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Dispensing with indispensability?

| Saturday, March 1, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

Having commanded an unprepared, poorly supplied army, George Washington offered a sharp reply when a Constitutional Convention delegate proposed limiting the new country's standing military to 5,000 men.

Washington sarcastically agreed with the proposal, “as long as a stipulation was added that no invading army could number more than 3,000 troops.”

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has proposed reducing the U.S. military to its smallest numbers in nearly 75 years, restructuring its forces and closing bases. The nation can afford a smaller military, he insists, as long as it retains its technological edge and responsive agility.

Yet military experts worry about the effect of such cuts on four core areas — overall preparedness, national security, investment in equipment, and service morale in the face of economic uncertainty for military families, retirees and their communities.

Those concerns don't even factor in our disturbing vulnerability as our traditional allies have widely disarmed — considerably more so than Hagel has proposed.

“The British could only help us with a division in Iraq in 2003. They could probably only support us with a brigade now,” said Conrad Crane, chief of the Army Heritage Center at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle.

“Our potential allies have much less ability to help us, and our leadership in resolving potential crises requiring any kind of force is becoming even more essential,” Crane said.

Ours is by far the most capable military in an incredibly dangerous world. That not only concerns those in the military but even the casual observer who ponders the future's many unknowns.

Terror groups like al-Qaida still target us from new sanctuaries in unstable lands.

Archenemy Iran still pursues nuclear weapons.

North Korea's unpredictable, nuclear-armed regime is always capable of the unthinkable.

The “Arab Spring” created chaos throughout the Middle East, the source for most of the world's oil. Iraq unraveled after we left; Syria became a hellish free-for-all.

Friction grows daily between China and other Asian nations over rocks in the South China Sea.

Bloody civil wars rage across Africa.

In Europe, Russia is reasserting itself in Ukraine, a country ready to collapse.

“When natural disasters strike around the world, American ships, planes and helicopters are often the first to respond and provide capabilities no one else has,” Crane said. “Without American leadership and military involvement, chaos will only spread.

“We cannot and should not fix it all — but there are going to be times when our national interests are indeed threatened or the world really needs us, and we will have to respond.”

Much as we might not like it, America remains the indispensable nation in tough times. And if history and current events are good indicators, world peace isn't breaking out anytime soon.

Crane said this issue involves not just our nation's security but also the security of those in uniform, because there is talk of “raising the (individual's) payments for health care and for food in the commissary, and reducing retirement benefits.”

“We do not recruit just soldiers in the all-volunteer force, we recruit families. And such changes will have a big impact on them and influence retention,” he said.

To maintain the military's morale, it must be well equipped, well trained and properly paid, and its families well cared for — all things that cost money and compete for spending priority.

“If personnel costs continue to rise, other areas of expenditure, like training and equipping, will have to be reduced,” Crane explained.

“How small is too small? Unfortunately, those who wish us the most harm get a lot of say in answering this,” said Curt Nichols, a West Point graduate, retired Army officer, and a professor at Baylor University.

Nichols believes the military's size and structure should be based primarily on a wise assessment of current and future threats, and only secondarily on budget concerns. “Never should the desire to purge the ranks for ideological reasons enter into the calculation,” he said.

George Washington never wavered about the importance of a strong, prepared, robust army. In his first speech to Congress after becoming president, he declared: “To be prepared for War is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace.”

Let us hope today's Washington hasn't forgotten that.

Salena Zito covers politics for Trib Total Media (412-320-7879 or

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