Countless writers, bloggers, and speakers are concerned with military policy and readiness. This column has sought to highlight overlooked issues, examine problems in different ways, and challenge generally accepted thought. The media, including this columnist, have covered instances in which changes in the military have been advertised as positive but have instead eroded the fighting spirit of the forces. We have examined examples of core leadership principles being ignored or discounted, authority being taken away from junior leaders while expectations were increased, bullies being allowed to serve too long, and lines between the ranks being blurred. Yet it seems that our combined efforts have not resulted in changed minds or policy. A combination of decisions and indecision has resulted in a lack of trust in leadership, decreased morale among our forces, and a potential manpower crisis on the horizon.
In an article titled “The Paramount Duty of the Army and Navy,” Rear Admiral Bradley A. Fiske challenged service leaders to keep military issues “in the foreground. If this be not done, the insistent requirements of business, society, and pleasure will monopolize the attention of the nation, military character will deteriorate, the martial spirit will be smothered, and this rich but unwieldy nation will meet disaster, through lack of martial power.” Little has changed since his words appeared in the July–August 1914 issue of Proceedings. While the armed forces remain vital to protecting this unwieldy nation, Congress and other senior leaders allow business, society, and pleasure to determine how and where we invest taxpayers’ money. Poor leadership and bad decisions smother the martial spirit of our fighting forces.
Congress today is fighting for acquisition programs that do not improve national defense. Two of the better known are annual, multi-million dollar purchases of Abrams tanks the Army does not want or need, and recent efforts to force acquisition of a second engine for the F-35 fighter, which then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates called an “unnecessary and extravagant expense.” Elected officials have a duty to protect interests in their districts and opportunities for their constituents, but this duty does not supersede their obligation to act in the best interest of the nation. They argue that such purchases are “vital to our national security,” but in reality they are only important to the economy of their own regions. In very real terms, members of Congress finance their own reelection campaigns with millions in wasted taxpayer dollars.
Another disturbing situation is the string of high-profile failures in judgment, sometimes professional but too often reflecting weak personal character. One example of this is the prosecution of several military and civilian officials for the disclosure of classified information to and acceptance of bribes from Navy contractor “Fat Leonard” Francis.
Congress must renew its commitment to the principal responsibility of defending the Constitution and making decisions that are honestly necessary for our national defense before its members seek to protect their personal interests. Continued acquisition of surplus equipment at the expense of needed modernization or deficit reduction harms readiness and is bankrupting our nation. Members’ oath of office demands better.
Military leaders, veterans, and citizens must hold Congress accountable and speak out against exaggerated statements and self-serving spending. Senior military officials must make decisions based on readiness instead of social pressures, and must speak to Congress in more compelling ways while respecting its oversight role. Citizens must call and write to elected and appointed officials to demand fiscal responsibility and better leadership.
None of us can sit idly by and allow elected and uniformed leaders to financially and martially bankrupt our national defense. We must not forget yesterday’s lessons lest they become tomorrow’s disaster. A hundred years after his article appeared, Admiral Fiske’s call remains the paramount duty of us all.