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May 29, 2008

The Ancient History of Military Reform


by William S. Lind

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.

Two 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.


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  • William Lind is Director of the Center for Cultural Conservatism at the Free Congress Foundation. He is a former Congressional Aide and the author
    of many books and articles on military strategy and war.

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