, Salem, MA


April 5, 2014

Column: Defense non-debate demonstrates American domestic preoccupations

The Obama administration has proposed major changes in defense policy. In an earlier era, these sweeping proposals would have sparked intense and highly visible discussion and debate. Unfortunately, this has not yet happened.

This is the case, despite combat engagement in two extremely long wars, in Afghanistan and Iraq. The U.S. Department of Defense is also involved in a range of military missions in many other places around the globe, along with the continuing struggle against al Qaeda and other terrorist groups since the attacks of 9/11.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is proposing a substantial change in the profile of our military forces. The remarkably durable U-2 spy plane and highly effective A-10 ground support jet are to be retired. The Army is to be reduced by approximately 70,000 soldiers from the current level of 520,000. By contrast, the Marine Corps will be maintained at the current 190,000, and special operations forces increased.

Hagel vows to reduce the overall number of military bases. Their total reflects domestic political patronage more than strategic necessity, and he deserves credit for taking on the issue.

Republicans routinely dismiss the Obama administration’s defense postures as weak but have yet to define and press detailed alternatives. This simplistic approach neglects a number of facts, including service by Secretary of State John Kerry, as well as Republican Hagel in combat in the Vietnam War. They also, by the way, both served in the United States Senate.

In addition to the discipline of detailed analysis of proposals, at least two more fundamental subjects regarding Pentagon policies should be addressed. First, constant deployments have severely stressed American military personnel, with high rates of suicide and mental illness.

Previous Defense Secretary Robert Gates consistently emphasized this human cost. In July 2009, he visited Chicago to address the Economic Club, the first defense secretary to speak before this largely commercial group.

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