PORK OR TOMBSTONES

BY DAVID H. HACKWORTH

Will pork win over combat readiness? This is the question every American should be pondering.

Because contrary to all the they're-good-to-go hype from presidents past and present, our military is on its butt. Most of its equipment -- designed to fight Cold War battles -- is worn out or obsolete; much of its infrastructure is rotting from wear and tear or too-long-deferred maintenance; and many of its lower-rankers are working and living in ghettos that do nothing for morale or retention. Without a vital injection of modernization -- and even more important, a shot of great leadership -- it's heading for a bigger, badder Mogadishu-type disaster.

The good news is that Pentagon boss Donald H. Rumsfeld and his uniformed chiefs report they've got surplus real estate they can unload -- and use the savings to sharpen our armed forces' fighting capabilities. But many porkers in Congress are into hanging on to these bases designed for last century's wars because they fear that closing them will not only cost Department of Defense civilian jobs, the communities involved will take a hit, and -- like Gary Condit in '02 -- they'll end up looking for work.

The Cold War ended in 1989, leaving the Pentagon with 25 percent more bases, buildings, hangars and piers than it needs. When you and I end up with too many empty rooms once the kids are gone, we start downsizing. If a corporation is waddling around supporting too much blubber, its stockholders go after the CEO until the fat's trimmed.

The happy days of the nation affording both bullets and butter have gone the way of those surplus taxpayer dollars. In order to rebuild our flabby fighting machine, we've got to tighten the GI belt. Closing bases will provide the bucks to buy spare parts, modernize gear, clean up the military slums and produce troops their COs can rightly certify as combat-ready rather than continuing the cover-up about high-operational readiness that's sadly become part of the job description.

Since 1988, 150 excess bases have been shut down, and hundreds of smaller operations realigned. These closings have saved the Pentagon almost $16 billion, most of which has been used to prevent our forces from going completely down the drain.

Now Rumsfeld says that every buck not spent on yesterday's infrastructure will go toward getting our forces ready for the new face of war they'll certainly encounter in the 21st century. And if the current 25 percent of redundant facilities -- which like the blooper B-1 bombers are monuments to political greed rather than military efficacy -- were shut down, there'd be at least another $8 billion per year to put toward brushing up our broken military machine.

Paranoia aside, the track record of previous base closings clearly shows that communities actually do better once bases are shut down. The cold facts are: If the base-closing planners do their homework and prepare for a smooth transition from war to peace, there are more civilian jobs and significant community economic growth after Johnny and Jane go marching off.

But in 1995, instead of closing the bases targeted by Congress in vote-rich California and Texas, Bill Clinton -- in his never-ending quest for an angle or an edge -- chose to privatize them instead. This corruption of a formerly foolproof system to get rid of military redundancy outraged so many members of Congress that the wheels fell off the base-closing process.

Now Clinton's gone, and soon our lawmakers will be voting once again on whether to close a new set of bases. You can bet that voters who are sweating losing their jobs are out there twisting their lawmakers' arms. Will those in Congress resist temptation and put country over re-election? Will they take the high road and put their uniformed constituents over the Pentagon civilian workers who should be retired or fired because their services are no longer required? When General Electric lays off unneeded workers, that's capitalism in action. Why should DOD be a job program for life?

Members of Congress should do a JFK and ask themselves not what keeping those bases open will do to get them re-elected, but ask how many names their shortsightedness and greed will engrave on future war memorials because our forces weren't well-trained, well-equipped and combat ready!

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(c) 2001 David H. Hackworth
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