Soldier-Statesman

Army Chief Schoomaker talks about his service's needs and the "masses of people that are the prize."

Army Chief of Staff Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker has the toughest job in the Pentagon, or so it seems to me, and it became clear during an Aug. 23 conversation at the National Press Club that he would not have taken it if he didn't think he could repair the problems he saw.

Schoomaker is seriously concerned about the future viability of the institution he's served for 35 years. His remarks suggested resentment that the Army has taken a back seat to the Navy and the Air Force in budget decisions over the past 15 years. He is blunt in his insistence that only people working on the ground can offer the hope of creating more stable societies in places like Afghanistan and Iraq. Schoomaker makes it clear that he did not return to duty to acquiesce in the treatment of the Army as a "Cinderella service"-living in rags while others sport expensive finery. He is on the warpath against languid congressional budgeting schedules that have the Army living hand-to-mouth, "going through life like a pauper." He is critical of the incapacity of other U.S. agencies to assign people to work in Iraq on anything other than an opt-in/opt-out basis. And he takes a statesmanlike view of America's obligation to help destitute peoples of the world whose resentment of our wealth can only breed trouble.

I asked Schoomaker why he stepped out of retirement to take the top Army job three years ago, and if he had insisted on conditions before accepting it. Duty called, he said, noting that his father, brother and now children have served in the Army. But he added that he'd had a "serious conversation" with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who had agreed that "I'll do my job . . . and he would fulfill his. And so far we've gotten on very well. But my truck is parked behind the house."

Schoomaker might just head west in that truck if he can't get the Army in better shape. Asked if he had refused to follow budget guidance in planning for fiscal 2008, he said he had insisted that the Army and Rumsfeld's office "agree on the facts" of what it takes to operate the Army. That review surely will conclude that more is needed-and, Schoomaker hopes, that the high-tech Future Combat Systems program is essential. The FCS is, of course, closer to his heart than what he called "a lot of things flying around and floating in the sea."

The Army and the Marines, with boots on the ground, are now stuck with civil affairs and reconstruction duties ranging beyond their core capabilities. But, said Schoomaker, it will be this kind of "nontrigger-pulling stuff that ultimately affects the people, the masses of people that are the prize."

The prize will elude us in the world, said the general, if we can't find a way to share our wealth. With about 5 percent of the world's population, we account for more than 25 percent of worldwide consumption and about half the world's wealth, Schoomaker noted.

And so, concluded this soldier-statesman, "We have to figure out how to use our position to advance other people's condition in the world. Otherwise, we will continue to have problems."

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