Departure from Vieques: An unrecoverable body blow

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Posted: Jun 21, 2001 12:00 AM
President Bush's decision to halt military training exercises on Vieques within two years marks his most serious capitulation to politics and the loud left, and suggests worse things to come for a military seemingly beset on all sides. ¶ A 33,000-acre island off Puerto Rico's eastern coast - two-thirds of it owned by the Navy - Vieques is the only live-fire training area for the Navy's Atlantic fleet. For 60 years, hundreds of thousands of Marines and Navy men (and women) have practiced there under real-war conditions before deploying to forward positions around the world. Situated not far from the sprawling Navy base at Roosevelt Roads, Vieques uniquely provides for a mix of amphibious landings, aerial bombardment, and ship-to-shore shelling by sea-borne guns. ¶ The Navy terms the island indispensable - a crown jewel. ¶ Puerto Rican nationalists have grumbled about the Navy on Vieques over the years, but the engines of outrage really got cranking after the 1999 death of a civilian guard from a bombing run gone awry. A box unchecked too long, Vieques moved to the top of the left's agenda. The Navy would have to go. ¶ Recalling the pro-Castro Fair Play for Cuba Committee, a posse of professional demonstrators began showing up: greenies, Harlem pols, self-appointed defenders of human rights, peaceniks carrying banners proclaiming Paz Para Vieques (Peace for Vieques), Jesse and Jackie Jackson. About 1,500 managed to get themselves arrested. ¶ Al Sharpton launched his presidential campaign there, and then - in the slammer for trespassing - embarked on a much-needed hunger strike. Hillary Clinton marched in New York's Puerto Rican Day parade tearfully clutching a hastily fashioned Vieques flag to her heaving bosom. The enviro hive began buzzing about "contaminant" damage to the tropical canopy and the coastal flora and fauna. ¶ Although the bombing range lies more than nine miles from the nearest of Vieques' 9,500 inhabitants, caterwauling about fabricated health concerns reached a fever pitch. Alleged consequences of the bombing nine miles away - let's see: tinitis, vibroacoustism, respiratory problems, and soaring rates of cancer and infant mortality. Air pollution, water pollution and noise pollution supposedly destroyed Viequees' (cq) quality of life and rendered difficult - if not impossible - everything from breathing to eating to drinking. ¶ You get the picture. ¶ Nearly all the complaints are fraudulent. Notes Washington Post reporter Sue Anne Pressley: "Ironically, it is the military's presence that has helped preserve the island's natural beauty. Winding country roads are canopied in lush green, dotted with the bright orange flowers of the flamboyant trees, and goat herds and wild horses roam freely through the meadows." Puerto Rico's own health secretary blasted a group floating faulty data on infant mortality for "lying to the public." ¶ Yet long ago the left gained the rhetorical high ground, and this despite the centrality Vieques plays in defending the lives of those expected to defend our liberty. Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe has visited "every possible conceivable alternative site" around the world, and finds nothing to replace Vieques. He adds: ¶ "I see this as an issue that means American lives. I cannot agree with a politically motivated decision that sacrifices national security and unnecessarily puts the lives of men and women in uniform at risk. Military training in Vieques is vital. What's more, this decision will have a domino effect on other military ranges around the world, placing them in jeopardy because of unwarranted political pressures and erroneous propaganda."¶ November's presidential election spoke eloquently to how closely the nation is divided between Republicans and Democrats. To retain primacy, a diminishing Republican cohort must make major inroads among the nation's fast-expanding Hispanic constituency. That is why, at the urging of his political advisers and even New York's Republican governor (eyeing a Puerto Rican vote in New York City roughly matching San Juan's), the president pulled the plug on Vieques. Possibly an understandable decision politically, but awful militarily. The Navy - the military - reels. Public awareness plunges, and with it public appreciation for the military and what it does. Retention hemorrhages; recruitment runs close to impossible. Readiness is at best marginal. Overwork combines with miserable pay to put morale in the pits. Ronald Reagan's never-achieved 600-ship Navy now consists of 316 active ships - and heads at flank speed for 200. ¶ Does the Vieques decision mean similar decisions regarding military exercise areas in (for instance) Okinawa and South Korea? Do the unappreciative locals merely need to scream, "Yankee, go home!" ¶ If Vieques is not irreplaceable, then let the Bush administration stipulate the substitute location now. But if Vieques is irreplaceable for the Navy and Marines, then those services - and the nation's military in general, and by extension the nation itself - have suffered a political body blow from which they may not soon recover.