After the Vietnam War, respect for the military sank to an all-time low. In one survey, sanitation workers were the only profession Americans thought less of - and some considered that an insult to sanitation workers. Defense spending plummeted. The armed services "hollowed out," lacking the budgets to sustain modernization, training and readiness.
By the end of the 1980s, however, after the Reagan-era military build-up, the military polled as the most admired institution in the nation. Even today, despite the political debates over the Long War on Terrorism, the armed forces remain highly respected. For that reason, many Pentagon experts believe that after Iraq and Afghanistan, Congress and the White House won't abandon the military they way they did before. They won't put readiness at risk again, right?
There are already plenty of troubling signs. The Navy is talking about tying up ships because they don't have enough sailors. The Army has artillery and engineer battalions that haven't practiced firing cannons or breaching a minefield in a long time. The Air Force might well have just lost its service secretary and chief of staff, not because of their alleged failure to exercise leadership but because they chaffed at accepting unrealistic budget projections.
Washington officials probably will use the same excuses they did after Vietnam to justify reneging on their obligation to "provide for the common defense." They will argue that they can spend less on defense because they're so smart. They know exactly what the future holds, what the threats will be, how to handle them - and, miraculously, the cost of this defense will be exactly the paltry amount of money they're willing to spend.
Such "smart spending" was what the Pentagon offered after Vietnam. Rather than rebuild the military and match the Soviets' conventional power, President Carter's Pentagon opted for an "offset" strategy. They would replace boots on the ground with smart weapons to offset Soviet numbers. This would be more effective - and coincidently cheaper. As Yale scholar Paul Bracken put it, "They got away with it because President Carter didn't want to buy anything. He was very interested in innovation as long as it didn't require purchasing military equipment."
Some old Carter hands even have the temerity to argue the offset strategy helped win the Cold War. Nothing could be further from the truth. Many of the technologies they promoted never matured, or were fully deployed only after the Cold War ended. Indeed, Council on Foreign Relations defense analyst Stephen Biddle cogently argues much of the success of rebuilding of U.S. conventional forces had to do with the robust training and doctrine instituted in the 1980s, part of the Reagan-era effort along with growing the forces and buying new equipment that resulted in the war-winning Desert Storm military.
There are already signs, however, that the old Carter arguments are coming back. Very smart people will argue that Washington can gut budgets; ignore the need to buy next generation platforms; and short-change training and maintenance because they know exactly what to cut. Of course, first they will cut the things they don't want - politically incorrect systems such as missile defense, space-based weapons, and modernized nuclear forces. Then they will wish away the wars they don't want to prepare for - insurgencies and conventional conflicts with regional powers. Finally, they will assume that America's enemies will be blinded by their brilliance and not prepare for exactly the kinds of wars Washington does not fund the military to fight. They will wind up preparing the military for defeat.
The one initiative brilliant budget-cutters will not undertake is to provide robust, sustained funding of the armed services that will pay for current operations; maintain a trained and ready military for a range of missions; and modernize forces for the future. But that's exactly what needs to be done to keep the nation safe, free and prosperous in the 21st century.
James Jay Carafano is a senior research fellow for national security at The Heritage Foundation and the author of the book "G.I. Ingenuity."
First appeared in Modesto Bee