The U.S. Armed Forces: Ready to Fight - Nicely?

Article excerpt

An observation about the U.S. military: "The young men of America, from whatever strata, are raised in a permissive society. The increasing alienation of their education from the harsher realities of life makes their reorientation, once enlisted, doubly important."

That was written in 1963, but is eerily pertinent about America's armed forces today -- in a time of global commitment and a culture in the midst of tectonic changes. T.R. Fehrenbach made the observation in his classic, This Kind of War, a history of the Korean conflict and the slaughter of ill-prepared U.S. troops in the early weeks of that war.

Merely add "young women" to the sentence and this contemporary insight is being addressed only at the margin now. Instead, the ideological pivot is the bite-and-gouge argument over feminism -- or sexual equality in the ranks. That topic seems as much or more a primary Pentagon concern as ensuring that the military is as efficient a killing machine as can be.

Another Fehrenbach comment is germane with today's higher-tech weaponry that was beyond the imagination of three-plus decades ago: "A `modern' infantry may ride sky vehicles into combat, fire and sense its weapons through instrumentation, employ devices of frightening lethality in the future -- but it also must be old-fashioned enough to be iron-hard, poised for instant obedience and prepared to die in the mud."

We insistently are told that the all-volunteer military is the finest force the nation ever has fielded. And certainly the young Americans raising their hands to take the oath of service have the same capacity for duty and valor as those in other wars.

But it also is the case that, as happened in the years between the end of World War II and Korea, those enlisting are from the lower socioeconomic rungs and thus the military services are less representative of society. And it is evident that today's society is dramatically more permissive than in the late 1940s. More worrisome, the armed forces are "civilianizing" to accommodate these youngsters (the Marine Corps and the Army's combat arms are the exception).

Another warning sign -- as we prepare to put troops in harm's way against Iraq's brutal megalomaniac -- is a dismaying similarity between the condition of the armed forces between World War Il and Korea and aspects of today's military

After 1945, the Army was at 70 percent strength in its combat units, Fehrenbach writes; regiments had two instead of the normal three battalions, each artillery battalion had two firing batteries instead of the standard three. …