Policy: National Security

No, the Pentagon press corps didn't get the story of Army budget cuts wrong

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Beltway Confidential,Opinion,Army,National Security,Defense Spending,Media,Charles Hoskinson,The Atlantic

It's best not to try to play "I'm smarter than the rest of the media" when you're not.

The latest pundit to outsmart himself in that game is Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic, who on Tuesday published a column entitled "Opponents of Pentagon-Budget Cuts Just Played the Entire Media," explaining that reporters were widely fooled into writing that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel's proposed cuts to the Army would make that force the smallest since 1940.

Except it isn't true.

The Pentagon press corps has lots of smart, experienced reporters, and they didn't all just suddenly get roped into making a mistake that required correcting by someone, who, to my knowledge, has never covered the beat.

Hagel's proposal would shrink the Army to about 440,000 to 450,000 soldiers, which is the smallest number since 1940. But it's not the headcount that matters, it's what happened that year: the nation's first peacetime draft, which started in October.

Earlier that year, the Nazis had conquered France and put Britain on the ropes, and the Roosevelt administration was worried about the possibility the U.S. would get involved in a ground war in Europe. That's exactly what happened after Pearl Harbor, and U.S. troops are still there today.

What Hagel is proposing is based on the Obama administration's assumption that the U.S. no longer needs to be concerned about large-scale ground conflict, as it was throughout the Cold War, Vietnam, the Gulf War and the years following the Sept. 11 attacks, once the last combat troops leave Afghanistan. It is, in effect, the end of an era that began with the buildup fueled by the 1940 draft.

Is this a safe assumption? That remains to be seen. Certainly we no longer have to worry about Russian tanks rolling through the Fulda Gap as we did when I was a young infantry lieutenant during the last days of the Cold War.

But there's a comment from Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the former Army vice chief of staff, that sticks in my mind. When he was asked to testify before a House Armed Services subcommittee hearing on the effects of budget cuts on Oct. 27, 2011, this is what he said:

There is just a tendency to believe at the end of a war that we will never need ground forces again. Well, I tell you that we have never got that right. We have always required them. We just don't have the imagination to always be able to predict exactly when that will be. ...

And quite frankly, let us be honest. It has cost us lives. It cost us lives at Kasserine Pass. It cost us lives at Task Force Smith in Korea.

It cost us lives every single time.

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