Washington, D.C. -- President George W. Bush set out to make this a great Memorial Day for those who serve in the Armed Forces of the United States. After giving the commencement address at my alma mater, the U.S. Naval Academy, and placing a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns, he will visit the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force in California. At each stop, he's paying tribute to those who serve -- and preparing for a new level of commitment to ensure our security. Those in uniform welcome the attention. They are also hoping it's not too little, too late.
The commissioned and non-commissioned officers I spoke with this week are all "careerists" -- meaning they have been "in" beyond their obligated service. They are glad to have a head of state willing to stand up to our adversaries and reassure our allies, instead of putting his trust in apologetic appeasement. They are grateful to have a commander in chief who they can respect -- instead of one who loathes them and treats them like lab rats in a radical social engineering experiment. But they are waiting with bated breath for more than just the promised delivery of ammunition, spare parts, new weapons and vitally needed equipment. That's not to say the hardware isn't needed -- it is.
Under Clinton, U.S. defense spending, as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product, decreased from 4.5 percent to 3.0 percent -- while U.S. soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines were more heavily committed around the world than at any time since World War II. There were drastic cutbacks in equipment modernization, readiness and development of future war-fighting capabilities. Today, 75 percent of our military's major combat systems (ships, planes, tanks, etc.) have surpassed the "half-life" of their expected service, and this older equipment is more expensive to maintain. Navy amphibious ships with an expected service life of 30 to 35 years are, on an average, 27 years old, but shipbuilding has been cut from 8.7 to 6.5 ships per year to cover increased maintenance and repair costs.
But young military professionals also know that the task of rebuilding our military will take more than simply buying new tools. For them, the Clinton legacy lingers in the air like the ashes of Rome after emperor Nero burned the city to build his Domus Aurea. Since 1992, they have chafed as our active forces were slashed by 542,000 and the Department of Defense civilian work force by 306,000. They "stayed in" while their pay raises were cut and killed, their benefits diminished and their troops weren't given enough ammunition to train. And they "soldiered-on" when readiness went into free-fall as recruiting and retention rates dropped like a stone.
The junior officers and NCO's I talked to know as well as Defense Secretary Rumsfeld that America's high-tech defense industry is capable of building the world's most advanced and sophisticated weapons and military equipment. But then they ask, "What good is it if we have to rely on recruits who haven't even finished high school?" Said one, "That's not the kind of person we need in today's -- much less tomorrow's -- military."
And therein may be the biggest challenge for Bush on this Memorial Day visit to encourage the troops. This year, the armed forces will try to recruit 185,000 enlisted men and women and more than 15,500 officers. But they also know that by 1998 the Navy was failing to meet its recruiting goal by nearly 7,000 recruits and that in 1999, despite lowered standards, the Army would miss its enlistment target by nearly 6,300 and the Air Force would come up short by more than 1,700.
Privately, recruiters say that advertising campaigns like the hair-brained "Army of One" television commercials aimed at the "me-generation" on MTV won't cut it. And they are concerned that no one "gets it." They may be right.
Congress doesn't get it -- only 164 of the 535 members served in uniform. Our media and entertainment industries don't get it. Since Vietnam, the potentates of the press and Hollywood moguls have depicted the military as weird, brutal, inept, corrupt or downright evil. Military recruiters are routinely refused access to high schools -- and they say that principals and guidance counselors often try to dissuade their young charges from even considering the armed forces. In industry today, employers regularly discourage employees from serving in the guard and reserve.
But the biggest complaint from those who serve today is that our society seems to have forgotten the real issue: It's not just about "self" -- it's about service. It's about being part of something bigger than just "me." It's about being engaged in a great cause. It's about a word we rarely hear in our culture today -- "patriotism."
Douglas MacArthur put it eloquently: "duty, honor, country." So, too, did the man who swore me in as a midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy 38 years ago this summer. Shortly after we pledged to defend our Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic, he reminded us, "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country."
These aren't words that are in vogue this Memorial Day -- but they need to be.