase: the military’s education system. Officers spend as much as a third of their careers in classrooms. Yet what goes on there receives remarkably little attention from civilian leaders. And when it does get attention, secretaries of defense still seem more concerned with managing the consequences of 40-year-olds cheating at a service academy than with figuring out whether 40-year-olds have thought about improving their professions. Yet never has military education been more important, for rarely has the quality of military thought mattered so much.
The American military today faces challenges certainly more complex, if in some respects less daunting, than those of the Cold War. To understand the politics of obscure corners of the world, to integrate shimmering, darting information technologies, and to create new systems of organization and discipline, the military needs first-rate thinkers. And yet, when one asks who are America’s strategic thinkers in uniform, one draws a blank. Move beyond the more technical aspects of military craft, and the ranks are dismayingly thin.
The U.S. military’s educational institutions are relics of the Cold War, devoted primarily to producing well-rounded practitioners, experts in tactics and familiar with the broader aspects of strategy. They are not, however, incubators of military change. Service on their military faculties usually indicates a career coming to an end, and officers who acquire doctorates or write books do so as a hobby-often at the expense of their careers rather than to their benefit. Civilian leaders need to review and, if necessary, overhaul the military educational system, particularly for senior officers. One step might be the creation of one or two joint graduate institutions of military art modeled on the Army’s School of Advanced Military Studies (SAMS), an elite program for operational planners that follows the standard one year of command and staff college. Such a school would require stable, possibly civilian, leadership (presidents of the war colleges currently change at least every three years) and should truly integrate the services-unlike SAMS or the service war colleges, which merit thorough re-examination themselves.
The low-level recruiting and retention crisis of recent years— much discussed in the presidential campaign-has forced several of the services to either miss their quotas or reduce the quality of those they take in. In the late 1990s, the Army and the Navy fell short of recruiting goals by as much as ten percent and were forced to start accepting non-high school graduates. Attrition rates for officers of all ranks up to colonel rose, as the promising junior and middle management of the services left early-not because their pay lagged behind the private sector (although it does, and the differentials are growing) but because of frustration with the way they were managed and an erosion of funds for high-quality training.
To some extent these problems merely reflect the health of the economy. But they also result from a deeper malaise and a growing disjunction between military and civilian life-one that requires attention. The Navy has only in recent years come around-grudgingly, and with opposition yet to be overcome—to the notion that it makes more sense to use private contractors to chip paint in port than to have sailors, some of whom are highly trained technologists, do it. As this suggests, the “conscription mentality,” as Secretary of the Navy Richard Danzig has called it, is far from dead. The services have yet to create personnel structures that would give men and women in uniform something like the career flexibility of their civilian counterparts. Some concepts-lateral entry at the higher ranks, for example, or moving senior officers across services-may be too much to hope for, but still merit exploration. The services must also make it easier for young people to serve in the military, leave for a number of years, and return without suffering for so doing.
Most delicate of all, civilian leaders must get at the root of junior and mid-level officers’ distrust of the senior leadership-a problem currently denied at the top but the subject of constant discussion lower down. Radical changes may be under way. The mass army of the nineteenth century drew on large numbers of poorly paid conscripts or volunteers, managed and trained by noncommissioned officers and led by middle-class officers. That model of military personnel works less well today, however. New hybrid kinds of organization— militarized civilian contractors-have emerged to provide logistical support and training, and soon, perhaps, to operate combat systems as well. This development should be pushed even further, for it is clear that the military life appeals to an ever narrower segment of a highly developed society.
Today the overburdened American military emphasizes doing, not thinking. Yet never was thinking more necessary. The country’s armed services are extraordinarily busy. They wage a low-level war in Iraq (barely noticed in the newspapers), patrol the streets of Kosovo, cruise the South China Sea, and train peacekeepers for Sierra Leone and antinarcotics commandos in Colombia. Despite stories about soldiers on food stamps (in most cases, parents with substantial families who had no business joining the military at the bottom to begin with), they are reasonably, if not lavishly paid. The military’s equipment remains good, if aging. No one else can match its ability to do big things in distant places. Yet it suffers a pervasive, palpable malaise. Evidence for this abounds: for example, one Army study of officers at its elite command and staff college concluded, “Top-down loyalty doesn’t exist … Senior leaders will throw subordinates under the bus in a heartbeat to protect or advance their careers.” Such discomfort stems from many sources: a sense of relative deprivation, compared to what equally talented people can do in the new American economy; mistrust of the senior military leadership; uncertainty of purpose in the absence of an enemy; wearisome deployments; and a sense of intellectual and doctrinal stagnation. The next president and secretary of defense may ignore or paper over these discontents for another four or eight years; they may also continue to repair, upgrade, and replace the old array of Cold War hardware. Should they continue the process indefinitely, however, a reckoning will come, a humiliation= possibly, a bloody humiliation-for a global hegemonic power that still fears to admit to itself that it polices the world.