by Robert Herold
On June 26, 1876, an Army column operating on the Little Big Horn discovered the human remains of the U.S. Seventh Cavalry, George A. Custer commanding. Near the bodies of Custer and his men, they found their standard-issue U.S. Army rifles -- single-shot Springfields. The Indians had attacked using repeating Spencers. Over a decade earlier, as the Civil War raged, Lincoln himself had intervened and ordered a reluctant Army ordinance department to purchase Spencer rifles. The army purchased only the minimum number, then, after the war and Lincoln's death, began selling off the war surplus, having declared them obsolete. The tribes acquired more than a few.

So why did the Army resist buying these repeating rifles? And why, a decade after the Civil War had ended, were troops still using single-action rifles? To answer these questions is to begin to understand the enmity that the uniformed military feels towards Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

Like Lincoln, Rumsfeld presumes to know more about weaponry, tactics and even strategy than do those in uniform, the men and women with experience. That he might be right matters less than how he goes about getting his way.

Our armed forces have always resisted change. The army court-martialed Billy Mitchell because of his zealous promotion of air power. The old battleship navy resisted both naval aviation and the development of a nuclear-powered fleet. LBJ's Defense Secretary Robert McNamara's introduction of a rational planning system to replace (or, as it turned out, duplicate) the old incremental system favored by the uniformed military drew heavy opposition, as did the quantitative analysis upon which it was based. Smart-weapon development urged by the civilian leadership during the Carter administration was finally first used a decade later, during the first Gulf War. So the fight over direction and the limits of service autonomy is nothing new.

Rumsfeld came to D.C. with a clear agenda: He wanted a smaller-scale, more technologically sophisticated fighting force. And to get this, he took issue with the "post-Vietnam mindset." Most clearly articulated by Secretary of State Colin Powell, it instructs us not to commit unless the mission is crystal clear, with the objectives spelled out and an exit strategy clearly in place. Not repeating Vietnam also requires that more than enough air power and troops must be massed to get the job done. So to implement a smaller, more efficient force, Rumsfeld must have reasoned that he needed more officers who share his own vision for the future.

Now, add to all this the Paul Wolfowitz doctrine: As spelled out in the DOD strategy document of last year, the United States embraced, for the first time in history, preemptive strikes when deemed necessary. It could be argued that the DOD should change its name to the Department of Offense.

So they're shaking things up. But in the process, Rumsfeld has come off as arrogant, intolerant, inflexible, manipulative, devious and -- worse than all this -- a zealot. Most amazing, military personnel have come to hate Rumsfeld even as he is adding money to their budgets. The same can be said of McNamara's relationship to the uniformed ranks of 40 years ago. McNamara was brought in to fix the non-existent "missile gap," which led to more defense spending. The service budgets received another boost when the new secretary introduced his "graduated response" alternative to the Eisenhower doctrine of "massive retaliation." McNamara redefined and gave the Army an expanded mission, but they still hated him. McNamara supported the construction of a 41-ship ballistic-missile-carrying fleet, but they still they hated him. And why?

Caught up in the services' resistance to reform is their historical pursuit of institutional autonomy. Nor do they respond well when the value of experience is summarily dismissed. It is this, combined with the threat to careers that comes with new ways of doing things, that causes the armed forces to reject a superior rifle, and later air power - or which causes the Navy to resist air power and then nuclear-powered ships.

We see examples of secretaries who have actually been charged with bringing about change -- some actually had to reduce force levels, but were well received anyway. Consider William Perry, who served for three years under Clinton. Perry was liked even while he was cutting budgets. Similarly, Melvin Laird, who came along during the Nixon years, was liked, even though he too was cutting budgets. Both Perry and Laird were viewed as "good listeners" who valued the wisdom bought by experience.

The circumstances now pressing against the U.S. forces, when viewed against the backdrop of this internal acrimony, make the Rumsfeld situation all the more worrisome. Indeed, in the meltdown of President Bush's Iraq strategy, we might be watching defense decision-making and military planning on a collision course with Bush's naive leap into nation-building. Adding to the problem is the fact that Bush's National Security Advisor, Condoleeza Rice, has reduced her role to that of playing Den Mother to the president. This has also created an intellectual vacuum in that all-important office of National Security. And with the election just a year away and a retired general now opposing Bush, the pressure is mounting.

The evidence increasingly suggests that this administration has all but run out of intellectual and moral steam, and at exactly the wrong time. Which brings the issue back to Secretary Rumsfeld, for that is where the problems all began. Employing a strategy and style that can only be described as institutional alienation, Rumsfeld would have a hard time bringing reforms like these in times of peace. Today, with the Bush administration's post-9/11 honeymoon clearly over, he cannot succeed.

Publication date: 10/02/03

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