CHICAGO - If a sailor you know has been looking morose, it's not hard to guess why. During last year's campaign, George W. Bush made a solemn vow to upgrade our military readiness, which he accused the Clinton administration of grossly neglecting.
But in one of his first major decisions, Mr. Bush ordered the Pentagon to stop using the Puerto Rican island of Vieques for critical training operations. "My attitude is that the Navy ought to find somewhere else to conduct its exercises," he said, causing great dissatisfaction in the Navy.
Silly Navy. These people are laboring under the impression that their job is to fight wars, deter aggression and generally protect our security. What rock are they living under? Anyone who has been paying attention over the last couple of decades knows the military services exist mainly to advance social and political causes that find favor among powerful constituencies.
That's why the services have had to integrate women in large numbers, which meant drastically lowering performance standards. That's why the Pentagon was ordered to drop its categorical ban on gays in uniform, despite the disruption they might cause in the ranks. That's why generals have had to keep operating domestic military bases they regard as a waste of scarce dollars. That's why our chief military alliance has been enlarged to include former members of the Soviet bloc, even though most Americans would be surprised to find that we may someday send our sons and daughters to die for Hungary.
During the Civil War, President Lincoln grew so exasperated with commanding Gen. George McClellan's inaction that he sent him a message: "My dear McClellan, if you don't want to use the Army, I should like to borrow it for a while."
Since nobody is using the U.S. military to hold back the Red Army or evict Saddam Hussein from Kuwaiti real estate, a lot of people have decided they can borrow it for their own purposes. In Mr. Bush's case, it's ingratiating himself with Hispanic voters.
Saying the Navy should find somewhere else to conduct these exercises is like saying the Chicago Cubs should find somewhere besides Wrigley Field to play baseball: It could be done, but it wouldn't be the same.
The Pentagon hasn't clung to the island because it enjoys being vilified by Al Sharpton, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and other camera-friendly celebrities. It's done so because, as former Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jay Johnson put it, Vieques is the "crown jewel of live-fire, combined arms training."
No other place on the East Coast allows the Navy and Marine Corps to carry out joint land, air and sea operations using real bombs and bullets. Exercises like those have no earthly purpose - unless you want your sailors and Marines to be able to win wars without being slaughtered unnecessarily. That's why Sen. James Inhofe, a member of the Armed Services Committee, said of Mr. Bush's decision, "I see this as an issue that means American lives."
But objections like his no longer carry the weight they did during the Cold War, when Americans were acutely conscious that if we weren't careful, we might actually lose a war.
Today, the assumption is that our troops will seldom have to go into real combat, and then only against puny foes who can be conquered with minimal U.S. casualties - as in Kosovo. So what does it matter if the Navy and Marines get the best training, or only mediocre training?
Critics assure us that the Navy can find other places. But a presidential panel appointed in 1999 looked at all the possible alternatives and concluded, "There are no potential sites that can meet the current stated requirement for combined arms live-fire training."
Those demanding an end to these operations lament that ordinary Americans would never be exposed to the grave dangers of living next door to a bombing range, and that Vieques residents have to put up with it only because of Puerto Rico's inferior status.
In fact, since the site was established during World War II, not a single civilian off the range has been killed or injured. Those claims of high infant mortality on the island? "The infant-mortality rate in Vieques is actually lower than that of mainland Puerto Rico," notes science writer Michael Fumento in National Review magazine.
This should not be terribly surprising, since the nearest civilians live almost 10 miles away from the target area. "At Fort Sill, in my own state of Oklahoma," says Inhofe, "live ordnance is used on a range that is within two miles of the city of Lawton." Anybody in Lawton seen Bobby Kennedy lately?
But the Navy will have to give up Vieques, and the Navy will survive. At least until we really need it.
Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.