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Military base closings

By Vin Suprynowicz
web posted July 23, 2001

How large should America's peacetime military establishment be?

The question reminds us that America's founders wanted no "standing army" at all. In fact, they solemnly promised supporters and skeptics alike there would never be one. The clause "but no Appropriation of Money for that Use shall be for a longer Term than two Years" was surely more than a mere bookkeeping reminder, back in 1787, that ongoing budgets and allocations needed to be rubber stamped again ever 24 months.

Would mere bookkeeping procedures merit 17 words and all those capital letters, placed in the same sentence for all the world as though they were somehow supposed to restrict the congressmen's newly delegated power "to raise and support Armies"?

Deeply concerned about the risk of armed federal troops coming to be used as domestic police, the founders in fact meant that every two years the public and its delegates should look around, determine whether the nation was at war, and -- if not -- have any remaining troops stack their arms in the armories, pay them off, and send them home.

One suspects that, today, folks like Mr. Jefferson would have added to the list of those to be regularly cashiered such armed (and now often uniformed, in frightening black) paramilitary forces as the DEA, the BATF, the FBI Hostage Elimination Team, and the IRS "Criminal Division," as well. (Is it "criminal" to decline to voluntarily subject oneself to a tax on "individuals," when "individuals" are defined for purpose of the statute as (a) aliens living domestically or (b) aliens living abroad?)

Interestingly, the authority to fund a Navy is listed separately from the "no more than two years" provision in the Constitution's First Article, and thus does not fall under it. This makes sense; one could hardly sell off all our warships for scrap, then hope to build more in time for the next unexpected war.

One of the big movies this summer is another re-enactment of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor; it's a useful reminder that enemies don't always give you years to ready yourself (even if the historical evidence is now conclusive that Mr. Roosevelt and his staff knew an attack was forthcoming somewhere.)

Of course, some will argue there is no peace today -- that America is constantly engaged in a kind of low-level war around the globe, a war which requires -- as one admiral of the "SEAL" persuasion declared last weekend in Las Vegas -- that he maintain a staff of 21,000 "shooters," keeping one-third on station around the globe at any given time, the better to respond to terrorism against America's citizens "and her customers."

The question of whether such an armed presence all around the world is merely prudent -- or sometimes tempts us to meddle in the affairs of foreign nations in ways so provocative as to foment terrorism -- we will leave for another day. (American agents did, within living memory, overthrow the legally elected government of Iran, did they not?)

In the end, most Americans concur that the nation should endeavor never be caught as unprepared as she was by the attacks of December, 1941. Some skeletal military establishment should be maintained. The question is how much, and what kind, and where.

Recently, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mike Ryan told the Senate Armed Services Committee, "Absolutely. Yes, sir," when asked if he agreed with President Bush that America operates too many military bases today.

The service has saved $4 billion to $5 billion a year from previous closures, Ryan told committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., yet the Air Force remains "over-based for the force structure it has today."

With the chiefs and civilian secretaries of the other branches joining in this request that they be allowed to focus their limited resources at fewer locations, one could well wonder why on earth those extra facilities hang on.

As though bent on giving us our answer, Sens. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and Max Cleland, D-Ga., used the occasion of the hearings to denounce the Air Force's decision to cut the B-1 bomber fleet by one-third as a cost-saving measure, eliminating those now operated at Air National Guard bases ... in Kansas and Georgia.

What a coincidence, that this concern over a reduction in readiness to bomb foreign targets would come not from senators representing the citizens of Idaho and Indiana (who are surely just as concerned about our military preparedness), but rather from the senators of Kansas and Georgia ... the very states where the National Guards are to be reassigned.

I'm dabbling in irony, of course. The reason this protest comes from Sens. Roberts and Cleland depends not a whit on whether the present siting of these bombers contributes to our national security -- the senators (now popularly elected, and thus acting as mere jumped-up Representatives, which the founders never intended) are simply ringing their own states' dinner bells, jealously guarding the jobs and cash such basings inject into the economies of their home states.

Fortunately, once the initial fear of change is overcome, many states have actually found such base closings to be "win-win" situations. From the Presidio in San Francisco to Quonset Point in Rhode Island, local communities have found that replacing the bare-bones, peacetime military use of prime and strategically located real estate with tax-paying, private sector residential, commercial and industrial activity actually ends up generating more jobs and money for the local economy.

(The only surprise is that this should surprise us. Were we under the impression the method of asset allocation practiced in the Soviet Union worked out well?)

When the heads of every branch of the armed services say they want more bases closed, so they can make more efficient use of the "mere" $329 billion President Bush has proposed giving them next year (the Navy alone will get $24.6 billion to build new ships -- the admirals would like $34 billion), Congress should listen up.

Vin Suprynowicz is assistant editorial page editor of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Subscribe to his monthly newsletter by sending $72 to Privacy Alert, 561 Keystone Ave., Suite 684, Reno, NV 89503 -- or dialing 775-348-8591.

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