The State of the Arsenal

What a strange moment the country’s living through! David Evans, who’s the Chicago Tribune’s military-affairs writer, compared it to the “phony war” that followed the German invasion of Poland, when Europe’s guns sat silent while Hitler massed his army in the west. We remembered Britain’s improbable armada steaming slowly toward the Falkland Islands.

But both comparisons fall short. Hitler was a conqueror biding his time; he knew exactly what he intended. Margaret Thatcher meant to liberate a patch of land that, however distant and useless, belonged to Britain. America doesn’t know what it wants. The nation is girding itself for a war it can’t afford on behalf of a commodity–foreign oil–that everyone knows we shouldn’t need as desperately as we do.

Far from working themselves into a jingoistic swivet, the American people have filled the calm before the storm with questions, some of them fundamental. What are we now, the West’s indentured gendarmerie? Is any foreign cause worth fighting for? Is Kuwait one? “We’re restoring absolute monarchies,” says David Evans. “On the other hand, Kuwait was screwed over big-time.”

David Evans does not think war is inevitable in the Persian Gulf. But if it comes, he can imagine the United States losing, or winning at such a high cost that the victory will be remembered as a catastrophe. He believes–and has been writing–that much of the high-tech equipment that is supposed to make our army of Arabia invincible is junk.

His angriest columns savaged the Army’s infantry antitank weapons, which he predicted “will be about as effective at stopping Iraqi tanks as throwing Nerf balls at them.”

He told us, “We’ve had a crisis in infantry antitank weaponry that’s been known for over ten years. It’s not because the Army hasn’t spent the money. The Army has dribbled away extraordinary sums of money to produce third-rate, overly complex, overpriced, and unreliable weapons.”

Is this the state of our weaponry across the board? we asked him. “The situation could be described as not as bad as the Pentagon’s worst critics would presume,” Evans said, “and not nearly as good as the arch-defenders of the military-industrial complex would have us believe. In terms of top-line aircraft–clearly the F16 and the F15 fighters rank among the world’s very best. As is the A10 attack jet. All three of these are the product of some of the most vocal mavericks in the Air Force, who did not go on to be general officers, which suggests that success has come in spite of, not because of, our procurement system.”

The Pentagon brass, Evans said, recognize two kinds of reporters: “Doormats and the enemy.” Evans is the enemy. Drawing on his contacts (anonymous, of course) inside the Pentagon, Evans reports on the national defense as he came to understand it during his 20 years as a Marine officer. “The great epiphany of my career was discovering that the overriding goal was not combat effectiveness,” he told us. “It was the flow of funds to the contractor. It was of secondary importance that this stuff work. And in too many cases, when officers engage in effective testing, their careers are wrecked.”

The invasion of Kuwait has forced the nation into a kind of reappraisal of the Reagan-Bush years, a weighing of the era’s carelessness and gluttony. Evans wants to know what happened to the “$1 trillion transfusion of cash that went into the Pentagon.” He marvels that the country could have spent so much money, above and beyond normal defense spending, and today not even have enough spare parts.

What Evans calls “sustainability” has lately been identified as Saddam Hussein’s Achilles’ heel, the embargo by Iraq’s usual military suppliers undermining Hussein’s ability to keep his tanks and aircraft operational. Evans thinks sustainability’s really our problem, so big it could stop the Army in its tracks.

He hasn’t written about this yet, because too much of his evidence is impressionistic, but he said “there are strong indications that the Army is unbelievably short of spare tank engines, tank tracks, gun barrels, both artillery and tank spare parts and munitions–and indeed, the shortages are so severe that the Army may not be able to sustain an operation into Kuwait for more than two weeks.”

Can America win the war in two weeks? we asked him.

“No,” said Evans.

Does George Bush understand these shortages? we asked. Evans doubts it. “There are very high level discussions taking place now. I’m not sure how high they go. I’m not sure [the secretary of defense or chairman of the joint chiefs of staff] knows how bad the situation is. Nor is it unique to the Army. There is an enormous chasm between what the Army’s been promising and what it can now deliver. Think of this terrible irony. The president is pumping more troops in there in order to get another option–the option being to attack. But it’s an option his generals cannot sustain.

“May not be able to sustain,” said Evans, amending himself. “Get some weasel words in there.”

We asked Evans, who spent five weeks in Saudi Arabia during the buildup, if the American soldiers in the field share his skepticism about their equipment. “Many of them do,” he said. On the other hand, “there’s sort of a denial psychosis going on. You really don’t want to think the worst. There’s always the hope this stuff is going to work even though it’s untried. My point in beating away on these things is that this is a psychological problem as well as a combat problem. What incentive do our troops have to stand and fight when in the opening moments of battle they’ll find these weapons will not hit and will not stop?”

Could the deficiencies in American weaponry be decisive? we asked him. “Yes,” said Evans. “Yes.” Then he qualified that. “We can always eke out a victory with the application of brute force. And I would never sell our soldiers short. But for years we’ve had a whole litany of defense officials saying there’s nothing too good for our boys, nothing but the best for our boys.”

Evans never believed those guys. But maybe the White House did.

The Status of the Army

When the buildup began, we weren’t the only journalist to make the point that the American troops reporting to the desert were not our neighbors, or brothers, or sons. They came from other parts–the fringes?–of society, the argument ran, and it would be immoral to send them into war on our behalf. If those were the sons of congressmen, more than one ironist has observed, there’d be none of this chatter about invading.

The other way of looking at the all-volunteer Army is that its social origins are one of its strengths. What good’s an Army that it’s impolitic to send into battle? What good’s an army–David Evans says this–riddled with incompetents?

“What’s the primary role of the Army–readiness or social representativeness?” Evans said to us. “If it’s the latter, it’ll have to take a whole lot more dumb people than we’re taking today.

“Now, for those who say the elite of America aren’t involved in the situation–my answer is, what kind of a company commander do we think Dan Quayle would have made, anyway? And do we really want the sons of the buy-out artists and junk-bond salesmen now trying to lead our forces in battle? I don’t want those guys anywhere around.”

It makes Evans steam just thinking about it. “I see very little evidence of the leadership classes in America doing anything constructive for America over the last couple of decades,” he went on. “The military has always been a vehicle for upward mobility. It’s what the critics of an all-volunteer force now call the great bastion of the lower middle classes. Perhaps the chief representative of that mobility was Eisenhower, of a certainly lower class, practically pauperized family from Kansas. And I say, if we can produce some more Eisenhowers, what’s wrong with taking in the lower middle class?

“There are two issues that those who are fretting about representativeness need to be up-front about. Is that their way of getting at the racial composition of the armed forces? Or is it another approach to the restoration of national service? To the latter, I’d say a national draft is a hell of a peace dividend at the end of the cold war.”

Holiday Votes

Thanks to Eddie Burke, we now know why the City Council voted 49-0 to make December 4 Fred Hampton Day. “I think a lot of people thought it was Dan Hampton Day in Chicago,” explained Burke, one of 16 white aldermen who tried to take their names off the resolution after being reminded that Fred Hampton was the martyred Black Panther leader. “It was one of those things that slipped through.”

Mistakes happen. Geronimo Aspic, an official spokesman down in Arizona, tells us his state has suffered unduly from the same sort of confusion. Surveys there show that the vote to kibosh a Martin Luther King holiday gained from sentiment that Billie Jean King is a neat lady but not really major enough to warrant keeping the kids home from school. An even bigger factor, according to the state’s own research, turns out to be a papist bloc still smarting over the Augsburg Confession. “The government of Arizona thinks it’s high time that bygones were bygones,” said Aspic, “but if they’re not, is that a reason to take away the Super Bowl?”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Darrow Montgomery.