The present squeeze on military funding is not the first such measure, nor will it likely be the last. The country has always had little trust in a standing army, and the support provided in times of stress has evaporated fast when war was not under way or imminent. Every conflict is followed by a steep decline in resources devoted to national defense, resulting in drastic reductions in force sizes, quality and quantity of equipment and munitions, and research and development. The military budget dropped by 43 percent after Korea, 33 percent after Vietnam, 36 percent after the Cold War, and it has now dropped by 31 percent. Such difficulties have not usually been repaired until the next conflict.
Because of technological changes in the intervening years, the retired generation can say or do few things to help those still serving actively. But political, social, and organizational changes occur at a much less dynamic pace, and the retired can bring perspective to address the question, “What did we do when this happened before?”
Whenever they took place, drastic changes disrupted good order and discipline, caused anguish among personnel, reduced maintenance, constrained training, and fractured personnel support. Admiral Elmo Zumwalt told me in 1998 of how, when he was executive officer of a destroyer in 1948, the ship could man only two of her four boiler rooms, and only during the day. Because there were not enough boiler tenders to keep the fires burning, the ship had to anchor or wallow from late each evening until morning. Few officers today have that sort of experience. Funds have recently been adequate and personnel resources excellent, so for most who are now on active duty, prospects are without precedent and dismaying.
But perhaps of more immediate consequence will be the disheartening effect on personal morale. For those who have served only during the past 12 years, pay, housing, benefits, medical care, and family support have been generously provided, in large measure out of guilt about the citizenry’s nonparticipation. Most of the country has not been involved in or even inconvenienced by these wars, including paying for them. The slogan “Support our troops” seemed universal as costs were ignored and the armed forces were lauded, cheered, and bribed.
Now that these conflicts are winding down and the loans that financed them are coming due, this favorable attitude will decline and ultimately reverse. Symptomatic are the assertions that medical costs are excessive, statements that ignore both the enlargement of forces that was needed and the casualties that were suffered. As the armed forces migrate from being the “thin red line of heroes” to “the spoiled and pampered pets of Uncle Sam,” career opportunity and personal advancement will appear to diminish, while frustrations grow about lack of repair parts, smaller crews, and slower promotions.
However, past declines of fortune have also been periods of significant innovation as well as personal and tactical progress. Similar difficulties generated the familiar expression “We are out of money, we’ll now have to think.” Out of that mindset came the canted deck and mirror landing system.
As we enter this phase, today’s officers have vastly more fortunate circumstances than did then–Lieutenant Commander Zumwalt. Two new aircraft carriers, the Virginia-class submarines, and a capable and tested surface warship on the ways; well-trained, dedicated, and motivated crews, all this promises the ability to adjust to a decline in resources and an opportunity for intelligent exploitation of new technologies and international situations.
As in the past, many professionals will prosper in the country’s service, and new ones will join undaunted by the difficulties. There will be as many opportunities as ever to think and innovate, maybe even more because of the challenges for which easy money will not be forthcoming. In these circumstances, the motivations and rewards that bring us to serve in the first place—honor, responsibility, companionship, and a higher cause—will provide both personal satisfaction and advancement in the service of the country.