Lately, news columns have brimmed with breathless tidbits about the inane.
Rosie O'Donnell has outed herself. The fracas regarding Ted Koppel and David Letterman generated a hilarious debate about the oxymoron "legitimate television journalism". On-site therapists at the Baltimore airport are doing a land-office business in massages for stressed-out passengers. Having lost his primary, Gary Condit won't be back. And Al Gore shaved off his beard while his wife decided NOT to rescue western civilization by seeking a senate seat in Tennessee.
More important, perhaps the central question facing the nation, is: "What is happening to the United States military?"
Everybody knows what it continues to accomplish in Afghanistan, and the president stresses frequently that Afghanistan is but the first of many likely steps in the anti-terror war. Yet, regarding other things our military is doing, David McIntyre, former dean of the National War College, offers this reminder:
"Today, we are conducting combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, enforcing the peace in Bosnia and Kosovo, keeping the peace in the Sinai, fulfilling promises and treaty commitments with troops for Japan, Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines and Europe, and supporting the drug war in Colombia and off our own coasts. Additionally, the Navy and Marines continue their deployment cycles. Our main combat reserves, the National Guard, have been alerted for homeland defense, and many of our fighter aircraft are patrolling our own skies. And the terrorist threat may soon demand major combat action somewhere else. ... The world is too big. Our numbers are too small. We are cutting it too close."
Seconding proposals for more service personnel, the commander of the Joint Forces Command - Army General William Kernan - told Congress last week that "we are busy, busier than we have ever been, (and our troops]) are tired."
After a blip of enthusiasm that essentially ended several weeks after 9/11, recruitment limps along (says a Navy recruiter: "We haven't seen a burst of qualified people knocking on the door"). While civilian security firms troll American bases for personnel, shortages in many specialty areas are forcing the extension of service commitments (many are not allowed to leave). Fewer and fewer are being asked - required - to do more and more.
What's more, anecdotally....
- Military spending as a percentage of gross domestic product, about 10 percent under Ronald Reagan, stands at about 3 percent now.
- The Navy fleet, about 600 under Reagan, is 310 today.
- The decade-old policy of requiring all new officers, both service academy and ROTC graduates, to serve a one-year reserve commission before augmenting to a regular commission, discourages young officers from making the military a career. Correspondingly, it encourages them to complete their five-year commitment and "dive."
- Progress lags on even authorized new weapons systems. Because of development delays the F-22, e.g., faces 11 additional months of flight testing. It has just one test aircraft available for flight envelope expansion.
- Reluctant congressional lefties raise doubts about additional monies for defense, including missile defense. For instance, Connecticut Congressman Christopher Shays, a Republican who sees the salvation of the nation in campaign finance reform, wants to know why anyone would "send a missile (against the United States) when they can just put it in a suitcase?"
President Bush, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and other key administration officials seek to overhaul the military - to improve its readiness and raise its morale. They also want to infuse it with 48 billion more defense dollars next year - a figure that notably includes $19.4 billion for a war against global terror now costing $1.8 billion per month to prosecute.
They want to do this when most of our principal allies are not spending on their defense establishments at anywhere near the low percentage we are spending on ours. Many of these allies want us to help defend them yet do not want the United States to proceed where it should - for instance against Iraq.
The president has made a very big deal of his Freedom Corps. He is going around the country urging Americans to give 4,000 volunteer hours of service throughout their lifetimes, and encouraging the young to put in two consecutive years of service. But he neglects the military component, and he shies away from even suggesting compulsion.
Defending the nation and the larger cause of liberty is the fundamental task confronting every government. The post-9/11 byword said the American nation - the American people - never would be the same as a consequence. Yet the attack and the war have affected most of us very little. Most of our lives are rather much the same post- as pre-. The still underappreciated military remains undermanned, underfunded, and overworked while the everyday rest of us slouch through our daily routines.
In seeking to reconfigure things military, this commendable administration should embrace compulsory universal service for the young with a military component. That really would revitalize the military in almost all ways. And it just might restore the nation's threadbare soul.