Memo to the President: Your Legacy Must Be to Restore America’s Military

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(Washington, D.C.):The Center for Security Policy presented novelist and essayist Mark Helprin its first “Mightier Pen” award on 18 April, in the company of nearly 150 past and present security policy-practitioners, senior congressional staff members and journalists. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz presented Mr. Helprin with the award, which recognized the enormous contribution his published writings have made to the public’s appreciation of the need for robust U.S. national security policies and military strength as an indispensable ingredient in promoting international peace.

As the following column, based on his acceptance speech at the Center event, attests, Helprin’s work indeed embodies the spirit of the “Mightier Pen.” His spirited and moving call for a restoration of America’s military power is, rightly, based not on a desire for war, but rather for the strength that will ensure the Nation’s ability to deter war into the turbulent future.

The Fire Next Time

By Mark Helprin

The Wall Street Journal, 24 April 2001

From Alexandria in July of 1941, Randolph Churchill reported to his father as the British waited for Rommel to attack upon Egypt. In the midst of a peril that famously concentrated mind and spirit, he wrote, “You can see generals wandering around GHQ looking for bits of string.”

Apparently these generals were not, like their prime minister, devoted to Napoleon’s maxim, “Frappez la masse, et le reste vient par surcroit ,” which, vis-a-vis strategic or other problems, bids one to concentrate upon the essence, with assurance that all else will follow in train, even bits of string.

Consensus Destroyed

Those with more than a superficial view of American national security, who would defend and preserve it from the fire next time, have by necessity divided their forces in advocacy of its various elements, but they have neglected its essence. For the cardinal issue of national security is not China, is not Russia, is not weapons of mass destruction, or missile defense, the revolution in military affairs, terrorism, training, or readiness. It is, rather, that the general consensus in regard to defense since Pearl Harbor — that doing too much is more prudent than doing too little — has been destroyed. The last time we devoted a lesser proportion of our resources to defense, we were well protected by the oceans, in the midst of a depression, and without major international responsibilities, and even then it was a dereliction of duty.

The destruction is so influential that traditional supporters of high defense spending, bent to the will of their detractors, shrink from argument, choosing rather to negotiate among themselves so as to prepare painstakingly crafted instruments of surrender.

A leader of defense reform, whose life mission is to defend the United States, writes to me: “Please do not quote me under any circumstances by name. . . . Bush has no chance of winning the argument that more money must be spent on defense. Very few Americans feel that more money needs to be spent on defense and they are right. The amount of money being spent is already more than sufficient.”

More than sufficient to fight China? It is hard to think of anything less appealing than war with China, but if we don’t want that we must be able to deter China, and to deter China we must have the ability to fight China. More than sufficient to deal with simultaneous invasions of Kuwait, South Korea, and Taiwan? More than sufficient to stop even one incoming ballistic missile? Not yet, not now, and, until we spend the money, not ever.

For someone of the all-too-common opinion that a strong defense is the cause of war, a favorite trick is to advance a wholesale revision of strategy, so that he may accomplish his depredations while looking like a reformer. This pattern is followed instinctively by the French when they are in alliance and by the left when it is trapped within the democratic order. But to do so one need be neither French nor on the left.

Neville Chamberlain, who was neither, starved the army and navy on the theory that the revolution in military affairs of his time made the only defense feasible that of a “Fortress Britain” protected by the Royal Air Force — and then failed in building up the air force. Bill Clinton, who is not French, and who came into office calling for the discontinuance of heavy echelons in favor of power projection, simultaneously pressed for a severe reduction in aircraft carriers, the sine qua non of power projection. Later, he and his strategical toadies embraced the revolution in military affairs not for its virtues but because even the Clinton-ravished military “may be unaffordable,” and “advanced technology offers much greater military efficiency.”

This potential efficiency is largely unfamiliar to the general public. For example, current miniaturized weapons may seem elephantine after advances in extreme ultraviolet lithography equip guidance and control systems with circuitry not .25 microns but .007 microns wide, a 35-fold reduction that will make possible the robotization of arms, from terminally guided and target-identifying bullets to autonomous tank killers that fly hundreds of miles, burrow into the ground, and sleep like locusts until they are awakened by the seismic signature of enemy armor.

Lead-magnesium-niobate transducers in broadband sonars are likely to make the seas perfectly transparent, eliminating for the first time the presumed invulnerability of submarine-launched ballistic missiles, the anchor of strategic nuclear stability. The steady perfection of missile guidance has long made nearly everything the left says about nuclear disarmament disingenuous or uninformed, and the advent of metastable explosives creates the prospect of a single B-1 bomber carrying the non-nuclear weapons load of 450 B-17s, the equivalent of 26,800 100-pound bombs. Someday, we will have these things, or, if we abstain, our potential enemies will have them and we will not.

To field them will be more expensive than fielding less miraculous weapons, which cannot simply be abandoned lest an enemy exploit the transition, and which will remain as indispensable as the rifleman holding his ground, because the nature of war is counter-miraculous. And yet, when the revolution in military affairs is still mainly academic, we have cut recklessly into the staple forces.

God save the American soldier from those who believe that his life can be protected and his mission accomplished on the cheap. For what they perceive as extravagance is always less costly in lives and treasure than the long drawn-out wars it deters altogether or shortens with quick victories. In the name of their misplaced frugality we have transformed our richly competitive process of acquiring weapons into the single-supplier model of the command economies that we defeated in the Cold War, largely with the superior weapons that the idea of free and competitive markets allowed us to produce.

Though initially more expensive, producing half a dozen different combat aircraft and seeing which are best is better than decreeing that one will do the job and praying that it may. Among other things, strike aircraft have many different roles, and relying upon just one would be the same sort of economy as having Clark Gable play both Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara.

Having relinquished or abandoned many foreign bases, the United States requires its warships to go quickly from place to place so as to compensate for their inadequate number, and has built them light using a lot of aluminum, which, because it can burn in air at 3,000 degrees Celsius, is used in incendiary bombs and blast furnaces. (Join the navy and see the world. You won’t need to bring a toaster.)

And aluminum or not, there are too few ships. During the EP-3 incident various pinheads furthered the impression of an American naval cordon off the Chinese coast. Though in 1944 the navy kept 17 major carriers in the central Pacific alone, not long ago its assets were so attenuated by the destruction of a few Yugos disguised as tanks that for three months there was not in the vast western Pacific even a single American aircraft carrier.

What remains of the order of battle is crippled by a lack of the unglamorous, costly supports that are the first to go when there isn’t enough money. Consider the floating dry dock. By putting ships back into action with minimal transit time, floating dry docks are force preservers and multipliers. In 1972, the United States had 94. Now it has 14. Though history is bitter and clear, this kind of mistake persists.

Had the allies of World War II been prepared with a sufficient number of so pedestrian a thing as landing craft, the war might have been cheated of a year and a half and many millions of lives. In 1940, the French army disposed of 530 artillery pieces, 830 antitank guns, and 235 (almost half) of its best tanks, because in 1940 the French did not think much of the Wehrmacht — until May.

How shall the United States avoid similar misjudgments? Who shall stand against the common wisdom when it is wrong about deterrence, wrong about the causes of war, wrong about the state of the world, wrong about the ambitions of ascendant nations, wrong about history, and wrong about human nature?

The Prudent Course

In the defense of the United States, doing too much is more prudent than doing too little. Though many in Congress argue this and argue it well, Congress will not follow one of its own. Though the president’s appointees also argue it well, the public will wait only upon the president himself. Only he can sway a timid Congress, clear the way for his appointees, and move the country toward the restoration of its military power.

The president himself must make the argument, or all else is in vain. If he is unwilling to risk his political capital and his presidency to undo the damage of the past eight years, then in the fire next time his name will be linked with that of his predecessor, and there it will stay forever.

Mr. Helprin, a Journal contributing editor, is a novelist.

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