When the world was young and hope dared live in
Washington, a small group of people put together something called the Military
Reform Movement. Its purpose was to measure defense policies and programs by
the standard of what works in combat rather than who benefits financially. Launched
in the 1970s, it peaked in the early 1980s and was gone by 1990. Why did it
fail? Because in a contest between ideas and money, the money always wins.
authors, Winslow Wheeler and Larry Korb, recently published a history of the
Military Reform Movement, Military
Reform: A Reference Handbook. Win Wheeler was in the thick of it at
the time as a staffer to several members of the Congressional Military Reform
Caucus. Larry Korb was at most on the periperheries, one of Washington's innumerable
unemployed jockies looking for a horse to ride.
To make my own position clear, I was a staffer first to the Senator who started
the whole thing, Bob Taft, Jr. of Ohio, then to Secretary Gary Hart, who gave
the movement its name and founded the Caucus (with Congressman Bill Whitehurst
of Virginia). I was also part of the informal Reform Group, which
included John Boyd, Pierre Sprey, Jeff Record and Norman Polmar, that did the
intellectual work for the Caucus.
The book's stronger chapters are those by Wheeler, who pulls no punches when
discussing the ways various members of Congress betrayed the reform cause. The
Washington Game is to create an image with the public that is a
direct opposite to what the Senator or Congressman actually does behind closed
doors, and the Caucus saw plenty of that game. Standouts were Senator Bill Cohen
of Maine, who attended Caucus meetings while busily working with Senator John
Tower to block any reform of the Navy (he went on to be perhaps the most ineffectual
Secretary of Defense in the Department's history); Newt Gingrich, who really
got reform and played a big role in the early history of the Caucus,
then did nothing to advance its ideas once he gained power; and Dick Cheney,
who also used reform to generate an image and now, as Vice President, does nothing.
As I said years ago to a Marine friend who was trying to get a job on Capitol
Hill, working as Hill staff is the post-doctoral course in spiritual proctology.
Wheeler's chapters dissect many an ass.
He does an equally good job on the press, which did what it always does: build
something up (which creates news) and then tear it down again (which creates
more news). What drew many members of Congress to the Reform Caucus was the
opportunity it offered to get some good ink. When the wind started blowing the
other way, those illustrious legislators blew with it. But the corruption of
the press itself is a story told less often, and it needs telling. Why do defense
companies buy full-page ads in major newspapers? Not because anyone buys a fighter
plane based on a newspaper ad, but because the six-figure price for a full page
buys the newspaper.
Larry Korb's most important chapter is on Defense Transformation,
and he makes something of a hash of it. Transformation is the latest
buzzword for what started out (in the Soviet military) as the Revolution
in Military Affairs, the notion that new technology would magically eliminate
war's confusion, uncertainty and friction. Reform always took the opposite view,
namely that to be effective in war, technology must be used in ways that conform
to war's nature. Korb fails to see Reform and Transformation as opposites and
enemies, although in the end he does lay out how Transformation failed in Iraq.
Wheeler's last chapter defines reform, with the hopeful purpose of renewing
it and making its ideas available to a new President. The fiascos in Iraq and
Afghanistan, coupled with Federal spending that is endangering the country's
financial stability, should put military reform back on the political front
burner. But that should means nothing in Washington, where all that
counts is helping the usual interests feed off the nation's decay. The only
Presidential candidate who might pick up the reform agenda is Bob Barr, if he
gets the Libertarian nomination.
The book concludes with four important appendices, including a condensed version
of the FMFM-1A,
Fourth Generation War, and a superb piece by Don Vandergriff on improving
military education. The last alone is worth the price of the book.
It may be that the Military Reform Movement remains nothing but a historical
footnote, one of many vain attempts to rescue a decaying empire from its appointment
with history's dustbin. But as Win Wheeler makes clear in Military Reform: A
Reference Handbook, it was also the source of some important ideas on how to
win wars and, for those of us who were involved in it, a hell of a ride.