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I found this two page document in my old military career files. I believe it was circulated to every U.S. military unit in West Germany. Note the lack of official office header. Note our battalion commander’s short-hand direction, in the upper left corner, to ensure every officer read it. I have typed, in red, the words that are too faint to read on this old photocopy. After the document, I have a tale to tell.
What on earth caused the chain of command to be so concerned about a news article or so? In short, the new social dynamic of the All Volunteer Force. These stories, instead of being managed as part of the political game, were causing pain to those politicians, generals, and industry leaders who had hoped to benefit from the stories with new spending.
The All Volunteer Force was born out of the Vietnam War. The AVF birthday is the end of the military draft, 1 July 1973. Without coercion to fill the ranks, we must sustain enough confidence in the safety and efficacy of service to attract and retain quality personnel. By 1987, we had turned the corner on rebuilding both the leadership infrastructure and the equipment sets needed to have a fighting chance against the Soviet army. Yet, the M-1A1 and the Bradley were still being fielded, hence the references to M-60 tanks. How we were so vulnerable at the height of the Cold War is a story for another day.
Into this situation erupted a story of conventional arms crisis. Our anti-tank missiles were supposedly rendered useless by the Soviets leapfrogging our technology with reactive armor applied to T-72 main battle tanks. Read the memo again to get what reactive armor is and how it defeats a simple anti-tank warhead. Understand that the rest of the memo is stating plain truths that every officer and NCO knew.
The problem was that our Army in Europe was now a married force, with spouses, parents and in-laws. These people had skin in the game and were howling at Congress and the Pentagon. Unlike the old draft Army, where the small professional corps of officers had wives who were expected to toe the command line, a new breed of officer and spouse was filling the AVF. That is why every officer was expected to read these talking points. The unspoken message was “calm down the troops and families.”
It was about seven years later that I learned the rest of the story, the origin of the panic. I was browsing through a university library, researching military sociology and organizational theory. Suddenly, I was reading about the day the fuse was lit.
It all started in a routine congressional hearing. An Army general was testifying about equipment modernization and rival Soviet capabilities. These hearings are effectively scripted, with extensive preparatory briefings. No one in the know was going to be surprised by questions or answers. So, a member of Congress asked the general a question to the effect of “so, General, is it your testimony that our TOW missiles are useless against the Soviets’ new reactive armored tanks?”
The general, knowing the game answered “Yes.” That was the end of the hearing. The camera lights went off, and reporters had their quote. The committee and the Army intended the story to serve its usual purpose, justifying funding the next defense contract. Now was no time to cut back on the Reagan defense build-up!
Both the general and every member of the relevant congressional committee knew all the rest of the truth laid out in the two pages you see here. But telling the whole truth would generate too much ambiguity for Congress, and supposedly would go over the heads of the American public. Urgency would be lost, and with lost urgency, there would be less chance of full funding of new equipment. So, the Army and the Congress conducted a bit of public theater, only to be surprised by the reaction of an audience they had not expected.
Over 30 years later, with media saturation and messaging at the speed of “like” and “repost,” this glimpse behind the curtain of history should serve as a cautionary tale. Just because a trusted person seems to be saying something doesn’t mean it is entirely so. To quote Renaldus Magnus, “trust but verify.” When you hear dire tales—or fantastic performance claims—about military equipment, the soundtrack in your mind should be: