Build-down

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Not many people appreciate a military base closing. Like the shutting of a factory, it can devastate nearby towns, throwing thousands of people out of work. Merchants face losses and even bankruptcy as sales fall off. Home-owners put their houses on the market at distress prices and sometimes simply walk away from their mortgages. Even long-established military centers are not immune; the current round of closings includes the Mare Island Naval Base near San Francisco, which has operated since 1854.

Yet today’s base closings involve more than the end of the Cold War, more than the Pentagon’s present downsizing. They represent a turning point, as our military leaders work to redefine their missions and to establish new roles. Nor has this been the only such turning point. Time and again during the past two centuries our leaders have faced similar issues.

We mark our military history by remembering our wars. Yet the peacetime military has also seen its marks and milestones, many of which have had little to do with wartime events. At such times the military has taken on major new tasks, introduced novel ways of fighting, or grown greatly in significance in the nation’s life. With the Pentagon facing a new time of change, it is appropriate to recall the earlier moments when our armed forces grappled with similar peacetime challenges.

When George Washington was President, our Army faced the most basic of issues: What could it do? How could it serve the nation? The answers began to emerge very quickly, and those answers would shape the Army for more than a century. The place where they emerged was Ohio.

On paper the nascent government of the United States held title to the Northwest Territory, the present Midwest, following the Revolutionary War. But real power within this region still was in the hands of Indian tribes, egged on by the British. To oppose them, the territorial governor, Arthur St. Clair, had no more than a scratch force of soldiers “purchased from prisons, wheelbarrows and brothels at two dollars per month.”

In 1791 he put together an army of fourteen hundred such men, leavened with a modest number of regulars, and led them northward from what would become the city of Cincinnati. Early in November the Indians took him by surprise. Many of his troops fled in panic, leaving the wounded to the scalping knife. All the regimental officers died trying to stem the rout, along with twenty-seven women who had accompanied the regulars and fought beside them. St. Clair himself survived, but with eight bullet holes in his clothing.

When the news reached the East Coast, Congress promptly went into action. It passed a law in March 1792 reorganizing and strengthening the federal Army, and followed it in May with another that sought to establish standards for the state militias. A more useful response came from President Washington, who called on a wartime comrade, Gen. Anthony Wayne, to command the new force. Wayne certainly needed the job; he had failed as a planter, had run up large debts, and had missed winning a seat in Congress because of election irregularities.

 
 

His impetuosity had won him the name Mad Anthony during the war, but in this new assignment he took his time. He trained his men thoroughly, using the drill of Baron von Steuben, who had marshaled the raw levies of 1776 into an effective fighting force. Wayne put particular emphasis on marksmanship and knowledge of field fortification. When the time for battle came, in August 1794, he had only 2,643 men under arms, barely half the number authorized, but he was ready.

Near present-day Toledo, Ohio, at a place called Fallen Timbers, a large force of Indians hid within a tangle of stormdowned trees. Wayne’s infantry fired a volley into the underbrush, then charged with fixed bayonets while dragoons and Kentucky mounted riflemen circled both flanks. One Indian later said that he “could not stand up against the sharp ends of the guns.” The victory was complete, with the enemy losing at least twice as many men as the Americans.

For the nation Fallen Timbers marked a milestone. The subsequent peace treaty ceded most of Ohio to American control, while opening the Ohio River as a major route to the West. And for the peacetime Army, that same battle marked another milestone. It established this force’s principal role: fighting Indians.

This work was vital to the national interest, yet it required no more than a few thousand troops, which America could readily support. But although we would maintain no large standing army, we would retain a cadre of seasoned leaders, able to mold recruits into a first-rate force in time of necessity. Then, with the danger successfully handled, the Army could lapse anew into somnolence. We would pursue this policy virtually to the eve of World War II.

At sea, however, matching means and ends was less straightforward. Naval power had been important during the Revolution; a French fleet, operating at the mouth of the Chesapeake, had opened the way to the victory at Yorktown in 1781. But warships were costly, and after the war America abandoned any thought of maintaining a fleet in being.