Crashing the party

Columnist : Albert Paschall

So the big party is in Philadelphia this week.  The glitz and glitter of Bush/Cheney ’00 will take the world’s stage about 12 miles from where Tony Zinni grew up in the tiny borough of Conshohocken, outside of Philadelphia.  It would be easy for Zinni to stop by his old hometown on his way to address the Republican Convention but it’s not likely he’ll get to give a speech.

     When Zinni was growing up in Conshohocken in the ‘50s it was like a hundred other steel towns in Pennsylvania.  It was a company town, almost everybody worked in the steel factories.  The borough’s narrow streets of neat, brick row houses were homes to the Irish, Italians and Poles who could get round the clock work in the mills.  A Catholic Church seemed to be on every corner and life was good, secure and everyone had a future in mighty fortress America.

     Of course we had the Cold War then and if young men didn’t volunteer for military service the government volunteered them.  It was called the draft.  In ’61 after graduating from Villanova University Anthony Zinni chose the Marine Corps for a supposedly short stint.  Last month, after 39 years, he retired as General Zinni, commander in chief of the US Central Command.  For the last 6 years he has commanded American Forces in 25 countries including the never ending war in Iraq.  Based on his recent Congressional testimony about that war and Saddam’s intentions with weapons of mass destruction the Clinton administration won’t miss Zinni but the rest of us should.

     In a retirement speech last week at the US Naval Institute the General threw down the gauntlet about America’s military, its conduct and its future.  It wasn’t the kind of party speech that launches a 100-day quest for the presidency.  It surely wasn’t the soothing of a Roosevelt or the fire and brimstone of a Kennedy but its sober presence and precision make it a must read for anyone who thinks they can lead this nation into the 21st century.

     Zinni talked about the code of conduct.  The small town boys of the ‘50s and early ‘60s who came into military service with the passion of patriotism not just the hope of a job.  Military service was noble and just.  TV coverage from the rice paddies of South Vietnam blacked out those beliefs.  Re-grouping with the advantage of scholarships and an all-volunteer force emerged in the ‘80s.  Advantage over service.  It wasn’t necessarily bad and better than conscripts but it lacked the dedication of the motives of service for the nation’s sake.

     Then in ’89 came the so-called peace dividend.  With the Berlin Wall crashing down and chaos in Moscow, America’s political leadership began to strip the armed services of manpower, money and machinery.  According to Zinni we won in Desert Storm because Hussein fought our kind of war.  Hussein’s inferior firepower stupidly attacked as the military say “in symmetry”.  That’s one-to-one combat with traditional tactics.  Tank to tank, soldier to soldier.  Today’s enemies like outlaw terrorist Osama Bin Laden roam the earth at will ignoring and eluding our 20th century tactics.

     To confuse matters more for the American high command come the diluted missions known as Operations Other Than War (OOTW).  Military leaders joke that “real men don’t do OOTW” but they don’t have a choice.  When the political leadership orders peacekeeping, humanitarian missions and other UN based operations our chains of command become blurred, our commitments are uncertain, our timetables are non-existent and military morale plummets.

     We haven’t done much better back home.  Only Zinni’s Marines have met recruiting targets the last 2 years.  Army force reductions and divisional re-structuring have left us unable to muster the force we used in Iraq.  Strategic readiness doctrine calls for us to be able to fight two wars at once.  We can, if we get the luxury of fighting one at a time.

     Domestic military base morale is bad.  Lousy housing, low pay and the mountains of red tape our service people have to overcome to get simple medical care should scar our national conscience.  Massive Congressional base closings have left the military and their families largely isolated from the rest of us.  A generation ago they were our family, friends and neighbors.  Shamefully today they are distant, unknown and all too rare a sight.  They are somebody else’s kids.

     For the last decade we’ve stripped our military, abused our veterans and ignored the realities of a very dangerous world.  The rhetoric of the political conventions in this new century demand that we hear more about child care, elder care and health care when we should be hearing about military care.  What will Mr. Bush or Mr. Gore do for the Soldiers, Sailors and Marines who make all those other cares possible for us everyday?

At the big political conventions a speech like Zinni’s would really crash the party.  But when the party is over and the election is won, if God still blesses America someday the next president will sit down with Tony Zinni and listen carefully to what he has to say.  It’s not pretty and its not politically correct, but then the truth rarely is.