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Apocalypse Now: American Military Planning In An Age of Diminishing Possibilities

ISSUE:  Summer 1982

The more one reads about military spending and the Soviet-American nuclear arsenal, the closer one draws to despair. Precious little in this lugubrious literature inspires confidence in the course of human events, in the power of reason or nurturing decency to shape the future, in the capacity of men and women to govern themselves or lead nations to any purposes except self-interest, intolerance, and territoriality. We damn well had better drop whatever we are doing—lay aside worries about car repairs and vacation plans, put out of mind our mid-life crises and petty academic squabbles—and summon courage. Not the strength to arm ourselves and fight, but the unprecedented courage it will take to attempt a halt in the process, so long underway, of arming for self-destruction. Special courage because the process may be inexorable, the destruction inevitable. It may be too late, and we may be too badly flawed. Nonetheless, we truly must try to rise above ourselves.

By no means may we ordinary citizens claim that such issues are beyond our reach. The most impressive new writings on the subject of military policy are uncommonly well written and accessible. Jonathan Schell’s The Fate of the Earth (Knopf, $11.95), which appeared as a three-part series in The New Yorker last February, examines the prospect of nuclear conflict in technical detail and with a moral sensitivity seldom found in the genre. James Fallows’ National Defense (Random House, $12.95) offers a model of leanness and clarity. Both books are the work of “outsiders.” Schell saw the Vietnam War as a reporter and in two volumes of collected dispatches portrayed vividly the destructive impact of the American military on Vietnamese culture. Fallows, a former writer for The Washington Monthly and now with Atlantic, avoided taking part in Vietnam—though he has candidly explained why not—and informs us that he has placed himself on guard against any “residual effect” of that decision. So far from having trouble seeing at their distance beyond the military gate, Schell and Fallows demonstrate again the close relationship between cogent thinking and clear writing, their books standing against the “capability”/”force posture” jargon of Pentagon spokesmen as the language of Bill Moyers, say, compares to Alex Haig’s. Schell and Fallows remind us what a subculture the professional military can easily (though does not always) become and suggest the perils of “in-house” thinking based year-in and year-out on unexamined premises. They leave no doubt that, while war is too important to be left to the generals, defense planning in the nuclear age is far too important to be left to the procurement technocrats, defense contractors, think-tank strategists, and politicians by themselves. Every American voter should read these short books.

To be sure, they will ruin your day and probably your evening as well. We sit on a veritable mountain of nuclear warheads, with more being built daily, with more nations soon likely to obtain this fearful war-making capacity, with the chances very good indeed that one day something in this system of millions of electronic parts will go wrong and, quite by “accident,” we will cross the atomic threshold. Perhaps the step will not be accidental at all, for there are persons describing themselves as realists who speak of acceptable casualty rates and absorbable damage in thermonuclear war, who talk of making a first strike or of taking our losses in an initial attack and then going on to fight and win such a struggle. There are those who believe it feasible to wage a limited or tactical nuclear conflict, artillery batteries shooting neutron bombs with no more hesitation than they would fire a mission of 155mm high-explosive rounds. Schell lays aside such talk as nonsense. Once nuclear devices explode, no one can expect military or political leaders, in a sudden fit of reason, to agree to limit their use to a theater, to certain targets, or to yields of only a few hundred multiples of the Hiroshima or Nagasaki bombs. Soviet and American leaders having failed in peacetime to limit nuclear construction, we can hardly count on them to contain a nuclear war. The way applied force works, it seems far wiser to expect nuclear force to escalate until all stops are pulled.

In short, we are far more realistic if we begin with the assumption that the use of any nuclear weapons (if such they be misnamed) would bring about a nuclear holocaust. This sense of impending doom is, of course, not new to Schell; much of the material he draws upon has been available in official reports and antiwar literature for years and has occasionally surfaced in the popular imagination, as it did in the fifties when On the Beach sobered so many of us in movie-houses. What appears unique to Schell is the tapestry he weaves of scientific data, statistical projections, military “scenarios,” and the compellingly human. Included in his descent into the hell of throwweights and of megatonnage impacting on American targets are eyewitness accounts of zero-hour at Hiroshima. In fact admitting that we mere men do not know what effect a nuclear war would have—we have no planet to experiment on—he nevertheless tells us on reliable authority how we probably would be blown away. Consider, he asks, how a person in a targeted country might die. He or she might be reduced to charcoal by the fireball, thermal pulse, or firestorm that followed the first blast, be lethally exposed to radiation at that moment, or be buried alive or sliced to bits by the blast wave and its debris. He might be injured in one of these ways and then die slowly of unattended wounds. He might die of starvation because the economy disappeared in the darkness, death, and confusion or because radiation had killed all nearby crops. He might die of cold or exposure, or be killed by people armed in desperate search of food, clothing, and shelter. He might, after many days of agony, succumb to radiation sickness. He might die of epidemic disease spread by bad water, unburied dead, or unchecked insects.

By drawing on recent scientific studies of the earth’s environment, Schell also takes us beyond merely pondering being killed—as one might in contemplating conventional war—or the destruction of “society” or “civilization”—as was the point of On the Beach. He invites us to ponder the possibility that a full-scale nuclear war would lead to ecological disruptions that would mean not only our own deaths but the death of life. Most of us cannot easily imagine how effectively nuclear upheaval might work to eradicate even men and women in countries not directly struck by warheads and even life at the humble levels of insects and grasses. Besides the death-dealing radiation that wind currents would eventually spread all over the globe (and the increased rates of cancer and mutation that would follow) nuclear “war” would quite plausibly bring atmospheric darkening severe enough to cause a shift in temperature and weather patterns, with unknown serious consequences. Thousands of megatons of bombs having exploded, levels of radiation would probably be sufficient to kill trees and plants in proportions large enough not only to cause unprecedented soil erosion, and thereby the poisoning of water, but to interrupt the process of photosynthesis critical in maintaining the ozone layer. Here would be a kind of ecological coup de grâce. The intrusion of ultraviolet rays would make the sun, now a lifegiving source, a life destroyer, burning and blinding not just men and animals and birds but many forms of insect life and killing the algae at the base of the oceanic food chain. The more we know about the complex interrelationships of life and environment, as Schell points out, the more nearly the two must be thought of as one, and the more frightening it is to tamper with the balances we slowly are growing to appreciate. Keeping in mind that the consequences of nuclear holocaust would interact “in unguessable ways and, furthermore, are in all likelihood an incomplete list, which will be added to as our knowledge of the earth increases, one must conclude,” Schell argues, “that a full-scale nuclear holocaust could lead to the extinction of mankind.” When “human life and the structure of human existence are seen in the light of each person’s daily life and experience, they look impressively extensive and solid, but when human beings are seen in the light of the universal power unleashed onto the earth by nuclear weapons, they prove to be limited and fragile, as though they were nothing more than a mold or a lichen.”


Having caught this glimpse of Armageddon in the first third of Schell’s book, one finds it difficult to return to immediate issues with anything in mind except disarmament. The folly of building still more nuclear weapons stands out just as starkly as do one’s sins in the moment before death. Yet we need not limit our criticism of military spending to the horrors of nuclear stockpiling. As Fallows shows with abundant evidence, the patterns of institutional orthodoxy and overprocurement hold at the level of conventional weaponry as well. For many years the Air Force has purchased fighter aircraft, for example, of increasing electronic sophistication, higher supersonic speeds, and at staggering expense per plane. The Army has plans to buy a new battle tank so refined that it costs twice as much as its predecessor. The Navy faithfully places its trust in ever-larger aircraft carriers; the “Los Angeles” class submarines at $600 million each are double the cost of the vessels they replace and several times larger than the original nuclear-powered boats. President Reagan, his supporters in the Congress, and military advisers would have us continue on this path, as if our only safety lies in spending as large a proportion of our wealth for defense as apparently do the Soviets, as if bigger and more sophisticated weapons do bestow “more security.”

Ironically, more spending in this manner may in fact weaken us. Because fighters are so expensive, we have today comparatively few of them, when studies demonstrate that winners of dogfights usually fly below the speed of sound, stay in the air longer, and have more friends in the sky than their adversaries. The F15’s we have boast radar designed to give early warning of enemy aircraft, but their telltale signals actually give away the element of surprise, also critical in combat, and are so electronically fancy that they are difficult to maintain and indeed spend much of their time on the ground “deadlined.” Some missiles these planes carry are too expensive to allow the practice shots that would make for experienced combat pilots. Aircraft carriers are by the same token vulnerable to damage or sinking by enemy missiles costing, in proportion, small change. The new Trident submarines, if larger, will be produced in smaller numbers than the Polarises, when the idea is to have plenty of them scattered about as a deterrent; larger, they may prove noisier, when of course they are supposed to be as undetectable as possible. By now everyone has learned that the Ml tank, while a marvel to behold, breaks down in dusty conditions, gets only about 450 yards to a gallon, and (not to mention the countless fuel trucks that must attend a unit of such tanks) requires another expensive vehicle to trail along after each one to dig the holes it needs for its own protection. The ludicrous picture the tank conjures up in combat prompted Mary McGrory to remark that if General Patton were alive today he would slap the M1 in the face for cowardice. Fallows does not say that we should spend less for defense, which might paint him a “liberal” and pit him against “conservatives.” His book stresses that our conventional armed forces would be readier for the reality of combat, should we need them, if we spent our very limited resources more wisely.

Fallows argues further that men and the immeasurable, rather than machines and the countable, matter most in military preparedness and strength. Fighting, he so correctly observes, consists essentially of unpredictability, of fear and confusion, of what Clausewitz called “friction”—the sudden gap between plans and execution, paper specifications and actual performance. If anything can go wrong, it will in combat—a dictum that reminds a Vietnam veteran of the M16’s habit of jamming in firefights and that bodes ill for the Ml tank. One cannot get data on unpredictability. Nor for that matter is it simple to measure esprit, or to instill it. Yet, as Napoleon said, the morale in an army is to the materiel as three is to one. He meant that military men, besides being well equipped, must be spirited, disciplined, bonded among themselves, and well led, especially at the junior and noncommissioned officer levels.

Given the critical importance of such intangibles as bonds of trust and willingness to sacrifice, the American military today leaves one dubious, perhaps a little ashamed. Fallows finds that officers often think of themselves as managers, not leaders in the traditional sense. They are caught up in a system that requires them to punch tickets in different posts to insure well-rounded career patterns and promotion to the next grade. All too seldom do such “supervisors” grow to know a command or develop the unit pride that means webbing among men as opposed to sporting shoulder patches made of webbing. As careerists, they scarcely contest the prevailing “culture of procurement” that ineluctably urges purchase of the latest high-technology hardware (at the expense, by the way, of spare parts for existing equipment) and that promotes interservice rivalry in appropriation-hunting. The managerial ethic, with its paperwork and self-advancement, may have identifiable origins in Robert McNamara’s tenure as defense secretary; it may have been predictable as technology, “efficiency,” and organizational imperatives carry forward in the late 20th century. At any rate the best senior officers, men in the service themselves testify, often turn out to be maverick, traditionally minded colonels who do not make general.

The American military is in a crisis, and if one disbelieves—blaming Fallows for an outsider’s “bias”—he should pick up Thomas H. Etzold’s Defense or Delusion (Harper & Row, $14.95). Etzold teaches strategy at the Naval War College, and, although his principal manpower complaint seems to be low pay, he minces no words about the system as a whole. “The military is marked by a loss of leadership,” he writes, “a loss of confidence, a loss of pride, and lowering of expectations of the future.” Current shortages of officers (speaking now not of quality but of numbers alone) in the lower and middle ranks Etzold describes as an “insidious” problem that will surface in ten years or so when the Defense Department applies the Peter Principle and promotes men whose incompetence then will blossom fully. “If there is a better way to wind up with the top jobs being held by people who really believe in bombing people back into the stone age, or making the rubble bounce, who really think that complex social and political problems have simple, available, and often violent answers, it has yet to be discovered.”

Equally bad news from both Fallows and Etzold concerns the enlisted ranks of our all-volunteer service. For President Reagan and Milton Friedman, there may be coherent economic theory in treating the military as another job and raising wages until the ranks fill with employees. Eventually, we perhaps could grow used to watching slick Armed Forces commercials during televised basketball games. But both Fallows and Etzold make clear that the money has not been high enough, and that high pay would not be enough anyway. The enlisted ranks are now filled disproportionately with the poor, uneducated, and non-white; the “just another job” mentality erodes military discipline and esprit. Soldiers quit at five o’clock and drive their separate ways home. Enlisted ranks are thinnest in the technical fields where repairs are made to the sophisticated gear every branch of the service (save possibly the Marine Corps) employs; badly kept-up equipment shakes confidence in maintenance crews and machines alike. Recruitment, slow though it be, remains in Etzold’s view secondary to the problem of retention. With pay low, housing poor, and moves frequent, many volunteers leave the service after a hitch or two and thereby dry up the source of good non-coms without whom any military force is green and shaky. Most discouraging of all these observations must be the color-class complaint. While training officers told Fallows that their men and women do “try hard,” there was, they said, something lacking, someone missing. “Where’s the rest of the country,” asked one Army officer, “not just the poor kids and the blacks?” Instead of military men bonded among themselves in mutual respect and trust and to the society they defend by being representative of it, we have a job corps in uniform, a mercenary force that by the mid-1980’s we can expect to be more than half black and chicano in the lowest (that is, fighting) ranks of the combat arms of infantry, armor, and artillery. To allow this trend to continue would be seriously irresponsible in several ways, but one Army general to whom Fallows spoke made the most striking comment. “I wonder,” he said, “about the morality of a country that lets the disadvantaged do the fighting.”


No short summary of these books does them justice. Schell writes provocatively of the responsibility we bear to generations unborn, to those millions upon millions of persons who would never be if we turn the earth into a barren, radioactive nodule in space. He examines with rigor the position that our only security lies in Soviet-American mutually assured destruction. Fallows discusses in detail the reasons for doubting the conventional military wisdom that, to be safe, we must accept as given the Soviets’ ability to deliver a first strike closely enough on target (firing ten thousand miles over the North Pole) to destroy most or many of our ground missiles in their silos. Strategic theory, Schell notes, “seems to have taken on a weird life of its own, where weapons are pictured as having their own scores to settle, irrespective of human purposes.” Unsatisfactory as it is both for reader and writer merely to report on these volumes, one can only repeat that they are must reading and say something of the courses of action they recommend.

By turning over so many foundation stones of post-World War II military policy, Schell and Fallows return our attention to fundamentals that we neglect at our peril. They do not suggest simple-minded solutions—much less the “quick fix” which, according to Etzold, the military generally provides— but radical good sense. Because we live in an imperfect world, military strength remains an unhappy necessity, until, at least, the day when the peoples of the earth submit to an order of law and when the armies of now-sovereign nations can give way to a police force that serves the purposes of our own constabulary—enforcing the law, protecting established rights, preserving what then will be a world community. If we conserve life on the earth, that day will probably arrive (though not in our lifetimes nor in the foreseeable future) just as Americans in 1789 finally saw beyond the boundaries of the localities and states that until then had been their “countries.” Meantime our military, Fallows and others argue, will stand far better prepared for the tasks we may have to assign it if equipped with reliable, simple tools that minimize the damaging effects of combat “friction,” and if— instead of expecting to overwhelm an adversary by weight and attrition—we give credence to the lessons of history on the unpredictability of war. These lessons place value on cleverness, deception, and adaptability, on what Fallows, after listening to retired Air Force colonel John Boyd, describes as the process of “staying one step ahead of the enemy’s thinking at all times, and then to attack the enemy where he was least prepared and weakest, rather than wade head-on to match strength against strength.” A military shaped with these principles in view (only the Marine Corps, by necessity, abides by them today) would be far leaner, more likely to prevail in combat, and would be far less expensive than the forces we now have.

Second, we must face the simple truth that self-government carries duties and reinstitute the draft. We should do so despite all our natural objections to compulsory service, despite our healthy historical suspicion of a “standing army” and our aversion to a militarized society, and despite the fact that a draft alone will not solve all our military problems. A draft would improve the pool of men who undergo technical training. It would help to retain non-coms who now depart complaining that nobody below them is fit to teach or amenable to military discipline. A draft would prompt fuller participation in reserve officer training programs and provide more veterans for the reserve and national guard units now badly undermanned. The problem of retention would remain. But if Congress raised military pay and allowances as it should, many draftees and ROTC officers would doubtless choose as others before them to make the military a career. Most important, a draft would restore links between the service and American society. A draft that each year randomly selected the number of able-bodied young men (no exceptions or deferments, as in the past) necessary for full conventional force levels would actually come close to approximating the citizen-soldier or militia concept that American leaders in the early republic believed a bulwark against the dangers of military rule. “No free government was ever founded or ever preserved its liberty,” wrote an anonymous contributor to a Philadelphia paper in 1799, “without uniting the character of the citizen and soldier in the defence of the state.” The principle remains valid. “Civilianizing” the military in the sense the founding fathers had in mind, a draft would insure that a representative sample of American young men took on the unglamorous chore that the Navy advertises as an “adventure.” By returning citizen-soldiers to civilian life, this system would help insure that future public discussion of military matters has grounding in the firsthand experience of a broad range of Americans, including the educated and middle-class.

If we are wise and fortunate, such discussion of nonconventional or nuclear forces will soon lead to bold departures. As Schell so forcefully points out, “war,” “weapons,” and “defense” have had certain meanings through all the human past which, in the nuclear age, are changed forevermore. War has been the extreme instrument in achieving ends; weapons have been made terrible for self-defense; protection of the homeland has been the honorable purpose of military service. But a nuclear holocaust would likely leave no ends, no self, no family or country. Perhaps the Soviets have reached the same conclusion; perhaps not. Because, however, there is an upper limit on the destruction we could wreak on the Soviet Union if it attacked us and our surviving leaders chose to unleash the nuclear devices remaining, there seems no sane objective to be served in failing to agree to a freeze on the construction of more such devices. At the same time, we could follow Fallow’s suggestion and seek a test ban on the missilery that would deliver them. Theories about Soviet civil defense and hardened silos, projections about third- and fourth-wave retaliatory strikes notwithstanding, we can die only once and only once could irradiate the Eurasian continent. We can and must extend ourselves in an effort to begin serious disarmament discussions; to make that effort by heaping up more nuclear “arms,” as President Reagan says we must, ceased making sense when our power to destroy became total.

Because all the nuclear missiles necessary to retaliate by destroying Soviet society are available in our nuclear-powered submarines with their three thousand warheads and because intramural competition in the Pentagon presents such problems in putting the cap on nuclear expansion, another prudent change suggests itself: divorcing American nuclear “weaponry” from the conventional military and placing our confidence in the submarine force that lies virtually invulnerable below the seas. This civilian strategic service would report directly to the president and the national security council. It would permit the phasing out of the land-based nuclear missiles that make bull’s-eyes of our Western states and are dangerous to nearby civilians as they deteriorate; it would render unnecessary the purchase of generation upon generation of bombers that will always be comparatively liable to interception. Such a strategic service might well conduct the scientific research that would keep us ahead of the Soviets in antisubmarine technology, but as Sidney Drell of Stanford has pointed out—proposing the submarine-only deterrent—such craft would not have to wander far from our shores to be effective in their role (could indeed be diesel-powered and thereby much cheaper) and if deployed nearby could be protected by the surface fleet. A separate, civilian force with the duty of shallow underwater deterrence would drop the Army-Navy-Air Force rivalry for money from the nuclear disarmament equation. While the United States would retain as a bargaining chip for as long as required the power to vaporize the Soviet people, that power for once would be self-limited—rather than keyed to what the Soviets may or may not be doing—and the expense of that dreadful power would remain within some bounds. One would hope, of course, that the history of such a patently defensive strategic service would be cut short by a disarmament agreement.

Discussing the likely catastrophic effect of a nuclear holocaust (and the ultimate futility of “civil defense” schemes), Schell observes that there simply is “no hole big enough to hide all of nature in.” These books, particularly his, leave a reader perched on that plane—thinking about “all of nature,” where we fit in it, how we use natural resources. While we have a Defense Department to be safe, it bears remembering that we cannot be secure if we desperately need commodities that leave us hostage to their suppliers and ominously multiply our “vital interests.” Nor, it seems clear, do we keep our long-term security in view when we treat countries in Asia and Latin America with heavy-handed paternalism. If we fear diversity in the world, and otherwise try to defend too much, we make ourselves a monstrous target for the anger and mistrust of other cultures. Neither our comparative opulence nor jealousy of it needs introduction: interleaved with Schell’s original essays were the usual New Yorker ads for luxuries like smokeless charcoal broilers—one pictured in a penthouse apartment—and for the gold American Express card, which, sure enough, carries the message “Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick.” To succeed in keeping the world alive for our children’s children, to safeguard what is most worth passing on to them, we should expect in years to come to have less of what now makes us so comfortable. Considering that this nation historically has been accustomed to plenty— has been the very symbol of abundance—the last lesson will not go down easily.

There are therefore grounds for pessimism. People do not willingly accept less. Bureaucracies like the Department of Defense, if successful at nothing else, preserve themselves and seek growth. If there exists a more powerful lobby in the United States than defense-related industry, one shrinks from contemplating it. To legislate a draft would be to call for personal self-sacrifice when the signs of the times point to self-fulfillment. The rate of technological progress cannot turn much steeper, but as we become more adept at manipulating our environment the evidence builds that increasingly we damage it and ourselves; as the curve approaches sheer vertical we may be caught in what Schell calls “the tightening net of technological success.” We hold to be self-evident truths that are worth fighting and dying for. Yet the threat of extinguishing mankind in a quarrel over rights or principles forces us to weigh our beliefs on scales men never before have had to use, and as George F. Kennan said at Dartmouth last year, “there is no issue at stake in our political relations with the Soviet Union—no hope, no fear, nothing to which we aspire, nothing we would like to avoid—which could conceivably be worth a nuclear war.” Yet again no one would want prevention of nuclear war to represent an end to which any means were permissible. Clearly, to avoid both nuclear holocaust and ethical abdication—while beginning the process of disarmament—the leaders of the Western democracies will have to be persons of extraordinary political skill and broad moral vision. Especially given the rise of special interest and media-management politics in this country, one cannot be surprised that these qualities so rarely appear in Washington or be terribly hopeful that public debate on military issues will soon depart the traditional flag-waving and logrolling. So many men (and women) in public life cling to the politics of the prenuclear age—pandering to popular fears, voicing our gut impulses, and blustering about going to war; when they speak of their “place in history,” notes Schell, we should be angry not only because of their vanity but for their presumption in trying to reserve a place in the history that their own actions place in doubt.

For once American military policy must be the business of all of us. We could begin debate by recognizing, as Etzold declares from the Naval War College, that the critical issues “depend not on arcane scientific knowledge or on classified military secrets but on basic elements of politics and military affairs accessible to virtually any interested citizen.”

We will have to go further, asking questions about the human cost at home of military overexpenditure and the fate we wish to prepare for the earth itself. If there is hope, it may rest in the Jeffersonian confidence that an informed citizenry usually will decide in the right. All the same our courage will have to be the kind that does not depend on hope. To prevail, paraphrasing the words of William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize speech, we will have to hear the ding-dong of doom.


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