Pentagon woes -- and ways to resolve them

The Pentagon and the Art of War, by Edward N. Luttwak. New York: Institute for Contemporary Studies/Simon & Schuster. 333 pp. $17.95. The last five years have seen a burst of official and public interest in US national defense. After a period of post-Vietnam neglect, Pentagon spending began growing under Jimmy Carter and rapidly accelerated with Ronald Reagan's ``rearm America'' program.

Is the United States more secure for all the billions spent on a bristling arsenal? It seems so when weapons, troop strength, and military alliances are compared with those of likely US adversaries. But the more difficult questions about strategy and military effectiveness may lead to troubling answers.

Edward Luttwak's credentials as a pro-defense theorist -- a consultant to the Pentagon and State Department as well as adviser to foreign governments and industry -- are well known. In congressional testimony, he argues for more defense spending.

Yet his detailed new book rolls through the US military establishment like a tank battalion whose battle cry is ``no prisoners.''

Forget the $400 hammers and $600 toilet seats, he says; they are little more than distractions raised by publicity-seeking lawmakers. The problems with large defense budgets are much more fundamental than greedy contractors, inattentive bureaucrats, or venal politicians, he argues. And the result is a military that botches a desert rescue mission and spends far more time and energy than should have been necessary to take over a minor Caribbean island. Then there was Vietnam, which he says was marked by ``ritualistic tactics, vacuous operational methods, and strategies of defeat.''

Luttwak is wrong about the hammers and the toilet seats. They are symptomatic of a military procurement system that badly needs reform, whether or not there is overall organizational change.

But he is on target when he scores the Defense Department's military and civilian leadership for letting the bureaucracy bloat, stifling ingenuity and leadership, and failing to focus on those intangibles that determine victory or defeat in combat. And he is absolutely correct in stressing that military effectiveness (deterring aggression or defeating an enemy as quickly as possible) is not at all the same thing as the efficiency sought by business leaders and deficit-battered politicians.

With logic and clarity, Luttwak walks the lay reader through the logistic and tactical trail of defense budgetmaking and operational command.

He tracks the growth of noncombat organizations within the military, a ``grossly overelaborate structure [which] yields equally overelaborate products.'' And he criticizes the ``grossly excessive number of officers above middle rank [which] drowns the undoubted talent and dedication of individual officers in the mediocrity of the crowd.'' Like many other critics these days, Luttwak finds the Joint Chiefs of Staff an ineffective body plagued by interservice rivalry and a promotion system that often punishes efforts to reduce this harmful competitiveness.

To some, the answers he suggests may seem extreme. And his impressive intellectual efforts are unhampered by actual military service that might have tempered his assertions about uniformed bureaucrats with the realization that the ``fog of war'' is just as apt to swirl through the halls of the Pentagon and Congress as foreign battlefields.

But Luttwak's reform proposals are well worth considering and provide a valuable addition to the debate about where the US military should be headed in the post-Vietnam era.

Brad Knickerbocker is the Monitor's national news editor. A combat pilot in Vietnam, he recently completed three years covering the Pentagon.

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