Chuck Hagel becomes secretary of defense just as sequestration is set to kick in. With morale low and uncertainty high, he can begin by appropriating some new ideas from an old classic, "Generalship: Its Diseases and Their Cure," written in 1936 by Maj. Gen. J.F.C. Fuller. In comparably austere times, Gen. Fuller warned strenuously about the growth of bureaucracy, comparing it to a "paper octopus squirting ink and wriggling its tentacles into every corner. Unless pruned with an ax, it will grow like a mango tree, and the more it grows, the more it" consumes, well, just about everything.
Having run out of money and needing to think more clearly, sequestration gives Mr. Hagel a big ax to swing at some especially prune-worthy bureaucratic limbs:
Parade-ground puffery: Because small things matter, immediately reassign those White House social aides in full dress uniforms seen clapping obediently behind Michelle Obama on Sunday night as she presented the Oscar for best picture. With manpower in chronically short supply, those bright young officers are needed more urgently almost anywhere else than in Washington, D.C.
Afghanistan: Nothing eats up manpower more than combat deployments, so push hard to bring our troops home from Afghanistan right now, not in 2014. That American misadventure, several time zones away from any conceivable strategic interest, was fatally compromised by bureaucratic bungling. Why perpetuate it when the costs are being counted in treasure and in blood?
Pacific pivot: Since you're brand new, have someone justify this fundamental strategic shift by posing three basic questions: What forces will be involved, what are the available means to sustain them and what are the ends we hope to achieve? Moreover, since we now seem to be pivoting more toward Africa, where al Qaeda really is, why dispatch our already shrinking forces half a world away? Don't be afraid to ask a strategic question confounding bureaucrats since Roman times: Cui bono?
Big money: You save big bucks by closing bases and cutting weapons procurement, so begin by testing congressional resolve on both fronts. A safer bet: Streamlining the defense acquisition process, last done seriously under Bill Clinton. Bureaucratic dead wood has piled up steadily ever since. More important: The information-technology revolution has made commercial procurements -- not the government rule book -- the only smart way to go.
Big ranks: As a former enlisted grunt in Vietnam, you saw how too much rank often chased too few responsibilities. Yet the post-Sept. 11 era is worse, with almost 1,000 generals and admirals in the active and reserve ranks. While the other services have their own "chair-borne rangers," it looks as though the Navy will soon have more admirals than ships. You need to send a major signal that more responsibility must be exercised at lower levels. Why not begin by announcing that you will seek congressional concurrence to restrict the number of four-star admirals and generals to those few serving as unified commanders, chiefs of services and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs. To create some real excitement, try asking other flag officers to consider accepting a one-star rank reduction. (Remember, Ulysses S. Grant won the Civil War as a three-star general.)
The building: Former Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. John Vessey used to fantasize about reassigning half the Pentagon workforce to combat units on any given day. Do that for several days, he reasoned, and you might actually accomplish something. You can implement your version of the Vessey Rule by reducing the Pentagon staff at least 15 percent, beginning by eliminating the secretaries of the Army, Navy and Air Force. Their main function of civilian control has long been duplicated by the large civilian staff in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, which overlaps and double-checks every known activity requiring adult supervision.
Other headquarters: Having led by example in that bizarre, five-sided headquarters under your direct supervision, you are then in a much stronger position to demand similar economies everywhere else. The logic is inescapable: With fewer generals and admirals, you have fewer headquarters, smaller staffs and quantum reductions in the thoroughly useless tasks for which headquarters are notorious. The most useless: those endlessly repetitive reports that rarely accomplish anything except to make headquarters look good to its next higher echelon. The worst of the lot are reports to Congress, usually destined to take their places among the great unread documents of our time.
So just maybe, Mr. Secretary, you could end up leaving a unique legacy: the onetime grunt and former senator, battered by an unkind confirmation process, who persevered, pruned the bureaucracy with an ax and, as secretary of defense, accomplished things his predecessors only dreamed of doing.
Col. Ken Allard, retired from the Army, is a former NBC News military analyst and author on national security issues.