If Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates were a rock star, his staff would have sold farewell-tour T-shirts at his recent appearances. This past month, Mr.. Gates edged closer to his Pentagon exit by telling legislators in budget hearings and cadets at the Air Force Academy and West Point that it was his swan song before them as secretary.
The farewell speeches at the military academies in particular struck timeless chords touched in some fashion by all administrations of how the military of the future should look and what challenges it will face. Mr. Gates' improvisation on that thematic riff was to compare today's environment to what he saw transpire in the 44 years since January 1967, when he was commissioned an Air Force lieutenant during the Cold War.
Though long past those days, he admonished his audiences about when he took over at the Pentagon and found that the military services "still to a great extent viewed the world through the prism of the 20th century." Each service had its "traditional orientation" (for the Air Force, air-to-air combat and strategic bombing) and has had to "shed the nostalgia that can too often consume the institutional culture of any large, successful organization." He also warned of engaging in a "techno-optimism" - paraphrased as overconfidence and reliance on technology - that "muddled strategic thinking in the past."
While he focused squarely on service parochialisms, missions, budgets and future threats, what the secretary did not talk about - likely on purpose - were the pressing societal and political issues of the day, which assuredly possess the same powers to shape tomorrow's military.
Using Mr. Gates' recollection of his world in 1967 to make the point: It would be another six years - in 1973 and after the bulk of Vietnam combat - before the nation abandoned the draft for the all-volunteer force. While that volunteer force generally has served the nation well for nearly four decades, it allows less than 1 percent of the population to serve in uniform at a time when the country is engaged in one of the longest periods of sustained combat in its history. President Obama devoted a brief six sentences in his recent State of the Union address to the war in Afghanistan, and the nation has now demurred on a decision to at least assist the world community in stopping a tyrannical dictator. The all-volunteer military arguably allows the nation's wars to be fought without the full attention of the American public and its leadership.
Similarly, who would have imagined four decades ago that a recent Naval Academy superintendent would say that increased diversity and minority recruitment were "the No. 1 priority" instead of the traditional academy mission to produce the most capable line-combat officers? Or that NASA's chief, given the space agency's national-security tie-ins, would declare his organization's priority is outreach to Muslim countries? Would anyone have thought a retired four-star general would sign off on findings of a diversity commission with the statement that "diversity of our service members is the unique strength of our military"?
Just as there are those overly enamored of technology to shape the military, the most controversial of today's issues have their own vocal zealots and constituents spreading a societal and political strain of that same "techno-optimism" that presents itself as undue confidence in a liberal modernism. Repeal of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy for homosexuals in the military will have American combat troops getting "sensitivity training" on the battlefield. The recently revived push to overturn the combat-exclusion policy precluding women in combat is not driven primarily by considerations of combat effectiveness, but instead by the desire to ensure women's "equal" promotion opportunity to senior ranks.
For the scope of his remarks on the future U.S. military, Mr. Gates demonstrated common sense with his observation that "all the services are seeking to find the right balance between preserving what is unique and valuable in their traditions, while making the adjustments needed to win today's wars and prepare for likely future threats." But unlike his warning of "techno-optimism" that "muddled" past strategic thinking, he ventured no thoughts or opinions, prescribed no similar "right balance" or "adjustments" and offered no cautionary advice on the menu of modern-day societal and political issues that also stand to shape the future U.S. military.
Mr. Gates' hesitancy to tackle these issues in such forums is understandable, but if we are to have a vision for the future military, those topics will be integral to public discourse. The nation must get these issues right, too. In staying with the rock-star thread for Mr.. Gates, will the public have to wait until he is "unplugged" from Washington's amplified power grid before he discusses these controversial but important issues in the same thoughtful analytical manner he addressed budgets, missions and threats?
Chris J. Krisinger was a colonel in the U.S. Air Force and works for a defense contractor.
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