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Glory Days

Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld hasn’t cleaned out his desk yet, and the colonels and generals are still mentally dancing in a joyous conga line through the corridors of the Pentagon’s E-Ring, but there’s work to be done, and none of it is more important than fixing what four years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan has broken.

The Senate has yet to confirm Robert Gates to replace Rumsfeld, but whatever his faults–and there are more than a few –he’s likely to earn swift bipartisan approval, if only because Rumsfeld won’t leave until he’s on deck.

The fate and the future of the U.S. Army and Marine Corps desperately need to be addressed. Doing so will take many years and many billions of dollars.

Our nation, which is defended by about seven-tenths of 1 percent of its 300 million people, today devotes just about 5 percent of its gross domestic product to defense spending. When Jack Kennedy was president, military spending totaled almost 10 percent of GDP.

The Army, and its National Guard and Reserve, have been worn down–some would say worn out–by the endless deployments of troops on one-year combat tours to Iraq and Afghanistan. Many professional soldiers and their families are now enduring their second or third trips to Iraq, certain that a fourth or fifth awaits them if they continue to serve.

Their equipment, from Abrams tanks to Bradley fighting vehicles to Stryker armored cars to Humvees and helicopters, is wearing out even faster than the soldiers are. The money to repair and rebuild those vehicles–Army Chief Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker says he needs $17 billion for that right now–hasn’t been forthcoming from this administration and the outgoing Congress.

Army officials say they’re a total of some $25 billion short of what they need to sustain the current levels of operations. Because that’s not available, they’ve been robbing Peter to pay Paul, then robbing Paul to pay Patrick. Money budgeted to repair family housing and mow the grass and open the recreation centers on our Army bases is going, instead, to pay for the wars.

It’s also getting harder to fill the ranks of an Army that’s dropped in total manpower from 1.2 million a decade or so ago to just 497,000 at present, even as the demands for its services have grown exponentially.

In a week when the San Francisco school board voted to bar junior reserve officer training from the high schools and to ban military recruiters from their campuses, the Army is scraping the bottom of the barrel trying find enough recruits to keep the all-volunteer Army afloat.

Only by lowering standards of mental acuity and ability, accepting recruits up to age 45, paying large cash bonuses to anyone who signs on the dotted line, taking in more high school dropouts and granting waivers to recruits with criminal records, bodies covered in tattoos or both can the Army fill the holes left by those who leave every year.

In this dangerous world, Americans must be willing to pay for an Army, and they must be willing to send their sons and daughters to serve in that Army. Nations that are unwilling to defend themselves, and are governed by an elite unwilling to send its own children to be part of that defense, are doomed.

The Bush administration says we’re embarked on what it defines as a long war–40 or 50 or 60 years of struggle with the forces of Islamic fundamentalism–and if that’s true, then it’s long past time to begin making some sacrifices at home to prepare to fight and win that war.

Mr. Gates can begin his brief tour as secretary of defense by jacking up the most recent Quadrennial Defense Review, the Pentagon’s 20-year look at the future and what will be funded in our defense budgets, and re-ordering its priorities. He must make the hard decisions that Mr. Rumsfeld promised to make but never did.

We cannot have business as usual in the Pentagon. We cannot continue to fund huge aircraft and ship purchases for the Air Force and Navy while starving the Army and Marines who are bearing the brunt of the fighting and dying in this brave new world of ours. Boots on the ground are not as glamorous–or as lucrative to defense contractors–as the high technology so beloved by Mr. Rumsfeld. But in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan, there is still no substitute for them.

My old friend Col. (ret.) T. R. Fehrenbach wrote in his landmark history of the Korean War that a nation that wants to hold the barbarians at bay must be willing to put its sons on the ground, in the mud and the blood. It also must be willing to pay the price for an Army and a Marine Corps that’s fully manned, well trained, and equipped and supported with everything it needs.

Without that, this brave new century and millennium that were celebrated as America’s will swiftly become someone’s else’s, and we will become no more than a footnote in history: a nation whose days of glory and power numbered only half a century or so.

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