The Civilians Overrule the Pentagon

April 14, 1994|By WILLIAM PFAFF

PARIS — Paris. -- One reason the United States has found it necessary to carry out air strikes in Bosnia is that a week earlier Washington had said that it would not do so.

On Easter Sunday Defense Secretary William J. Perry said on television that U.S. forces would do nothing to prevent the Bosnian town of Gorazde's falling to the Serbs. He said, ''We will not enter the war to stop that from happening. That is correct. Yes.'' Gen. John Shalikashvili, head of the joint chiefs of staff, later said that the situation at Gorazde was unsuitable for air intervention.

The Serbs took Mr. Perry and General Shalikashvili at their words and continued their offensive. American bombers then attacked their forces and now President Clinton demands that they withdraw from Gorazde. The Serbs are understandably angry.

This has not simply been the misstep of an administration with a damaging history of conducting its policy disputes in public. It is mainly the result of the American military leadership's distrust of civilian authority and particularly of the policies of the Clinton administration. Mr. Perry and the chairman of the joint chiefs were not stating administration policy but Pentagon policy, and they were overruled.

Civil-military tension has been mounting in the U.S. since the 1950s, developing rapidly since Vietnam, as described by the military historian Richard H. Kohn in the latest issue of The National Interest quarterly. There are a number of reasons, but the principal one, in this writer's opinion, is one that Mr. Kohn does not discuss. It is the distortion, and then the termination, of national service, which has changed the character of American military forces.

The army's chief of staff in 1976, Gen. Fred C. Weyand, said that ''the American army really is a people's army in the sense that it belongs to the American people who take a jealous and proprietary interest in it. . . . In the final analysis, the American army is not so much an arm of the Executive Branch as an arm of the American people.''

This is no longer true. In the 1950s what always before had been a tiny peacetime professional force was turned into a very large standing army, filled by draftees. The overwhelming majority of its junior and mid-level officers were products of officer-candidate schools and university ROTC programs, which is to say that they too were civilians in temporary military service.

This system worked successfully and equitably until Vietnam. Then, because of the perceived injustice of the war and the rigors and risks of service in Vietnam, steadily increasing numbers of young men from the well-to-do classes found ways to avoid the draft, and like Bill Clinton they enjoyed the connivance of their parents, doctors and educators in doing so.

By the end of the war it was being fought in overwhelmingly disproportionate numbers by the American poor, the black and white working classes. Increasingly, it was officered by people committed to professional service. It was no longer the peoples' army of the world wars and the Korean war.

National service was ended. The services became entirely professional. The new army withdrew into itself, with new ideas about its duty to a civilian government that it believed had betrayed it in Vietnam, dictating tactical limitations, and then blaming it for defeat.

The military developed its own conception of national policy. Its view determined the conduct of the Persian Gulf war and is the principal reason the U.S. has refused to put troops on the ground in Yugoslavia. In 1992 Gen. Colin Powell, then chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, published in Foreign Affairs quarterly and the New York Times articles that during the presidencies of Harry Truman or Dwight Eisenhower would have caused his dismissal for insubordination.

He ''defined the American role in the world, commented on American society,'' as Mr. Kohn notes, and set conditions for American interventions in foreign conflicts. These were statements unprecedented in the history of American civil-military relations.

As Mr. Kohn also says, none of this suggests that there could be a military coup in the United States. That not only remains unthinkable but is all but impossible in a society organized in the American manner.

What is happening resembles developments in Germany between the emergence of the Prussian professional army in the 18th century and the advent of Hitler. The Prussian army came to consider itself the embodiment of the state and the custodian of national legitimacy. In World War I the kaiser himself failed to change the general staff's strategy of invading France and violating Belgian neutrality, thereby bringing Britain into the war.

The kaiser opposed the provocations that ended U.S. neutrality. He was against air raids on civilian London and attacks on civilian ships. The general staff insisted on conducting the war according to its own principles. The consequence was an enormous disaster for Germany and for the world.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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