A Sharp Eye on the Pentagon
The tools of the trade of any serious Pentagon correspondent are a devotion to the national defense and an abiding skepticism of the ways in which the nation proposes to guarantee it.
Those are the givens. What raises the superior reporters above the others is their degree of mastery over the $300 billion bureaucracy, which is so far-flung and labyrinthine that it beggars comprehension.
Since David Evans was hired by the Chicago Tribune as military-affairs writer two years ago, he has impressed us enormously with the sharp eye he focuses on output--the nation's weapons, which he assesses from the point of view of the guy looking through the sights. A Marine artillery officer in Vietnam, Evans understands combat. A network of contacts that ranges from generals to airplane mechanics helps him stay on top of things. He believes America is bankrupting itself to buy weapons designed for conditions that will never exist in wartime.
"One of the great sins we have in our armed forces is what I call 'data-free analysis,' which leads to 'analysis-free decision making,'" Evans told us. By "data free" he means free of the lessons of battle, the experiences of soldiers on the line. "Examples are rampant," he said, and gave us a few: one is an anti-tank missile designed to get a drop on the enemy at 3,000 meters, even though tank combat is usually limited by terrain to within a thousand meters or less. He believes we wind up with fewer weapons than we need because they're so overdesigned we can't afford to stock them.
"I left the Marine Corps after 20 years," said Evans, "because I felt there was incredible opportunity for loyalists and rather more limited opportunity for men of character and hard work. I certainly didn't want to continue to be a part of an organization whose major interest seemed to be budget share. I do think we ought to keep our guard up. I don't think we need to break the bank in the process. I think we have. We gave the Pentagon a $750 billion transfusion of extra cash under Ronald Reagan, and they produced a smaller force than Jimmy Carter and with marginal levels of readiness. [There's a scandalous shortage of simple shells and bullets.] That was obvious to me in 1986 and that's why I left."
Evans was still a marine when he'd begun writing, and magazines like the Atlantic and the New Republic had begun publishing his pointed critiques. "The Marines were very supportive--for a while," he said. "But it got to a point where my aspirations and the Marines' weren't synonymous. As Oscar Wilde said on his deathbed about the wallpaper: 'One of us has got to go.'"
So after 20 years in the Corps, Evans went. For a while he lobbied for an outfit called Business Executives for National Security, and in '87 the Tribune hired him away.
Somebody once observed--we don't think it was Wilde--that journalists are pragmatists who think they're romantics, and soldiers are romantics who think they're pragmatists.
"That's very good," said David Evans, when we asked him if he agreed. He doesn't describe the men who run the Pentagon as romantics, exactly, but he drew us a picture of innocents who think neither historically nor practically.
"The real national strategy is that war will never happen," Evans told us, "and what we have here is a domestic patronage operation taking place under the guise of national defense."
We reminded Evans that the cold war is supposed to be over. We won it. The Soviet economy cracked. So it did, he said, and so might ours. "We've just finished the domestic equivalent of the Vietnam body count, with dollars substituted for bodies. We've spent more, therefore we're safer. In both cases, we have a study in the bankruptcy of strategy.
"It's an open question if we're stronger and more secure after spending all that money. As Pat Moynihan said, 'First we borrowed a trillion dollars from the Japanese. Then we threw a party.' I think that's a nice capsule history. And now the Mastercard bill is coming due and that's why the problem of national defense is such a great tragedy." We paid for "a bigger, stronger, more capable military," says Evans, and "we got the bill but not the product. And no one's been held accountable."
Evans writes a column every Friday and longer analytic pieces on Sunday. It's worth remembering that Evans is not blazing a trail; his predecessor at the Pentagon, Jim Coates, teamed up with Washington correspondent Michael Kilian a few years ago to blister the Pentagon in the book Heavy Losses. Critiques of the national defense are so common, in fact, that it's easy to overestimate the amount of criticism seeping through. We asked Evans about generals and admirals who might agree with him.
"Most of them are out," said Evans. "The people that the military most desperately needs, the mavericks and freethinkers, are the ones most likely to get disgusted and leave. This is not to say we don't have some wonderfully capable and bright people in the armed forces, but we have not produced in 30 years men the stature of George Catlett Marshall or Matthew Ridgway. We have produced neither scholars nor samurai. We have produced a generation of processors. They process paper. They manage weapons programs. They speak in terms of firepower and force ratios and are utterly ignorant of the realities of the battlefield.
"And we see signs of it in our operations, which become exercises in brute firepower devoid of tactical skill or acumen, as in Grenada. The sad thing about Grenada is that, as in Vietnam on a much smaller scale, there was no self-examination. No publicly released after-action report. Nothing we could lay before the taxpayers and the parents, an accounting of what we did and where we needed to improve."
But Evans concedes it is not the nature of an army to be introspective. The only one he could think of that seriously examined and reformed itself was the German army after its Polish campaign in 1939. And those German generals had a pretty good idea they'd soon be facing total war.
"Whereas here we sort of assume engagement will never occur," said Evans. "That's the real strategy. So I come to the basic conclusion: if you really think that, why spend so much?"
Evans, however, doesn't really think that. He jumps to what he calls the "flip side" of his question: why spend so much when you can spend a lot less and actually build an army ready to fight?
We asked Evans if he thought he could be agitating to greater effect inside the Pentagon. "Well, it's very obvious to me at this point that an idea is more powerful than an armored division," he replied. Especially a division with no ammunition.
What's Happening in Copyright Law
Meanwhile, on the free enterprise front . . .
"Starbeat Intermedia claims it has an inherent right to the phrase 'What's happening?'" Barry Brandwein was screaming over the telephone. He'd called us. "We're What's Happening, Inc. We're locked in battle with Starbeat Intermedia. They claim we're trying to rip off Starbeat, which is totally ridiculous!"
Why would Starbeat Intermedia think a crazy thing like that? Because for the last 16 years, Deerfield-based Starbeat has promoted bars, clubs, and restaurants with the tag line "Starbeat presents what's happening!" It's in their print ads, it leads off their radio and TV spots, and it's at the top of the recorded telephone message you can call for a roundup of . . . of . . . well, what's happening--to use a phrase we got sick of 20 years ago.
Enter Barry Brandwein, 24-year-old smart cookie dying to hit it big. Brandwein is launching a couple of interactive 976 phone numbers. You'll punch buttons, you'll tell his computer what part of town you're heading for and how you want to wine and dine when you get there, and from its index of joints that paid to be listed, the computer'll give you your choices.
"'What's happening?' is a generic phrase used by hundreds of individuals daily!" cried Barry Brandwein. "I don't think you can copyright a generic phrase. They're trying to claim some obscure law . . ."
Much law often remains obscure to fiery young go-getters like Barry Brandwein, who tend not to appreciate subtle concepts like "common law right" and "secondary meaning" and "antidilution." But those are the basis of the lawsuit Starbeat filed a few days ago against What's Happening, Inc. Starbeat wants Brandwein to be forbidden to use the name. Circuit court Judge Robert Sklodowski scheduled a hearing for next Wednesday and told Brandwein not to advertise in the meantime. What a nuisance! Brandwein hopes to be off and running on May 26.
Brandwein might have helped himself legally by pretending that he and Starbeat will be tilling separate fields. "I am in competition with them," Brandwein told us. "I guess once people hear about the bar line, Starbeat will become a dinosaur. And we all know what happened to dinosaurs."
Tom Graham, vice president of Starbeat, tells us that before filing suit, his company's lawyer wrote Brandwein asking him to call his company something else. Brandwein picked up the phone and said not a chance. "He said 'Yes, go ahead, sue me,'" Graham remembers. "Basically, he wanted to use the media. . . . What he said was 'I'll go to all the newspapers.'"
Well, he came to us. "I think this would be like a perfect article," Barry Brandwein cried, "because it's like a Chicago company battling it out in the trenches for the music scene. Like a lot of the people who are our customers--some of our customers are in the Reader's Guide to the Music Scene. Really, this is going to be a line that will be heavily utilized by the Reader's Guide to the Music Scene. We plan to advertise heavily in the Reader. . . . The Reader's not the only paper interested in this. The 'Inc.' column is interested. And other publications."
But on the other hand, he does have sort of a neat idea.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Darrow Montgomery.