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The Retreat On Vieques Was Shameful

Here's A Rhode Island Solution: Bomb Block Island

The Retreat On Vieques Was Shameful

BY Theodore L. Gatchel

July 2, 2000
Copyright © 2000 THE PROVIDENCE JOURNAL. All Rights Reserved.

OVER THE LAST 7 12 years, President Clinton has become adept at praising veterans of past wars and honoring their service. Unfortunately, he has not shown the same concern about the welfare of the servicemen and women whom he has sent into harm's way so frequently during his tenure as commander in chief.

A case in point is the tiny island of Vieques , off Puerto Rico . The only place where naval forces from the East Coast can conduct live naval gunfire and aerial bombardment in support of Marine landings, Vieques has been in the news continually since April 1999, when a Marine attack aircraft accidentally bombed an observation post, killing a Puerto Rican security guard.

Training at Vieques was suspended following the accident, and Navy and Marine forces deployed without the final training qualifications that made them fully prepared for combat. Training has just now resumed under a deal brokered by President Clinton, but the deal requires that training be conducted without live ammunition.

As with most deals of this sort, neither side is happy with the results. Puerto Rican activists are dissatisfied because they want the Navy and Marine Corps completely out of Vieques . The military is dissatisfied with the deal because it deprives them of essential training.

The anti-military activists dispute the need for live-fire training. Robert F. Kennedy Jr., one of several celebrities who have found Vieques to be a fashionable cause, recently said, "The reason the Navy is dropping bombs on Vieques is because the Navy likes to drop bombs. There is no military reason." Calling the training "silly," one Florida newspaper noted, "If the Navy has not perfected its ability to deliver ordnance by now, then, shame on them."

The combination of arrogance and ignorance behind such statements is breathtaking. The statements are arrogant because there is nothing silly about training on which American lives may depend. The ignorance can be shown best by a comparison with performing arts. Imagine what the reaction of intelligent individuals would be, for example, if I were to dispute the need for a major opera or ballet company to conduct rehearsals by saying, "If they don't know how to sing and dance by now, then shame on them."

The military practices for the same reasons that organizations of performing artists do. Bombing techniques may have been perfected years ago, but new pilots continue to join the force. Even experienced pilots and naval gun crews require practice to keep their skills polished, just as experienced musicians do. Finally, even skilled musicians do not simply come together one day and instantly become a world-class orchestra. They must learn to work as a team. The same constraints apply to a military team, but the penalties for poor performance are much more serious for the military than they are for any group of artists.

Without challenging the need for training, some supporters of the President's deal assert that adequate training can be accomplished with inert ammunition. To someone who has never been involved with military training, that proposal may seem reasonable enough, but unfortunately it is not. Only live ammunition, with its attendant risks, can provide the level of danger needed to even begin to simulate the experience of combat.

Training can never truly replicate the rigors of combat, but exercises with live ordnance provide the next best thing. Ask anyone who has ever taught inexperienced troops to throw hand grenades. Almost anyone can throw a training grenade, a 21-ounce, inert lump of metal. Give a group of trainees live grenades, on the other hand, and the strangest sorts of things will happen. When asked to pull the pin on a device that can kill them if not handled properly, some people freeze. Others become unable to throw the grenade beyond its bursting radius. Some even drop the grenade, forcing the instructor to pick itup and throw it before it explodes. The cure, of course, is the familiarity that comes through practice.

If all that can happen to individuals throwing single grenades, imagine the stresses that occur when the maneuver of thousands of men must be coordinated with live artillery, naval gunfire and air strikes. Keep in mind that before units ever get to Vieques , they have undergone the large-scale equivalent of throwing dummy grenades. At Vieques , they are participating in a graduation exercise before deploying overseas.

Ironically, the accident that precipitated the current controversy illustrates why such realistic training is needed.

As many of the Navy's critics have noted, training of the type conducted on Vieques could be done somewhere else. Of the dozens of articles I have read making that point, however, not a single one has suggested where that "somewhere else" might be. Even if an alternate site could be found, I suspect that environmentalists like Mr. Kennedy would find reasons to object.

He recently said that what the Navy has done to Vieques is "unconscionable," but he is mistaken. What the Navy has done there is upsetting to environmentalists and politicians courting the Puerto Rican vote. Sending Americans into harm's way without first giving them the benefit of the most realist training possible is unconscionable.

Col. Theodore L. Gatchel (USMC, ret.), a monthly contributor, is a military historian and a professor of operations at the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed here are his own and not necessarily those of the War College or the Defense Department.

LETTERS TO THE EDITOR - Here's A Rhode Island Solution To Vieques

July 13, 2000
Copyright © 2000 THE PROVIDENCE JOURNAL. All Rights Reserved.

I thank Ret. Col. Theodore L. Gatchel for his column ("The retreat on Vieques was shameful," Commentary, July 2) that showed us how necessary it is to train our naval forces with live ammunition and how "shameful" it is that we are backing down from doing this in Vieques , Puerto Rico .

As a proud citizen of the United States and this great state, I suggest we as Rhode Islanders do our part to end the barriers to effective training. I suggest we offer sections of Block Island to be used as training areas for aerial bombardment and live naval gunfire.

As the colonel anticipates, we will have to resolutely stand up to the environmentalists and politicians who are courting the Block Island vote. But I am sure our great state can stand up to this if Colonel Gatchel leads us because, as he said, "sending Americans into harm's way without first giving them the benefit of the most real training possible is unconscionable."


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