Leadership: March 7, 2001

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Mending the Military; A major issue during the 2000 presidential race was the state of the military. The Democrats said it was fine, the Republicans said it was broken. OK, what is it?

Bill Clinton was not much liked by the American military. A telling story currently circulating among the troops noted that when president George W. Bush leaves his helicopter, the marine always stationed right outside salutes the debarking president. And as the president walks away, the marine turns, still at attention, to face the president's back. When Clinton was president, the marine just saluted and didn't turn around. Now most people will not recognize two interesting aspects of this seemingly innocuous scene. Many navy veterans will note that it is customary for marines to move that way in the presence of a superior officer. This goes back to the days of sailing ships, when the captain would be on deck during a battle, all his subordinates in the vicinity would always face their boss, the better to receive instructions. This stance is still considered a sign of respect, even though it no longer serves a practical purpose. What most people missed was that during the Clinton presidency, the marines stopped doing this, and resumed it when George W Bush became president. 

What did Clinton do to earn the enmity of the troops? Being a blatant Vietnam era draft dodger didn't help. A decades long attitude of disdain towards the military was also noted. But these items were inconsequential. It doesn't much matter who the Commander-in-Chief is, it's what he does. As soldiers like to say, "salute the uniform, not the man." 

Clinton's military policies did a lot of damage. The worst move was to destroy the high training levels enjoyed in the 1980s and early 1990s. Training is the largely invisible element (in peacetime) that turns a bunch of folks in uniform into an effective fighting force. There was no deliberate attempt to destroy training and readiness for combat. But it was done during the 1990s and the troops knew it.

This was accomplished via a number of policies. First, the military was ordered to create a level playing field so that women could compete for a larger number of military jobs. Measures like training men and women together in basic had the effect of making basic useless for the male troops. Ever obedient, the generals and admirals ordered that standards be bent and qualifications reduced so that more women were in more different military jobs. The troops themselves were rather dismayed by all this, but speaking out while on active duty was frowned on, and could be construed as illegal under military law if anyone got too loud. You could get an earful from former and retired military men (and some women). But that story never got picked up by the media in a big way.

The military was also forced to abandon it's long standing policy of discouraging low ranking enlisted personnel from getting married. This particular practice is several thousand years old and based on very practical considerations. The troops in question are often teenagers, are only in the service for a few years, don't make much money and are way to busy do deal with their military responsibilities, leisure time activities and a family. The Clinton administration decreed that the military must be "family friendly" and married individuals (even if single parents) must be allowed to enlist. More money had to be spent on child care. This became very expensive, as some eight percent of the army personnel are single parents and there are many other families where both parents are in the service. This led to an increasing number of hardship stories when troops had to be sent overseas to areas where the family could not be brought along. 

The larger number of young families made more work for unit commanders, who are responsible for dealing with family trouble among his troops. All of this hurt training, for not only were the troops more stressed by multiple responsibilities, but money was diverted from training to things like housing and child care. There were also the stories about families on food stamps. This would not have happened if the traditional policy of "no family until you're an NCO" were maintained. Of course, a hefty pay raise for the lower ranks would have helped as well, but the Clinton administration also held back on pay raises for the military. 

The money problem was also a result of pork barrel politics. And this is best represented by expensive weapons systems. Politicians have long known that spending this in the right places can ease re-election anxiety considerably. Military necessity is not an issue. There were no moves from the White House to cut back on the politically popular high ticket items. When money was needed for peacekeeping or social programs in the military, it came out of training.

Fixing the damage, mending the military, won't be easy and it will take several years. That assumes the money is found and recruiting and training policies changed. There is no will in Congress to cut off the flow of military pork. Most people in Congress face re-election every two years. Efforts to keeping single parents and teenage parents out of uniform will generate some loud opposition. Politicians seeking re-election don't want to be seen as campaigning against motherhood. Ignoring training and readiness is an easy way out. Don't expect anything to change quickly, if at all. Mending the military will probably not make it past the sound bite stage.