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Time to Remove the Pentagon from Its Pedestal

November 19, 2012

By Joe Rothstein

It’s past time to knock the Pentagon off its iconic pedestal.

The U.S. military has become a pseudo religion. Lawmakers kneel at its budget’s alter. The media seldom let questioning words pass through its keyboards or be uttered through its electronic lips.

But all isn’t right with the Pentagon or those who run it.

In a bizarre turn of fate, some angry emails from an apparently jealous woman are turning a sharp focus on those who manage the military, and the way that largest of government agencies is managed. As with most scandals, the Petraeus affair has created an insatiable appetite for the story itself and ancillary events related to it, events that otherwise may have had little attention.

Like the lifestyles of the stars---the four stars, that is. The notoriety given Generals Petraeus and Allen prompted the Washington Post to develop an in depth article about the many perks of those who rise to Army’s top echelons. The private jets. The enlisted men who clean their dirty laundry, rake their yards, and bend to their every whim. It’s a lifestyle that, according to David Barno, a retired three-star general who commanded U.S. troops in Afghanistan can “become corrosive.”

“You can become completely disconnected from the way people live in the regular world, and even from the modest lifestyle of others in the military,” Barno said. “When that happens, it’s not necessarily healthy either for the military or the country.”

Which leads to another development that is getting a lot of attention as the spotlight is being shined on the military’s top brass---the exquisitely timed release of “The Generals,” a book by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Thomas A. Ricks.

In “The Generals,” Ricks traces military leadership from World War II to the present and concludes that today’s Army general staff is like college professors with tenure. No one gets fired. Accountability is thin.

Not since Vietnam, his research revealed, has any general been removed by military authority for incompetence in the field. A civilian Secretary of Defense or a President might do that occasionally, but not the general staff. As Ricks points out, during World War II combat generals wore short leashes. Perform well quickly or be gone.

Ricks blames much of the disastrous aftermath of the initial Iraq and Afghanistan actions on generals who had no idea what to do next and were too slow to adapt to changing conditions on the ground. “A culture of mediocrity has taken hold within the Army’s leadership rank,” said Ricks. “If it is not uprooted, the country’s next war is unlikely to unfold any better than the last two.”

Those who run the Pentagon not only manage troops and equipment in field, but develop and sign off on expensive new weapon systems. One of the most expensive of those systems is the F-22 combat fighter, a project costing upwards of $80 billion which to date, despite U.S. involvement in two wars and action in Libya, has never been used in combat.

One of those F-22s crashed in Florida the other day. No cause for the failure has been given but it would not be surprising if it had something to do with the aircraft’s oxygen supply system. That was the cause of an earlier fatal crash. This time the pilot safely ejected.

In April, Sen. John McCain, a former combat pilot, told ABC News that the jets, which the Air Force call the future of American air dominance, are a waste of money and serve no role in today's combat environment.

According to a report in the magazine Combat Aircraft Monthly, in annual training games earlier this year the F-22 performed no better than the much less expensive Eurofighter Typhoon manned by German pilots when matched in close-range one-on-one combat.

The F-22 excels at engaging hostile aircraft beyond the pilot’s vision—up to 20 miles away. But as McCain also told ABC News, "I don't think the F-22 will ever be seen in the combat it was designed to counter, because that threat is no longer in existence."

This new focus on those who call the shots at the Pentagon, and how they do it, comes just as Congress is being forced to turn a critical eye on military spending for the first time in decades. If Congress fails to act before year’s end, the Pentagon faces a 10 per cent across the board spending cut, in addition to the 8 per cent future spending cut already in the Obama budget. Many claim this will make the U.S. less safe. Others paint even darker doomsday scenarios.

But away from the dysfunctional legislative arena, most military experts believe the Pentagon spends too much, wastes, too much and manages too little. The Government Accounting Office long ago called the Defense Department “unauditable.”

Lawrence J. Korb, a former assistant defense secretary for President Reagan points out that the U.S. has just gone through an enormous defense buildup, with budget increases for an unprecedented 13 straight years between 1998 and 2012. Also, he notes, the proposed cuts are smaller than they seem. Even if the Pentagon has to swallow all the cuts now on table spending levels would go back only to those in 2006.

Kori Schake a research fellow at the conservative Hoover Institution and a veteran of the Pentagon, the National Security Council and the State Department, agrees, and believes billions can be cut from personnel costs, manned fighter aircraft and active-duty Army strength.

Schake says enlisted military pay and benefits are 90 percent more than private sector workers of similar age and education; officer pay exceeds 83 percent of civilian counterparts. Benefits for military personnel add 50 percent over the cost of their salaries, whereas the civilian average is around 30 percent.

“Even accounting for the special dangers and needs of our soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines,” she says, “that suggests room for some reduction.”

There are always lonely voices calling for cuts in the military budget. But now Congress has backed itself into a corner where more cuts seem inevitable, not unpatriotic. That day of reckoning has come just as Generals Patraeus and Allen have found themselves unfortunate catalysts for serious overview of the Pentagon and those who manage it.

After all the books, reports, conferences and promises about the need to get serious about military spending, it appears that some angry emails from a jealous woman may be providing the public focus needed to get it done.

(Joe Rothstein can be contacted at

Joe Rothstein is editor of U.S. Politics Today. His career in politics spans 35 years, as a strategist and media producer in more than 200 campaigns for political office and for many political causes. He was a pioneer in professional political consulting and one of the founding members of the American Association of Political Consultants. During his career Mr. Rothstein has served as editor of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Anchorage Daily News and adjunct professor at George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management. He has a master's degree in journalism from UCLA.