A retired two-star general has come up with a new explanation for what’s wrong with Congress — not enough veterans in the House and Senate.
“I really do believe that,” said retired Marine Maj. Gen. Arnold Punaro, who has a unique perspective on the ways and mores of Capitol Hill from his 24 years as a staffer with former Sen. Sam Nunn, a Georgia Democrat and an iconic figure on defense issues as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
The temptation would be to pass off Punaro’s analysis as yet another insider’s gripe-fest, but he has made the case at length in his book “On War And Politics: The Battlefield Inside Washington’s Beltway” (Naval Institute Press).
“Today’s so-called ‘leaders’ are fully aware of the problems that need solving. They just don’t seem to have the courage to make the hard choices — not if it means they may lose votes or campaign contributions,” Punaro said. “I believe it’s because most of today’s bureaucrats and elected officials have never faced a real battle or had to risk their very lives in a shared effort.”
He pointed to statistics showing that “in 1981, when we could still compromise, 64 percent of the members of Congress were veterans. In 2015, only 18 percent had served.”
Veterans would instinctively understand “when mutual sacrifice was necessary to achieve a common goal,” Punaro said, but compromise has become a dirty word in the how-do-I-avoid-a-primary era of gridlock, government shutdowns, and perennial failures to pass a defense budget.
In his book, and in a phone interview, Punaro said the decline in the number of veterans in Congress could be traced directly to the scrapping of the draft and the introduction of the all-volunteer force, which he continues to support — with reservations.
In 1970, as protests against the Vietnam War rattled the nation, President Richard Nixon issued an executive order creating a 15-member Commission on an All-Volunteer Armed Force, led by former Defense Secretary Thomas Gates, “to develop a comprehensive plan for eliminating conscription and moving toward an all-volunteer armed force.”
Nixon directed the commission to study the various aspects of an all-volunteer force, such as pay, recruitment incentives, benefits and selection standards. The all-volunteer force went into effect over the objections of much of the Pentagon’s leadership, who feared the impact on recruitment.
“A lot of people were skeptical about replacing the draft,” which happened in 1973, “but I wasn’t in their ranks. I’d seen firsthand what it did to both our country and men who never should have been put behind a trigger,” Punaro said.
But by the late 1970s, the all-volunteer force was on the verge of collapse as the services could not meet recruiting and retention goals and costs were ballooning far beyond original estimates.
Nunn put together hearings detailing the problems and calling on the Defense Department to boost standards and increase pay and benefits to attract recruits. The bottom line — “The quality of the force was more important to him [Nunn] than the price tag,” Punaro said.
“Today, the AVF is again unsustainable from the standpoint of fully-burdened life-cycle costs. DoD spends more than half of its budget supporting people,” Puinaro said, but he remained a supporter of the AVF. “I’m amused when some people label me as a critic of the AVF. I’m still a supporter of the concept but our force as it stands today is no longer sustainable in the long-term,” he said.
Punaro wrote that “The Gates commission foresaw this circumstance, stating in 1970 that a volunteer force would not be sustainable unless lawmakers eliminated the 20-year cliff retirement, reformed the ‘up or out’ promotion system, and changed the pay and compensation from a simple time-in-grade to a skill and performance-based system. None of these recommendations were adopted and reforms in those areas are long overdue.”
While praising individual Pentagon leaders, such as current Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, Punaro’s book said the institution itself could be as hidebound as Congress when it came to reform. Sometimes, head fakes were required to get anything done.
Punaro cited the 1986 passage of the landmark Goldwater-Nichols Act reforming the structure and responsibilities of the Joint Chiefs Chairman, the service chiefs and the Combatant Commanders with the goal of improving joint operations.
To get the bill passed, Nunn and Sen Barry Goldwater “fought every single civilian and military leader,” including then-Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, Punaro said. “From my early days as a staffer, I knew that the Pentagon always overreacted to reform efforts, so we included fake provisions in our proposal to keep them diverted in their response.”
“One was to get rid of the Joint Chiefs of Staff entirely. We obviously had no desire to actually do this but while the Pentagon was busy pummeling our straw man, we were gathering votes for the real elements of change, like unifying the Joint Chiefs through a more powerful chairman and vice chairman.”
The book goes on to detail other legislative battles won and lost but frequently returns to the lessons learned by 2nd Lt. Punaro in Vietnam as leader of 1st Platoon, Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 7th Regiment, 1st Marine Division.
The book is dedicated to Corp. Roy Lee Hammonds, who was from another platoon in Lima Company but raced to rescue Punaro when he was wounded in an ambush on Jan. 4, 1970.
“Someone had come after me,” Punaro wrote. “Incredibly brave. Incredibly risky. I grabbed his flak jacket and yelled ‘Let’s go. Let’s go.’ No answer. My hand came back covered with blood. An unfamiliar pale, long face fell back. I didn’t know him. ‘I can’t move,’ I yelled, but he didn’t’ respond. Just lay there on top of me, jerking as the bullets hammered his flak jacket.”
“I didn’t know what had caused Corp. Roy Lee Hammonds, 21, of Waxahachie, Texas, to come to my rescue. He’d been in country since Feb. 25, 1969, and was within weeks of going home.”
Aboard the medevac helicopter, “in the last fading golden light, I looked out over the rolling hills of the battle-scarred country we were leaving and laid a protective arm over Roy’s body.”
“He died saving my life,” Punaro said over the phone. In writing the book, “I wanted to tell the story of those Marines and what they did,” of their dedication to a mission and to each other. “The second thing was – I was becoming increasingly concerned, watching the deterioration of the executive and legislative process to where we weren’t solving anything.”
What was needed, he said, was finding a way to imbue in current members of the House and Senate that same commitment to a cause greater than themselves that is ingrained in those who serve in the military.
“The best advocates for the military are our troops,” and members need to spend more time with them, Punaro said. “I think if we could get more people in Congress to spend less time politicking and more time learning about what’s going on in the military that would take the place of some of the experience” gained by actually being in the ranks.
“If you haven’t been there, it’s hard to explain to somebody who’s never served in the military, never knew anybody who ever served in the military, what our military goes through.”
In his foreword to the book, former Sen. John Warner, a Virginia Republican who was once Punaro’s boss as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, gently warned him to expect some blowback from those who might be offended by Punaro’s characterizations.
Warner said Punaro should give himself the same advice he gave his platoon in Vietnam: “Every man must now put on his flak jacket, zip it up, for the incoming will soon be targeting down on us.”