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The Minuteman: Restoring an Army of the People.

By Sen. Gary Hart Simon & Schuster, $23

Former Sen. Gary Hart's new book sent me rummaging through an old trunk for evidence: Just over the left pocket of my shrunken lice jacket is a faded ribbon. There is official Army nomenclature for this commendation, but for those of us who earned it for our required military service between 1955-57, it was known as the Suez Sweat Medal. Nasser had seized the Canal. British and French troops were parachuted into Egypt. We in the 10th Mountain Division feared being yanked from the warmth of our West German kaserns for war in the desert. The Suez Sweat Medal is proof Hart is a bit off base when he says the United States never opted for conscription during the Cold War. Hey, we were forced to live in Wurzburg for two years, come to grips with Franken wein, and learn enough Deutsch to deal With the frauleins.

There are plenty of factual clinkers in The Minuteman: Restoring An Army of the People. That includes the book's title. There is no call for reactivating the compulsory military service that once provided the only meaningful link between young Americans and the federal government. That's not to say that some form of national service -- military or not -- couldn't be an unforgettable lesson in citizenship for Ivy Leaguers as well as those bruised by ghetto life. But Hart, who sought a student deferment when the draft sought him out in the late 1950s, seems strangely ignorant of the successes of millions of Americans who had their lives squared away by the First Sergeant and their civilian careers launched by the GI Bill of Rights.

To be fair, Hart is at least instigating a serious dialogue about the shape of the defense establishment outside the confines of the Pentagon, which is more than can be said for most politicians who shunned military service. But Hart's vision has been distorted by his top -down view of the services. For the reality of the barracks today, Hart leans on retired officers who collectively have 13 stars and the baggage of being a general officer. They have brainwashed Hart into investing billions in Pentagon hardware. For instance, Hart wants more "lift," to fly troops to distant wars. Yet 90 percent of U.S. troops flown to the 1992 Persian Gulf war arrived on commercial airliners that were readily available for Pentagon leasing.

Hart's call for an American military peopled by citizens who will bring democratic ideals to the war machine implies that today's force consists of mercenaries, those scarred fugitives who filled out the ranks of the Foreign Legion. Yet the fact is that today's military failures have little to do with good citizenship (or the lack of it) by men and women in service. Instead, the failures Hart repeatedly cites flow from decisions made in the White House and supported by Congress. President Clinton's ignorance and incompetence produced the 1993 massacre of American Army Special Forces and Rangers in Mogadishu, where they also massacred at least 800 Somalians in a single day. Then and now, Clinton remains aloof from national security matters, despite his role as Commander-in-Chief. He has delegated military policy to William Cohen who, as did Clinton, avoided military service during Vietnam. Their national security policies are overseen by two men who also ducked the Selective Service: Speaker Newt Gingrich and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott.

Clinton and Hart worked in the 1972 presidential campaign of Sen. George McGovern, which was, in fact, an antiwar, antimilitary crusade. President Nixon gave short shrift to the Pentagon. It was one of the worst times for the military services. Officers were routinely killed -- "fragged" -- by their troops in Vietnam. Wholesale draft dodging meant only the most hopeless and most desperate where being inducted for active duty. The reserves were filled with draft dodgers with political connections such as Dan Quayle. It was not uncommon for a man in uniform in his hometown to be jeered or even spat upon.

In this book, Hart bills himself as a reformer, just as he did during his campaigns for the presidency. But his plan to shrink the active duty military in favor of a larger, more competent reserve force is hardly a reform. Hart has joined the top brass in sacrificing people for hardware. "Modernizing," is the Pentagon mantra, despite an excess of rifles, tanks, planes, and ships superior to anything possessed by a potential enemy.

The long ball Hart hits is his observation that so little thinking has been done about the defense program that still takes the largest slice of federal income tax dollars. "Given radical changes in the post-Soviet security environment," he writes, "the absence of any deeper debate over the long-range meaning and military demands of our national security is remarkable, if not dumbfounding," Hart says. "There is little evidence of any vision."

Even though the Pentagon spends billions on research every year, there is little original thought from its string of think-tanks and university professors. Someone such as Harold Brown, defense secretary under President Jimmy Carter, should organize a really Deep Think. Otherwise, the men and women who are the military will continue to be whittled away willy-nilly by a national political leadership who share one area of military expertise: They know how to evade military service.

PATRICK J. SLOYAN, the senior correspondent for Newsday's Washington Bureau, won the Pulitzer prize for his coverage of the 1992 Persian Gulf war.
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Author:Sloyan, Patrick J.
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 1998
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