What I Learned from Stars and Stripes

When we look back on the Trump administration from the vantage of fifty years, it may seem that the only authentic heroes it produced were a pair of retired generals and war commanders whose good conduct as civil servants ranked with that of another such exemplar of fifty years before, President Dwight Eisenhower.  I mean John F. Kelly and James Mattis.

As White House chief of staff and Secretary of Defense respectively, Mr. Kelly and Mr. Mattis demonstrated the qualities of devotion to duty and restraint we hope for from former military commanders who choose to become involved in politics.  What to do about the military newspaper Stars and Stripes? Why not consult Kelly and Mattis while they are still here?

The Defense Department, you’ll remember, disclosed in February that it planned to close the 150-year old newspaper, which publishes four print editions for US troops abroad (in Europe, the Middle East, Japan, and South Korea) and seven digital editions for all the rest.  Earlier this month, the Pentagon made the closing imminent:  offices would close September 30, the organization dissolve by January 31. There was no telling where the impulse came from. The operation loses $15 million a year – 0.005 percent of a $700 billion total Defense budget. Senators from both parties objected, President Trump tweeted his opposition, and the decision was rescinded.

The question of whether or not to shut down the newspaper is one of long-term planning, not short-term budgeting. Might America have to wage another war?  If so, what kind? With what sorts of weapons? Of what duration? The present professional army? Or a conscripted one? Requiring what degree of sacrifice? On the part of armed forces? The civilian populace? Might Stars and Stripes be needed again someday?

There is no way of telling. You would have thought there could never be another Vietnam, with as many as half a million troops deployed for a decade on the far side of the world – until the US invasion of Iraq, with its plans to build an embassy that by 2012 would employ 16,000 persons. Today such an extended foreign war seems more unlikely still. But what about the possibility of engagements in the western hemisphere? Of involvements in the Arctic, or in the continental United States themselves, in the aftermath of an act of nuclear terrorism? A digital disabling? An extended defense of the borders in the event of a hemorrhagic fever pandemic? Of severe climate change? Or global famine?

Fifty years ago I spent a year, as an enlisted sailor, working for Stripes as a staff reporter, 1968-69. I learned that the newspaper was valuable indicator on the instrument-panel of America’s hard-to-follow war – a gauge of enthusiasm, a back channel to the Pentagon, a steam valve for soldiers in the field, a focal point for diverse and lively points of view.  More than that, the newspaper was a symbol more profound than the flag itself, an elaboration of American values printed six days a week and circulated throughout the far-flung empire of Americans stationed abroad.

I am not suggesting calling up Kelly and Mattis and asking them what to do.  At most, their views of what might be required to keep an American army in the field for any length of time in future wars is one more topic to be covered in their after-action reports and biographies. It does make sense, however, to put oneself in their place.  Would either man, concerned about the powers of commanders in the future, recommend shutting down or selling off as surplus a potential adjunct to future campaigns that had proved so valuable in the past? I doubt it.

Perhaps there will be no other wars. I hope there will be none. But should there be, what I learned from Stars and Stripes is that freedom of the press, even when the press belongs to the Defense Department, is a strangely powerful rhetorical lever in support of American might. Stripes is likely to prove as valuable in adverse circumstances in the future as it has been in the past. There is no good reason to take it down.

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