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The Virginian-Pilot and The Ledger-Star, Norfolk, VA

Preparing For Yesterday's Wars


August 9, 2000
Copyright © 2000 The Virginian-Pilot and The Ledger-Star, Norfolk, VA. All Rights Reserved.

Please, tell me that defenders of bombing the smithereens out of Vieques every six months are just kidding.

Tell me that their arguments are politically inspired, to embarrass the Clinton administration. Or a way of saying, "You can't push Uncle Sam around!"

Tell me they don't really expect the Navy and Marine Corps to win tomorrow's wars with yesterday's tactics.

I guess it can't be helped - the end of the Cold War has been tough on military-industrial complexes everywhere, but we can't hold on to the past. Not even if we are the last superpower standing.

Many of the technologies and military tactics that worked so well for the United States in the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s are now. . . well, anachronistic and silly.

Just think - we are testing a nuclear missile defense shield that may not work (we're not sure yet) but which can easily be overwhelmed if it ever does work. We are building state-of-the-art bombers and fighters that we don't need.

We maintain a "forward presence" in Okinawa, just as we did so valiantly 50 years ago, fresh after saving the world from fascism - only today our military personnel over there are getting into trouble and sullying America's global reputation, rather than bringing honor to it.

We continue to run amphibious assaults on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques because that was the strategy that won World War II, by God, but we cannot conceive of a situation in modern warfare (unless we invade Grenada again) in which storming the beaches will be militarily decisive or politically expedient.

Fundamental to all of these dilemmas is our lack of a simple, coherent, appropriate and achievable military objective. The political and economic implosion of the Soviet Union a decade ago has robbed the Pentagon of its raison d'etre - and we have yet to recover.

Today's military mission is not stopping communism but, rather, an amalgam of drug wars, humanitarian actions and limited techno- conflicts in Third World countries. We are throwing up a missile defense shield and re-enacting the D-Day invasion to counteract terrorist suitcase bombings.

The argument for a continued Navy presence in Vieques seems to be: (a) beach landing exercises are a timeless and immutable part of U.S. military doctrine; therefore (b) their value to the post-Cold War military environment cannot be questioned.

This means that (c) we need to continue rehearsing amphibious assaults on enemy beaches, for the same reason perhaps that opera companies rehearse operas. It then follows that (d) such exercises must employ live naval gunfire and aerial bombardment.

Naturally, Vieques is the only place where American sailors and Marines have been allowed to conduct such exercises in the past; therefore (e) we need to continue doing in the future what we've always done in the past. We need to continue blowing up Vieques twice a year.

The argument may be faulted at every point. It is not at all obvious that American troops need to train for tomorrow's wars by practicing amphibious assaults, just because we won World War II that way. Or even that we need live ammunition for these exercises.

Nor is it obvious that Vieques is the only place where the Navy can shoot its big guns and Marine jets can drop bombs. It might be just as obvious, for example, to hold live fire exercises along the North Carolina and Virginia shorelines, or, perhaps, on West Coast naval and Marine bases in California, Hawaii and, for that matter, on Okinawa.

What? You say the Okinawans would be outraged if we were to conduct such training on their island? So are the Puerto Ricans . You say Virginians and North Carolinians would object to live fire exercises as dangerous and environmentally destructive? So do the Puerto Ricans .

How come we think we can do it in Puerto Rico , when we can't do it in any other country, or even along our own coasts?

The most important reason for getting out of both Vieques and Okinawa may be ethical. Our immense power and global reach impose on the United States a certain moral responsibility to not harm or humiliate the people and natural resources in other countries that we are ostensibly protecting.

To put this in rather crass, but accurate terms, if we deploy troops to another country, and if our troops then proceed to rape the environment and the local women, we will be looked upon not as heroes but as occupying tyrants. The political leadership of that country will then either expel us or look for someone else to protect them - from us.

Of course, this begs the whole question of why our troops are still stationed in places like Okinawa 55 years after the end of World War II.

This is why we need to finally rethink the postwar military strategy we have been employing since 1945. Amphibious landings should not be an eternal verity in our military doctrine; we do not have a God-given right to blow up the beaches and insult the sensibilities of other countries, even if they are our allies or protectorates.

Continuing to train with live fire at Vieques and staying on Okinawa will prove to be more trouble to us than it is worth. We should cut our losses and begin negotiating withdrawal from both of these islands as soon as possible.

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