Paring the military, Clinton can start with its bureaucracy

David Evans

November 11, 1992|By David Evans

PRESIDENT-ELECT Bill Clinton has said he wants to put the military on a diet and trim the size of the operating forces. Why is it that trigger-pullers are the first to be fired and paper-pushers are last?

Mr. Clinton might consider starting instead in Washington, where an enormous, redundant and superfluous military bureaucracy remains stoutly entrenched.

This bureaucracy is so big that the biggest office building in the world, the Pentagon, houses less than a fifth of it -- 20,000 people. However, according to the most recent statistics, there are 116,000 Defense Department civilian and uniformed military personnel in the so-called Greater Washington Metropolitan Area.

That's enough people to provide crews for seven Navy carrier battle groups. Not just the 5,000-man crews on the carriers, but also enough people to staff the cruiser, destroyer and submarine escorts and the accompanying logistics support vessels.

Those 116,000 personnel tied up in management overhead are enough to staff every tactical fighter wing in the Air Force.

The term "division slice" in the Army defines the total number of soldiers needed to put a combat division into the field, 25,000 troops, with all of their attendant support forces. Using the generally accepted figure of 42,000 troops for a division slice, the 116,000 bureaucrats in Fat City comprise 2.7 "division slices," the rough equivalent of a three-division corps.

My favorite comparison: Those 116,000 military bureaucrats, sometimes referred to as "milicrats," are the equivalent of all the operating forces in the Marine Corps -- every infantry battalion, artillery regiment, fighter squadron, engineer detachment and truck company.

Since Mr. Clinton as incoming commander-in-chief has never served in uniform, it's a fair bet that he doesn't know the difference between a battalion and a brigade. He needs to see this bloated host of military bureaucrats to appreciate the magnitude of the problem. Let them march in the inaugural parade, right past Mr. Clinton's reviewing stand. If that doesn't .. provide an incentive to start cutting overhead in the Defense Department, by half at least, nothing will.

For details, Staff Sgt. Hal Freeman at the famous 8th and Eye Street Marine Barracks was consulted. This barracks is home of the corps' premier ceremonial units, and the Marines there are experts on drill and ceremonies.

Sergeant Freeman didn't miss a beat when he was asked to calculate the length of a column of 116,000 people, four abreast, and to figure out how long it would take them to march past a given point.

"Yeah, four-abreast sounds appropriate. I'll get back to you in five minutes," he promised.

Starting with the secretary of defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the first rank and going all the way down to the last and lowliest clerks, the Washington defense bureaucracy would make an unbroken column about 27.5 miles long.

Marching at the standard rate of 120 paces per minute, it would take all the people in this formation fully eight hours to pass President Clinton's reviewing stand.

Even C-SPAN junkies would get bored watching this seemingly endless passage of assistant defense secretaries, deputy assistant defense secretaries, bureau chiefs, department heads, policy wonks, staff officers, analysts, aides and bean-counters.

To be sure, many of these people are highly dedicated. But in toto they comprise a powerful lobby that politicians fear as much as any other interest group in town.

Instead of forcing sergeants and petty officers out of the service, Mr. Clinton should take on the big guys. True reform of the military must start in Washington, not at some small base out in the hinterland.

Mr. Clinton's script has already been written. All he has to do is appropriate the world-wise insights of military officers who have served inside the system, such as these recent remarks from an Air Force officer: "When politicians talk about reforming the military, they always couch it in terms of closing out a base in Bugsquash, Iowa, or someplace. Nobody is going to fire some assistant defense secretary here in Washington, but politicians have no compunction about closing an entire military base that an entire local community might be dependent on.

"I'd think twice about that, and I'd seriously consider finding and eliminating some redundant department in Washington first," this officer said.

Besides, it would be an unbeatable way for Mr. Clinton to show the bureaucracy who's in charge, and he'd have all the trigger-pullers in the military standing on their chairs clapping.

David Evans is military affairs writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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