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3:30 pm
Fri February 28, 2014

Building A Smaller, Better Army

Earlier this week, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel outlined his plan for a downsized military. The plan will shrink the Army to its smallest size since the eve of World War II. At that time, there were around 270,000 active duty soldiers, a number that surged to nearly 1.5 million during the fighting in Europe and the Pacific.

Under Hagel’s’ recommendations, this new Army would be reduced from today’s 522,000 soldiers to between 440,000 and 450,000.

“As I weighed these recommendations I have as I often do looked to the pages of American History for guidance, in doing so, an admonition by Henry Stimson stood out,” Hagel said as he wrapped up his presentation. “Writing after World War II, Roosevelt’s secretary of war during that time, said that Americans must act in the world as it is and not in the world as we wish it were. He was a realist. This is a time for reality.”

Military analyst Andrew Bacevich agrees.

“Nobody would be happier than I would be if we were to be on the verge of a Stimson revival,” he tells Here & Now’s Meghna Chakrabarti. “Henry Stimson is one of my favorite characters in 20th century American history. He served twice as secretary of war, and secretary of state and governor general of the Philippines and was really one of the first wise men, somebody who took the world as it is, without illusions.”

After 13 years of war, Bacevich, a retired Army colonel who served in Vietnam and now teaches at Boston University, says it’s time for some realism when it comes to military and foreign policy. He looks back to a lesson he believes the nation should have learned from the Cold War.

“Military power is most effective when it used to defend, to deter, and that it really ought to be used as a last resort. I’m all in favor of a strong United States military but I think that it’s time for us to temper our expectations of what military power can do, when it should be used and what the costs are likely to be.”

He says it’s about time the military focuses on defense instead of projecting power.

“I think the role of the United States Army should be to defend the United States of America, and the threats to the United States of America are relatively modest and that means we can get by with a relatively modest Army.”

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Transcript

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI, HOST:

It's HERE AND NOW.

Let's get some more reaction to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel's proposal this week, that the U.S. Army be reduced to its smallest size since the eve of World War II. At the Pentagon on Monday, Hagel said that after 13 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, it's time to downsize the military for a new era.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

SECRETARY CHUCK HAGEL: The recommendations I have described will help bring our military into balance over the next decade and responsibly position us for an era of both strategic and fiscal uncertainty.

CHAKRABARTI: But if the future is so uncertain, is a smaller army the right way to go? Andrew Bacevich says yes. He's a professor of history and international relations at Boston University and a retired Army colonel who served in Vietnam. Professor Bacevich, welcome.

ANDREW BACEVICH: Thank you very much.

CHAKRABARTI: So you've written an op-ed for The Washington Post that basically says it's about time that the United States downsized its army. Why?

BACEVICH: Well, because we're coming to a period in which we've been engaged in two major wars. It is not unusual, once a conflict concludes, to reduce the size of the forces. The controversial part here or the part at least worth discussing is whether or not the cuts are the appropriate cuts. And, of course, it's my old service, the Army, which is bearing the brunt of those cuts.

CHAKRABARTI: So do you think that they are the appropriate cuts?

BACEVICH: I think so. We embarked upon the global war on terror - this is back in the George W. Bush era - with the conviction fueled by the belief that by invading and occupying countries we could bring about fundamental political change. It hasn't worked. And I think that the cuts to the Army announced by Secretary Hagel really reflect the fact that the American people have had enough of this experimenting with invading and occupying countries as an approach to protecting our security. It doesn't work.

CHAKRABARTI: So in your Washington Post op-ed, you asked a very provocative question, and that is, what should the nation expect of its armed forces? Do you see this proposal by Secretary Hagel as an answer to that question, about what the country should expect of its army in the 21st century?

BACEVICH: Well, it's a partial answer, in the sense that we should not expect that using our army boots on the ground to promote positive change. We now foresee that happening anytime in the near future. And what the Obama administration is doing is turning to alternative means, most obviously special operations forces and drones, but also I think a greater reliance on air and naval forces as opposed to ground forces. I think that makes sense. Whether or not that shift in emphasis will find expression in sound policies is another question.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, Professor Bacevich, if I may, I would like to play another clip from Defense Secretary Hagel's speech on Monday and get your thoughts on it. So let's listen to it.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

HAGEL: As I weighed these recommendations, I have as I often do looked to the pages of American History for guidance. In doing so, an admonition by Henry Stimson stood out. Writing after World War II, Roosevelt's secretary of war during that time said that Americans must act in the world as it is and not in the world as we wish it were. He was a realist. This is a time for reality.

CHAKRABARTI: So first of all, your thoughts on that.

BACEVICH: Nobody would be happier than I would be if we were to be on the verge of a Stimson revival. I mean Henry Stimson is one of my favorite characters in 20th century American history. He served twice as secretary of war and secretary of state and governor general of the Philippines and was really one of the first wise men. I think Secretary Hagel is correct in categorizing him as a realist, somebody who took the world as it is, without illusions, and therefore had a more tempered or modest expectation of what American power could achieve. That's the inverse of the kind of thinking that prevailed in this country, for example, in the years immediately following 9/11. The problem, I think, with realism is that it tends to be a temperament. And translating realism into specific policies, that's the hard part.

CHAKRABARTI: You know, we should note that even with this new downsized army that Secretary Hagel is proposing, the United States military as a whole will remain the most sophisticated, largest and expensive set of armed forces anywhere in the world by far. And I make that point because I'm just wondering what you think of this notion that before 9/11 maybe few if any Americans were thinking about the reality of fighting two complicated, simultaneous wars. And yet 9/11 happened, and within a year, year and a half, that was the new reality - Iraq and Afghanistan. Are you saying that that scenario again or one like it is absolutely impossible in the future?

BACEVICH: No, I don't think I'm saying that. I certainly don't believe that we've entered an era in which peace can be taken for granted. I think we've entered an era in which we're likely to see a competition for power among several nations. And military power will play a role in determining the evolution of that competition. It seems to me that the real lesson of the global war on terrorism is a lesson that confirms what ought to have been - the lesson of the cold war - and that is that military power is most effective when it is used to defend, to deter, and that really ought to be used only as a last resort. Because when you choose to employ it, when you say, OK, we're going to roll the dice now, you really don't know what the outcome is going to be.

So I'm all in favor of a strong United States military. But I think that it's time for us to temper our expectations of what military power can do, when it should be used, and what the costs are likely to be when we do decide to roll those dice.

CHAKRABARTI: You know, a little earlier, you said that it seems fairly apparent from the way President Obama has been using both bombs and drones essentially that the role of the Navy and our Air Force will be sort of the - and Special Forces, I should say, that will be the sharp end of the spear going forward, at least in the immediate future. You ask a very interesting question at the end of your op-ed then that returns us to your service, the Army. Now, what should the role of the U.S. Army be in its new, smaller configuration?

BACEVICH: I think the role of the United States Army should be to defend the United States of America. And the threats to the United States of America are relatively modest, and that means that we can get by with a relatively modest Army and redistribute the resources that we're making available to our military accordingly.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, Andrew Bacevich is a professor of history and international relations at Boston University. He's also a retired Army colonel who served in Vietnam. His most recent book is "Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed their Soldiers and their Country." We talked to him about that previously on the show. There's a link to our conversation with him at hereandnow.org. And while you're there, you can also find a link to his new op-ed that appeared in The Washington Post. Professor Bacevich, thank you so much for joining us today.

BACEVICH: Thank you.

CHAKRABARTI: And you're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.