Is the Pentagon closing the wrong bases?

Military analysis.
May 13 2005 6:15 PM

Debased

The hidden problems in the Pentagon's base-closure list.

Pack your bags, soldier 
Click image to expand.
Pack your bags, soldier

Pentagon leaders announced their plans today to close or realign 837 military locations. Among the casualties: Walter Reed Army Medical Center would be realigned to a new facility in suburban Maryland; Fort McPherson in Atlanta would be shut, as would the Naval Submarine Base New London in Groton, Conn. * The closure list now goes to the Base Realignment and Closure Commission for a political review, then to the president, then to Congress for an up-or-down vote. Along the way, communities and interests from every corner of America will lobby for their bases, as they have in the four previous rounds of base closings, in what has been described as the mother of all pork-barrel political fights.

There are several clear trends in the BRAC list: the elimination of many bases in the Northeast, the shutting of myriad civilian defense agencies' offices, and the elimination of reserve armories in towns across America. The Pentagon says the closings will save $48 billion over 20 years. But they will also have one dramatic negative effect. BRAC will separate America's military even further from America's citizenry by consolidating military bases and removing the presence of the military from hundreds of towns across the country.

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Today's military bases sit where they do by political fiat and historical accident more than any operational necessity. Most installations trace their origins to the great mobilizations of World War I and World War II, when the military established garrisons across the country to raise the armies of 5 million and 16 million respectively to fight those wars. When the world wars ended, it fell to Congress to decide which bases to retain. It is no accident that today's military finds itself overrepresented in the South and the West. In his majestic biography of President Lyndon Johnson's senatorial career, Robert Caro recounts how Southern legislators like the legendary Sen. Richard Russell, D-Ga., then head of the Senate Armed Services Committee, were able to keep a disproportionate share of bases in their states during those demobilizations. Everyone recognized then, as they do now, that a base in one's state or district was a political and economic pot of gold.

This year's BRAC shopping list was intended to support the military's transformation from a lumbering Cold War force into a rapid-deployment 21st Century expeditionary force. One of the biggest buzzwords tossed around this year was "joint"—the term which means something can be used by more than one service, e.g., the Army and the Marines. Despite the fact that everyone fights on the same team, service parochialism has long been a source of tension in the Pentagon. Generals and admirals frequently battle over their slice of the Pentagon budget, which translates into more bases, ships, aircraft, and personnel to command. Indeed, such tensions even come up in wartime—Gen. Tommy Franks famously cursed the services' chiefs as "a mob of Title 10 motherf---ers" (referring to the statute governing the military), because they refused to jointly support his efforts in Afghanistan.

The second big buzz phrase for the 2005 base-closing operation was "surge capacity"—as in, the ability to grow and support the rapid mobilization and deployment of military units for overseas duty. This criteria cut hard against small reserve centers and bases which were landlocked or city-locked, because they lacked the ability to expand, and because they often had poor access to rail, airports and seaports. It also helped the Pentagon justify the further consolidation of units into mega-hubs like Fort Lewis, Wash., and Fort Bragg, N.C., because of their coastal location, ability to expand, and proximity to major Air Force bases.

Somewhat predictably, these BRAC criteria produced a hit list chock-full of small reserve armories from Encino, Calif., to Bangor, Maine, which generally supported only one kind of reserve unit and had little ability to expand or support deployments. The list also produced closures like Fort McPherson: a thriving active-duty base in the heart of Atlanta which hosts the Army's Forces Command, but which could not expand further because of urban encroachment.

Every round of base closings has inspired massive lobbying and political battles to protect particular local interests, and this round will, too. But there are also two new considerations in this batch of proposed closings. First, shutting these armories may undermine homeland security efforts, which rely in part on the geographic dispersion and availability of reserve units to respond to domestic emergencies. Local governments depend on reserve centers for use as staging areas and temporary shelters in their emergency plans. The base-closure commission should evaluate this impact before accepting the Pentagon's recommendations.

Second, and perhaps more important, this closure will change the relationship between the U.S. military and the society from which it's drawn. Many of these reserve centers, armories, and defense offices play an important role in their communities' lives—reserve armories frequently serve as local meeting halls and polling places, and reserve units often engage in community service projects, for example. When these bases go away, so too will the presence of the military in the lives of the people who reside and work near them. Initially, reservists may drive hours to drill with units at the new consolidated armory locations, but eventually these reservists will move nearer the big bases or quit the reserves. Either way, communities that today contribute reservists to the military will no longer do so.

Today's civil-military divide is greater than at any time in American history, and these cuts will widen it. The burden of voluntary military service today is heavy, but it is being borne narrowly. And as Eliot Cohen points out in Friday's Wall Street Journal, the chasm between society and the military is widening in the area of higher education today, thanks to the scuttling of some professional military education programs and the absence of ROTC from many elite campuses. Such a gap is not healthy for a democracy which vests the ultimate decisions over whether to go to war in its political branches of government. The system breaks when those who serve in uniform carrying out our policies find themselves divorced from the leaders and voters who set those policies. Before the base-closure commission puts the boards up on these 837 bases, it should consider whether the country can handle any further separation between the soldier and the state.

* Correction, May 14, 2005: The original version of this article mistakenly stated that the Naval Submarine Base New London is in New London, Conn. In fact, it is in Groton, Conn. Click here to return to the corrected sentence.

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