22 August 2000


Democrat Joe Lieberman says we have "the best-trained, best-equipped, most-powerful fighting force in the history of the world." Republican Dick Cheney says this isn't true.

Which party's vice-presidential candidate is right?

Is Cheney yelling "Fire!" in a crowded theater when there's not even a whiff of smoke? Is Lieberman saying the theater's sprinkler system is in perfect shape when it's a rusted-out disaster waiting to happen?

Meanwhile, are you and your loved ones enjoying the show, sure that all's safe and that our kids "over there" are ready with the right stuff for the Main Event?

In every election in my memory, we've had some kind of military gap. In 1952, it was the "bomber" gap. In 1960, the "missile" gap. In 1980, the "our-forces-have-collapsed" gap. Now, two decades later, we have the "are-we-ready-or-not" gap.

Has Lieberman, a man touted for his character and integrity, been conned by the Pentagon or his speechwriters? I hope for the security of our country and his reputation that this isn't the case.

But from my periscope, I see that more than 20 percent of our fleet can't get under way unless they cannibalize parts and people from combat-ready ships that will then become wharf queens. I see Air Force squadrons without the parts or the right training to be fit to fight. I see Army maneuver units that can't win against a play enemy at training centers and who'd lose against a class enemy on a killing field.

Then, too, thousands of noncoms and officers from all the services give me new intell daily. These are the idealistic leaders who haven't been co-opted by a sick system. They're the heroes of our nation, the fine folks who man our ships and planes and serve on point duty in dangerous places all over the globe.
These members of the Thin Red Line know the truth because, when you are the first to die, you are the truth.

And today the truth is that a Desert Storm brigade led by a Jim Hollingsworth-like leader could whip any division in the U.S. Army on a slow weekend and then clobber the rest of the divisions -- one at a time -- from Monday to Friday.

In 1998, Defense Secretary William Cohen apologized to the Senate about America's lousy state of military preparedness. Since then the Pentagon propaganda poets have been chanting that people numbers are up and readiness is improving. But setting aside the standard snake oil, if it is improved, it's only marginally and mainly on paper.

For example, the Army is filling up its hollow divisions -- two divisions that were declared not-good-to-go last year by their brave and honorable generals, probably at the cost of their careers -- with fodder that normally brings up the rear!
On the readiness charts, these units look lean and mean. But dragooned former clerks and drivers don't become shoot-and-scoot riflemen or first-round-hit tankers in a few months.

Only in riots do sheer numbers sometimes win fights. Trained, motivated and well-equipped warriors with great leaders -- the kind of good people who are leaving our armed forces in historic numbers -- win battles. Not readiness reports with fudged scores.

I'd rather lead 10 trained, gung-ho, well-equipped warriors then a herd of don't-want-to-be-here pretenders plunked into units just to make everything look OK. At Thermopylae, 300 Spartans chopped down 10,000 supposedly fit-to-fight Persians.

If Cheney can prove what he said, he owes it to America to challenge his political rival. Getting this debate out there where we citizens can judge the facts for ourselves should help us all -- including Lieberman -- get at the truth.

Congress and the media have both skirted this issue. It's time they also examined our readiness with at least the same energy and focus they brought to the Lewinsky/Clinton maneuvers.

And before you paint me automatically into the Bush-Cheney corner, let me tell you I'm neither a Republican nor a Democrat. I'm an American first and foremost, an Independent who's borne witness at a dozen killing-fields where the body bags were filled. What I've learned -- up close and personal -- from these horror shows is that on the battlefield second place means too many Purple Hearts and tombstones.

Our forces must be the best. And not just on paper.