Veteran defense reporter foresees radical change in military

Random House recently published Soldier's Duty: A Novel, a book by Thomas E. Ricks, The Washington Post's Pentagon correspondent. Ricks calls it "a reported novel" that explores the changes--technological and philosophical--that are shaping today's fighting forces. Ricks, 45, has been covering military affairs for the Post since late 1999. Before that, he spent 17 years covering such topics as the drug economy and the military for The Wall Street Journal. His previous book was Making the Corps, about how a new group of recruits is turned into Marines. Ricks recently sat down with National Journal staff correspondent Louis Jacobson to discuss his new book and what it says about today's military.

Q: Did you ever spend any time in the military yourself? A: I never spent a day in the military. Q: Do you regret that? A: I don't think it would have given me any extra insights. My approach to the beat is that of a foreign correspondent. The military, to most Americans today, is an unknown country, with a distinctive culture, a different set of values and a different language. I wanted to take the story of an alien world and tell my American readers about it--the good, the bad, the interesting, the important. That lack of knowledge was one driving force behind the book. I'm amazed at the imbalance: There's an orgy of stuff on World War II, but there's very little about the post-1945 military. There's some about Vietnam, but the closer you get, the less visible the military gets in pop culture. The post-Gulf War military is basically unknown-it's alien territory. I say the post-Gulf War period because the majority of people in the military today joined since the Gulf War. The kids who are peacekeeping in Kosovo were barely teens during that war. To them it's a movie starring George Clooney [Three Kings]. I would pay to cover the military--I find it fascinating. It's adjusted to its post-Cold War missions and done an able job of it. It used to be that the U.S. Army "did not do peacekeeping," but now I know guys who are veterans of five peacekeeping deployments. This is a military that not only invented the Internet but challenged the traditional hierarchy through e-mail. Now, this gets obscure, but the rank structure in the military is largely derived from Napoleonic answers to running a mass military. When the mass military was invented, a basic question was, "How do we move large amounts of materiel and illiterate men into battle and control them?" The officers were people who were literate, and the privates were illiterate. The chain of command was the way to control the flow of information. Now you have a very different military. I once ran into a sergeant with a PhD. Today, computer-literate, savvy corporals send e-mail to captains, and majors are e-mailing generals. You're seeing a flattening of the hierarchy. This raises profound philosophical issues. Then there's technology. The Kosovo campaign could not have been conducted 10 years earlier. It really is astonishing. If you wanted to bomb Belgrade 50 years ago, you would have had to carpet-bomb it. But during Kosovo they were not only targeting individual buildings, but individual floors. The Hotel Yugoslavia was where some of the militias were. The allies were able to target floors 3 and 5 but not 4 or 7. They were virtually targeting individual windows. This means a couple things that are worrisome, but it also makes it easier to go to war. The U.S. had no will or moral basis to carpet-bomb Belgrade, but it had the will to target certain floors and certain buildings. The history of the military during the last 10 years I find fascinating. There's been very little fiction written about the all-volunteer force. The reason you've got so many World War II novels is that people like Norman Mailer got drafted. Our military right now is more like the 19th century British military. The 19th century British military was very active with "small" wars. But not one major literary figure of the 19th century served in the British military, with the possible exception of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. He enlisted after having a problem with drugs, under the name Sam Cumberbatch. (For fun, I gave that name to a character in the novel.) He amazed his sergeant not only for being literate but for writing in Greek and Latin. Likewise, while there's a terrific literature about Vietnam, there's very little about the all-volunteer military. I remember when Clinton came into office, he had said two things about the military on the campaign trail. One was that we had to do more in Bosnia. The second one was that we had to have defense conversion. We heard nothing of that since. To his surprise, Clinton became one of the most militarily active presidents in our history. It really was an astonishing track record: We bombed or invaded or had a significant military action in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Sudan. And all the while, we've been bombing Iraq longer than we bombed Vietnam. So you've got this surprisingly militarily active President and a large U.S. military by peacetime standards. If you set aside the Cold War, the U.S. has never had a large military in peacetime. That's unprecedented territory for this country. And if I'd made this stuff up, it would not have been credible. Last year I went to Incirlik, Turkey, near the northern no-fly zone of Iraq. Who patrols it? A large chunk of the pilots are from American Airlines, Northwest or Delta, pilots who are reservists. They come in for 30 days at a time. They see some anti-aircraft fire and then go back to hauling tourists around the Caribbean. Nothing has ever happened like this before. Historically, reservists have not been that good, but especially in the Air Force, they're now crackerjack good. There are almost no Vietnam vets left in the U.S. military, but reservists tend to stay longer at the lower ranks. Q: What's the mindset of today's young soldier? A: I don't think there is such a thing as a typical soldier. I'm constantly surprised by the diversity and range of characters and types. Are there commonalities? Yeah--smart, engaged, computer-literate, skeptical of leadership, both military and civilian. The 1960s have come home to roost in the military--"Don't trust anyone over colonel." The junior officers are very interesting. People forget how young the military is. The baby boomers are the generals today. The last time I heard anyone play Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young was at a general's home. On the other end of the spectrum, today's youngest officers are not even Generation Xers but from Generation Y. Q: In a military environment, is this degree of skepticism positive or harmful? A: I tell you, it's fascinating to watch. Just ask Donald Rumsfeld. He's had a cold shower over at the Pentagon with the degree of military skepticism he's encountering. I get the sense that he walks into meetings and says, "Hey, fellas, here's what you're going to do," and they reply, "Yeah, you and what army?" Today's junior officers are very sophisticated, very skeptical of authority. They don't just blindly believe. They want proof. They have access to independent sources of information. It used to be that a sergeant said, "This is the way the Army is," and it was. Now, guys send each other e-mail. One writes, "Here's what they say at Fort Polk," and then the other guy sends one that says, "Well, this is what they're telling us at Fort Drum." Q: It's a brave new world, then. A: Absolutely. I get e-mails from guys on ships and deployments. I've gotten whole PowerPoint briefings leaked to me. You get guys who fly airsrtrikes, fly back to the ship and land, then catch the early reviews on CNN. The connectedness is astonishing. Q: Is this a dagger at the heart of the military, or will there be an adjustment? A: I think the military will adjust, but I think that the military is on the cusp of great change. We basically still have an industrial-age military, in the way it's organized, in the way it recruits, trains and uses people. Yet it exists in the information age. I think it will change more in next 10 years than in the last 40. It sounds like inside baseball, but the thing that's incredibly important is personnel policy. It's been said that the Navy treats people as if they were a free good, when in fact people are the most important thing we have. The military is still coming to terms with that. You'll see radical changes over the next 10 years--a mommy track and probably a daddy track, as well. You'll see much more flexibility about people going from active to reserve and back. You'll see horizontal accessions, where you bring special technical people from the private sector for the short term. The military would say, "How would you like to be a major in the U.S. military? We need you for your skills." You could even do your reserve service mainly through the Internet. Once a year they would take you to fly in a Blackhawk so you could squeeze off a few rounds. "Infowar" has been such a buzzword--it's the only guaranteed way to get money these days. So the Air Force sets up an infowar unit, and it's located where? Silicon Valley? Austin? Boston? No, Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina, which is as geographically distant as you can possibly be. I worry about base closings. The branches have tried to retreat to the cheapest places in the world to operate, but if you're worried about weapons of mass destruction, why concentrate in one place on each coast? Does Pearl Harbor ring a bell? And when spouses work, if you go to places that are cheap, they'll be dissatisfied. The soldier will either leave or not join in the first place. Q: Does the military's leadership "get" this? A: I think the military has had a hard time because it's been so active. It's hard to do two things well at once. If you're going to be bombing, invading--the whole list--it's hard to transform yourself.

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