Former Missouri Congressman Ike Skelton with National Commander Fang A. Wong, as Skelton receives the Legion's 2012 Patriot Award.

National security demands deliberation

Going to war, or planning for defense, without concerted, careful, intelligent and non-emotional deliberation is dangerous and unproductive. That was the message communicated by four speakers at a National Security Symposium staged by The American Legion on Aug. 27.

The quartet of defense experts spoke before an audience of about 100 members of the organization’s National Security & Foreign Relations (NSFR) Commission and other interested parties during the organization’s 94th Nation Convention in Indianapolis. The three-hour session also featured the honoring of former House Armed Services Committee chairman Ike Skelton with the Legion’s 2012 Patriot Award.

Before the award ceremony, however, came a provocative repeat presentation by Lt. Col. Joseph Gallagher III of his “War Powers and the Constitution.” Gallagher last gave the presentation to the NSFR Commission during February’s Washington Conference.

In recent times, according to Gallagher, Congress has repeatedly surrendered its constitutionally intended power to declare war in favor of ill-conceived, poorly planned and hastily executed military adventures directed by presidents. “Since the end of World War II,” said Gallagher, who was an F/A-18 Hornet pilot in the Marines, “an assertive executive branch has run roughshod over an abdicating Congress, which has compromised U.S. military efficacy. It has repeatedly resulted in the expenditure of national blood and treasure for strategically hollow ends.

“The Constitution is, in itself, a strategic national security document,” he continued. “As the executive and congressional branches deviate from U.S. constitutional foundations with respect to war authority, they increasingly leave the military - and the nation - vulnerable to unacceptable strategic risk. The current interpretations or disregard for war power authority, as practiced today, no longer maintain the necessary connective tissue between political and military muscle movements. As a result, U.S. national and military strategy has become disjoined from legitimate political will. American military operations are hampered by the leadership’s inability to harness the national will. If this nation declared war when it engaged in war, as the Constitution requires, the United States would wage fewer of them - and be far better positioned to win them.”

As evidence of the validity of his argument, which was the subject of his 2011 U.S. Army War College master’s thesis, Gallagher pointed to a series of badly ending, undeclared wars waged by U.S. troops from Korea through Iraq and Afghanistan. “We haven’t won a war since World War II,” he said.
Next on the symposium’s agenda was the bestowing of The American Legion’s 2012 Patriot Award upon longtime Missouri congressman Ike Skelton. Skelton, who served in the U.S. House from 1977 to 2011, was addressed by Legion National Commander Fang A. Wong. Wong characterized Skelton as “a member who has always been for us through his 34 years of service in the House of Representatives. When it comes to the pillars of The American Legion (calling for) strong defense, caring for our veterans and protecting our flag, Ike has always been and still remains a true patriot. It is no surprise that he was mentored by a great Legionnaire from Missouri, President Harry S. Truman.”

With that, the large and ornate award plaque was handed to Skelton along with a request. Skelton responded, “The National Commander asked me if I would like to say a few words. That’s a real challenge for a politician,” he said jokingly.

“Thank you so much,” he continued. “I am truly honored and – yes – the late President Truman was my friend. He was my father’s friend and I wish that my father, who was the commander of the George Thomas Cullom Post in Lexington, Missouri, was here today. And, as some of you may know, two of my sons serve today in the active military; one in the Navy and one in the Army. I wish they were here today, too. They make me proud.”

The 80-year-old former legislator then gave a 20-minute address to attendees, recalling how Truman became a family friend. “The date was September 17th, 1928,” he recounted. “The place... was Lexington, Missouri. The occasion was the dedication of the Pioneer Mother Statue, sponsored by the Daughters of the American Revolution. The crowd was an estimated 10,000 people.”

Skelton went on, “Two Legionnaires were on the program. One... served as a county court judge in Jackson County next door. The other... was the prosecuting attorney for Lafayette County. That day, these two Legionnaires became acquainted and forged a lifelong friendship. The County Court judge was Harry S. Truman. The prosecuting attorney was Ike Skelton, my father.”

Skelton then moved on to the crux of his address: national defense preparedness, or the lack thereof. After lauding Legionnaires from World War II - “the greatest generation” - and the Legion’s continuing concern for military readiness, Skelton said, “We need that courage and commitment today because we continue to live in a dangerous and uncertain world. George Washington had it right when he said: ‘If you want peace, prepare for war.’

Skelton then talked at length about the grave dangers to national security presented by sequestration, the planned massive, across-the-board cuts to defense spending designed to help deal with the nation’s debt crisis. He spoke of weakening national defenses while still in battle and as enemies and potential enemies pose rising threats.

During the last minutes of his address, which were devoted to military strategy, Skelton’s remarks dovetailed with those offered earlier by Gallagher about impetuous war-making decisions. “(Good strategy) starts with thinking before we act... something that we as a government frankly are not very good at. One of our best qualities as Americans is a can-do spirit – when we see a problem we want to get out there and fix it. But, that’s seldom the place to start.”

Skelton then quoted the Prussian military theorist Carl Philipp Gottfried von Clausewitz, as had Gallagher: “No one starts a war, or rather, no one in his senses ought to, without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war and how he intends to conduct it.”

From the perspective of readiness rather than constitutional responsibility, Skelton concluded with a charge, as had Gallagher, to both the legislative and executive branches. “Making sure that our great military remains prepared – remains the best in the world –  depends on sufficient and judicious resourcing by Congress and on sober, smart strategic direction from the executive branch. Both are challenging, but both are doable.”

Mackenzie Eaglen, a self-proclaimed alarmist, followed Skelton as the next featured speaker. She is a military readiness and defense strategy expert with the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy, a non-partisan think tank in Washington. What alarms her today, she indicated, is the downward spiral of defense spending even while approximately 100,000 troops remain in harm’s way. “This is unprecedented in our history,” she said, pointing to the fact that the reductions were not the work of the president or his operatives alone. “So now, here we are with the specter of sequestration. And, I tell you, it is quite a long shadow that looms over Washington. But, the president did not propose anything in isolation. He pushed on an open door with the other party and that’s the dirty secret. This was not a proposal that was anathema to the majority of Congress, which is unfortunate.”

Eaglen said she believes the ignorance of neophyte members of Congress is at least partially responsible for the body's bad judgment on matters of defense. Gesturing toward Skelton – who lost his House seat in 2010 election, Eaglen said, "It was during that historic mid-term election that (members with) hundreds of years of defense minded wisdom, people like Chairman Skelton, were replaced by a new cadre of members with little background on these issues, even if they were sitting on committees with jurisdiction." Eaglen then recounted a story from Skelton's successor as chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif. McKeon, said Eaglen, had taken a group of freshmen legislators out to his home state to visit defense contractors. During a briefing, according to McKeon, one of the novice lawmakers raised his hand to ask, with apparent sincerity, "So, why do we need an Air Force, anyway?"

Eaglen referenced Skelton again when noting, as he had, that the United States faces massive cutbacks in its defenses while other nations build their armed forces with untrammeled speed and questionable motives. "So, we're chipping away at our military superpower status," said Eagan, explaining the term superpower "as having the means to fight two wars at once or one war really well. Well, that's exactly what they (potentially hostile nations) are preparing to do - fight one war really well."

Ed Dyer is a retired U.S. Army Brigadier General - a tanker - who is now vice president of Military Programs for Allison Transmission, Inc. Allison is the world's largest manufacturer of automatic transmissions for ground combat vehicles. He opened his remarks with a tribute to Skelton, answered by audience applause. Dyer continued, "I have been asked to speak today about the defense industrial base, especially in light of the looming budget cuts that Mackenzie (Eaglen) just addressed. As Mackenzie mentioned, we face huge risks if we allow sequestration to happen."

It is a risk, argued Dyer, not only to military readiness, but to the nation's economic health. "We tend to talk about the entire defense industrial base as if it's some nicely wrapped entity that we can shape as we see fit. But, obviously, it's something much more complex and intertwined, layered and amorphous apparatus than that. But it is, by any definition, a key strategic asset to our national defense."

Dyer continued, "There are a number of sectors that make up the defense industrial base. Some, such as the information technology and tactical wheeled vehicles, i.e., trucks, are closely connected to commercial sectors of our economy and they derive their health from the health of that particular industry. We as a nation need to understand that and understand that tie between those pieces of the defense industrial base and those industries."

Dyer argued that the Department of Defense and U.S. Army need to do the same. In defending against cutbacks in weapons development, said Dyer, the U.S. Air Force and Navy point to the deleterious effects that would have on the aircraft manufacturing and shipbuilding industries that support those platform based services. But, said Dyer, "Have you ever heard the leadership of the Army talk about the industrial base with anything like the knowledge and the passion of the other services? To them the Army is all about soldiers.

"So, what is the Army doing these days about its combat vehicle industrial base? Their plan is to shut it down anywhere from two to six years - depending upon who you talk to - and then start it back up again when they think they're ready as if it's a light switch that you can turn on and off.  Well, it's not. When you shut down an industry like that, it will take decades - not years - but decades and billions of dollars to rebuild it. There are suppliers, many small businesses, that are solely dependent on that sector of the industrial base. Some of them will fold. Others will exit the business and never return."

Dyer also spoke of the inevitable loss of design and production expertise during a long ground vehicle production shutdown, pointing to the fact that "this country has not successfully executed the design and production of a new combat vehicle since the 1970s. Most of the considerable expertise in how to do that is my age or older. If the Army cannot bring the ground combat vehicle system to fruition in the next several years, that expertise will not only be gone, but there will be no opportunity to pass it on to the current generation... of engineers."

Toward the end of his presentation, Dyer addressed the specific issue of sequestration: "As you heard recently from Mackenzie, a study released last month by George Mason University concludes that the automatic spending cuts... will decrease the nation's GDP by $215 billion. They will decrease personal earnings in the entire workforce by over $109 billion. And, they will cost the economy 214 million jobs."

Audience members were invited to participate in a question-and-answer session after the speakers' presentations. One of the most provocative questions was asked by Past National Commander David Rehbein. He recalled comments by Gallagher, who postulated that one reason Congress has been willing to surrender war-making power to presidents is to avoid political risk in case their actions prove unpopular.

"In World War II, you were either with us or against us," Rehbein said. "The people knew that with war there is risk. Congress understood that with war there is risk. Where is that willingness to risk today? Where is that willingness to sacrifice?"