All Rise for Chairman Powell

March 1, 1991 Topic: Security Regions: Americas Tags: PostmodernismSociology

All Rise for Chairman Powell

Mini Teaser: Operation Desert Storm presents us with the opportunity to observe America's military establishment in serious action.

by Author(s): Kurt M. Campbell

The demands to reduce the military and reorient its focus will ultimately involve tremendous inter-service competition for missions.  For example, there is already jousting between the Army and Marines about which service should be principally responsible for conducting Third World operations.  Each of the services will also have to make difficult choices concerning procurement and cutting forces as defense allocations decline.  Some military systems, such as the B-2 bomber, will probably not survive the scrutiny of a post-Cold War reassessment.  Other capabilities, such as fast Navy cargo ships, have not been a priority with Navy planners but are clearly required but largely unavailable for Desert Storm.  There are clear indications that the service truce that has held for the most part in the 1980s will be severely strained in the 1990s as the service communities struggle to redefine and extend military missions.  There is even a possibility that the delicate domestic treaty between the services that established and defined roles and missions--the 1948 Key West Agreement--will be renegotiated.  Under the stewardship of Crowe and Powell, the plague of debilitating service rivalry has been reduced and restrained.  It remains to be seen whether the chairman can remain "an honest broker in purple uniform," in the words of one senior military officer, remaining above the fray of interservice competition during the coming fiscal cutback.

Changes may also come in the way senior military officers are selected and promoted.  In the past, all the services favored the officer who had made his mark in the field or at sea, rather than the one who had labored in "political" jobs in Washington or "purple" jobs with other services in the Pentagon.  The sudden dismissal of the chief of the Air Force, General Michael Dugan, after some unfortunate remarks to the press, reinforces a growing perception among the military that political skills beyond those necessary for promotion in the narrow service community are now essential for survival in highly visible assignments.  As this perception becomes general it is likely that terms like "diplomats in uniform" and "soldier statesmen" will lose the derisive edge they have often carried in the past.  The enhanced authority of the Joint Staff will make service as a "purple suiter" more important as a prerequisite for choice assignments, including the office of chairman itself.  Indeed, Admiral Crowe has on occasion said that "it would be a disaster if the president chose someone other than a true `purple suiter' to be chairman."  The unintended message that the success of Crowe and Powell sends to war-fighting officers in combat assignments is that Washington experience, "joint" assignments, and higher education are all essential for promotion in today's military.  Will this realization start a stampede of the most ambitious officers from the field to Washington, in search of staff jobs with political connections?

Secretary of State James Baker frequently refers to the Gulf War as the first crisis of the post-Cold War world and as a "defining event" for the United States.  The crisis is also a "defining event" for the chairman.  Even if the war in the Persian Gulf turns out to be an isolated and anomalous case of the massive use of force, the success or failure of the Goldwater-Nichols reform will be judged largely through the prism of U.S. success or failure in the Persian Gulf.

A debacle in the Gulf would not necessarily discredit the new system, if it resulted from bad doctrine or flaws in leadership (although it could be argued that the new concentration of authority in the chairman will tend to magnify the effect of any such failure).  At the same time, success in the Gulf War would not put all questions about the Goldwater-Nichols reform to rest.  The jury is still out concerning the ultimate effectiveness of the new system.  Only the experience of several chairmen, under several administrations, can show whether there is any basis for concerns about the potential for damaging rivalry between the chairman of the JCS and the secretary of defense, or fears that the chairman will use his new power to insulate the president from dissenting military advice.  Time will show whether the new system can moderate interservice rivalries in a period of budgetary decline, and whether the increased importance of Joint Staff officers or "purple suiters" will (as some fear) encourage the promotion of politically adroit careerists over first-rate soldiers.  Although the results to date of the new military order's baptism by fire in the Persian Gulf have been encouraging, it remains to be seen whether the promise of "the purple revolution" in American military command will be fulfilled.

Kurt M. Campbell is an assistant professor of international relations and public policy at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.  Previously he served as a special assistant for Soviet and European matters on the Joint Staff.

1.  Arthur T. Hadley, "In Command," New York Times Magazine, August 7, 1988, p. 21.

2.  Present at the Creation: My Years in the State Department (New York: Norton, 1969), p. 243.

3.  "The Case for JCS Reform," International Security 10, no. 3 (Winter 1985/86): 69-97.

4.  Purple is the proverbial color of Joint Staff personnel.  In military parlance it connotes "jointness" as distinct from attachment and loyalty to one's original service.  The JCS does not actually wear purple uniforms, and the origins of the term are vague.

5.  Economist, September 1, 1990, p. 26.

Essay Types: Essay