THE DEMOCRATIC candidates seem agreed on the need for deep cuts in the defense budget, perhaps to fund tax cuts for the middle class. Congress is sure to go along with them. Cutting the budget will mean severe adjustments. Consider the people affected.
There was a great outcry when General Motors announced plans to lay off 74,000 workers by 1995. Defense budget reductions envisioned by congressional leaders would require Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to lay off about 500,000, many of them combat veterans. They would be thrown almost casually into an uncertain and troubled economy.
We must see these men and women not as a problem to be got rid of, but as a new reserve of energy and talent. The federal government should keep them on its rolls, at their current pay and allowances, and use them for three- or four-year terms of civilian service.
First, since the country is desperately short of police officers to face a rising tide of disorder and violence, 200,000 should be assigned to police forces across the country. Soldiers and marines would need training and tight supervision from civilian police authorities. But they would arrive more than competent to suppress gunfights, to corral wilding groups and generally to help keep the peace.
Second, 100,000 should teach in elementary and secondary schools and in remedial and vocational programs. Of the 500,000 likely to be discharged, 100,000 are officers, mostly college educated. Many of the senior enlisted men are also highly experienced trainers.
Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, has said for years that the nation should capture these people to teach in elementary and secondary schools. They know how to teach job skills, are used to dealing with young people from impoverished backgrounds and would not be afraid to teach in rough neighborhoods, even in jails.
In the last four months, an Army hotline has drawn more than 11,000 inquiries from officers interested in becoming teachers, many qualified to teach mathematics and science, for which good teachers are in short supply.
Third, 30,000 medical corpsmen should be assigned to hospital emergency rooms and public health programs. These technicians have been trained to deal with traumas, accidental and violent, like those inundating inner cities. The Special Forces, trained to bring basic public health practices to remote and primitive Third World areas, can do at least that much at home, especially when tuberculosis and sexual diseases are spreading in new and more virulent forms.
America's continuing racial crisis gives such a program special urgency. Thirty percent of those likely to be discharged are black, while the population is 11.7 percent black. The military has been a great highway of advancement of talented men and women without regard to race or ethnic origin.
They should not be simply sent back to depressed communities as isolated individuals in search of a function and place. This program of reconstruction would bring them home with a special mission and the support of a committed nation. These are patriotic people of discipline and spirit -- potential leaders whom we need. They would be inspiring examples to the legions of lost black and Hispanic children in ghettos across the country -- and the rest of us, too.
This is not a permanent but a transitional program, at a time of special need. We must still establish the Police Corps, which both houses of Congress established last year and which would enlist young people for four years of police service in exchange for college scholarships. And we will still require fundamental reform in education and health care. But it would bring our military people home to highly useful temporary and perhaps permanent jobs.
It would not reduce federal outlays, but it could enormously increase our sense of security, prosperity and well-being. Personal safety, the quality of a child's education, quick assistance to the sick and injured -- these are hard to quantify and are omitted from economic statistics. Yet they can determine personal and national satisfaction more surely than any number of things measurable in dollars.
America faces awesome problems of race, poverty and urban decay. Suddenly and unexpectedly, we will have at our disposal a great reservoir of strength to confront them. Let's use it.
Adam Walinsky is a lawyer.