A. Ernest Fitzgerald is surely not the only American author who thinks that there is a conspiracy dedicated to destroying him, but he is unusual in his willingness to discuss it cheerfully and unself-consciously. In Fitzgerald’s case, the conspirators are not only military officers and defense contractors (who understandably want him out of his job as a troublemaking cost analyst for the Air Force), but also members of Congress, Cabinet officers, public interest lobbyists, White House staff members, and several presidents. The thought that he might not be worth all these people’s trouble seems not to have occurred to him. At one point in his book he approvingly quotes a friend who heard that a pledge not to leak information was being presented for signature to Pentagon employees: “My God! Reagan’s carpet-bombing the Constitution just to simplify going after a few leakers. Mostly you.”

Fitzgerald became well known in 1968, when he testified in Congress about cost overruns and technical flaws in the C-5A, a troop transport plane built by Lock-heed. Pentagon employees, even civilians, aren’t supposed to do this. Harold Brown, who was secretary of the Air Force at the time, summed up the code in a memo he wrote about Fitzgerald:

I drew the distinction between advocating one’s views vigorously within the department before a decision was taken, and public non-support, or volunteering and advocating contrary views to the press and the Congress.

In 1969 Fitzgerald’s job was abolished, and he began a long legal battle that resulted in his reeinstatement in 1973. But it isn’t as if the years between 1968 and 1973 were only an interlude in his life; to judge from this account, ever since Fitzgerald first went public his activities have been essentially the same, a long series of lawsuits, hearings, leaks to reporters and congressional aides, and visits to investigate defense plants. He has something of the aspect of a professional litigant: Fitzgerald’s life and “the Fitzgerald case” have become indistinguishable.

People with such histories are usually admirable and maddening at the same time. Certainly Fitzgerald is. He has been willing to live as a pariah in the Pentagon for the sake of his beliefs, and on the details of defense contracting he truly knows what he’s talking about. The best moments in The Pentagonists are Fitzgerald’s demolitions of this or that little Pentagon dodge. He demonstrates that the “learning curve,” a notion that has become holy writ in business schools, is in the defense industry just an excuse contractors use to justify getting most of their money in the early stages of a contract, because then the cost of making each weapon is presumably higher. He provides specific cost breakdowns of some of the scandalously expensive spare parts that got so much attention a few years ago, in such a way as to prove that there isn’t any reasonable explanation why they cost so much. He has a wonderful instinct for the telling question that will obliterate a colonel’s flawless-seeming briefing or defense intellectual’s monograph.

But Fitzgerald is so obsessed with his own experiences that he is incapable of producing the critical analysis of the Pentagon that he must have wanted this book to be. He can’t rise above the inescapably dull details of his own story. Occasionally he makes a claim for the larger significance of his misadventures (“Ernie Fitzgerald was important only as a man who represented a thesis vital to the well-being of the United States”), and then he sinks back into the slog of acronyms and names you can’t keep straight. The following short paragraph is characteristic:

That same day Russ Hemenway, chairman of FCG, called to report a sign of moderation at the ACLU: Halperin had said that GAP and the ACLU were negotiating the term “classifiable” with ISOO, and he thought they’d get a compromise that would persuade me to sign SF 189. Another note of some interest was Kris Kolesnik’s discovery that Garfinkel’s supporting cast in approving the standard form had been Ed Meese’s assistant attorney general, Richard Willard; Andy Feinstein of Pat Schroeder’s staff—and Allan Adler.

Everyone who crosses Fitzgerald is immediately put into the category of world-class villains. Fitzgerald makes no distinction between Reagan, the greatest of defense wasters, and Jimmy Carter, who was comparatively restrained. Ralph Nader, a man with no discernible ties to the military-industrial complex, is one of the bad guys because of his support for Carter’s civil service reforms and several other minor transgressions. David Packard, Richard Nixon’s deputy secretary of defense, who deserves credit for much of what little successful procurement reform there has been over the last twenty years, fills, to Fitzgerald, the “Wehrwirtschaftführer role played by Alfred Krupp.” James Schlesinger is compared to Goering, and Carter to Mussolini. The “situation in Washington in the fall of 1986” had “some parallels” to Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here. When Fitzgerald’s lawyer requests that Nixon be called to testify at a civil service hearing it’s “as if some puny colonies in the New World had called George III to account for his actions in 1776.”


Life in the corridors of the Pentagon is no less dramatic. Fitzgerald describes being repeatedly tailed on the way home from work; once he had to crouch behind a tree in his front yard, rifle in hand, until two men sitting in a car parked on his street drove away. One fellow whistle-blower “received many threats that he would be killed, his house burned, and his teenage daughter disfigured.” Another was declared mentally incompetent by the Air Force and died a broken man. These stories—in fact, all of Fitzgerald’s story—have a kind of movie-reinforced logic; if you picture them projected on a screen, they don’t seem exaggerated.

In the movies, though, Fitzgerald himself would have walked away at some point—he’d be in the foreground of the shot, walking toward the camera with his coat slung over his shoulder, with the Pentagon looming in the background. In real life, Fitzgerald has the civil servant’s obsession with keeping his job. He appears never to have seriously considered making a career in the lively defense-reform community in Washington that has sprung up during this decade on congressional staffs and in public interest organizations like the Center for Defense Information and the Project on Military Procurement. He once interrupts his account to report with pride his promotion to a new level in the general schedule, and the justifiable firing of a federal employee is, to him, an inconceivable event. To the extent that he has a solution to the problem of military procurement it is that responsibility for procurement should be transferred from uniformed officers to civilian Pentagon employees like himself.

Fitzgerald’s civil-service-lifer mentality slightly contradicts his view of the modern world, which is one of profound suspicion. Fitzgerald could be used as evidence that populists are backward looking. He believes that towns are superior to cities and small businesses to corporations, and that most of the country’s problems could be easily solved if we would embrace old-fashioned virtues such as honesty and thrift. He is without ideology—among his allies are not only the liberals you’d expect, like Barney Frank and William Proxmire, but also Pat Buchanan and Robert Dornan (who is probably the most right-wing member of Congress). In his adopted home state of Virginia, he says, “I had long been an admirer of the tightwad instincts of the Byrd dynasty,” which, since the Byrds are better known as the architects of massive resistance to desegregation than as frugal managers, demonstrates how singleminded is Fitzgerald’s concentration on his issue.

He sees military procurement as, in effect, the bad seed that is going to ruin America. Wall Street and the big corporations set up the defense contracting business to enrich themselves; in order to protect it from attacks, they bought off, and thus permanently corrupted, the Congress and the intellectuals; and ultimately the inefficiency of the defense contractors worked its way back up-stream into all of corporate America, to the point where we’re now threatened with the downfall of the country. The federal deficit, our international trade problems, the laxity of ethical standards in the country—defense contracting caused it all. Toward the end of The Pentagonists Fitzgerald says mournfully,

For a long time I have felt like an eyewitness to the systematic disintegration of everything that made America competitive in the industrial world of the twentieth century.

A Gibbon of our society could no doubt settle the question of how important the overall bad effects of the military procurement system were. In the shorter run, the issue Fitzgerald raises is whether, by reforming procurement, we can eliminate “waste, mismanagement, and fraud,” and thus strengthen our defenses while cutting the defense budget.

The procurement system began because of waste and mismanagement, if not fraud, in the military’s old in-house system for developing and producing weapons. Thomas L. McNaugher, in New Weapons, Old Politics, a history of defense contracting, reminds us that

the Army’s Ordnance Department, for example, was notoriously slow when it came to introducing new weapons; Springfield Arsenal took seventeen years to develop, test, and finally produce the M-1 rifle.

Before World War II, procurement wasn’t a major issue, because we didn’t maintain a large military establishment during peacetime. During the war, McNaugher says, the government got around its own inefficiency by giving private companies generous budgets to produce weapons and imposing few regulations, and as a result procurement worked quite well.


It was only with the onset of the cold war that the current procurement system was born. Weapons continued to be contracted out to private companies, on a scale unprecedented during peacetime—the idea had taken hold that because of the Soviet threat, the United States needed to keep its armed forces at something closer to a wartime level more or less permanently. But the weapons didn’t get an immediate battlefield test anymore, so there was much more room for inefficiency and favoritism in procurement. It was the vast private production of weapons for purposes of deterrence rather than of fighting that was the important new development of the early Fifties.

The Ernest Fitzgeralds of an earlier age would accuse the arms manufacturers of promoting war so that they could make a lot of money. That charge has disappeared from our political discourse, because the arms manufacturers don’t need a war to make a lot of money. What is remarkable, in retrospect, about Dwight Eisenhower’s famous warning about the military-industrial complex is how little time it took for the complex to become a cause of alarm. By the mid-Fifties, there were already complaints that interservice rivalry was causing the duplication of weapons systems; the contractors were already skilled in the art of spreading subcontracts around in influential congressmen’s districts; and the Congress had already started to “micro-manage” (to use a favorite Pentagon term of opprobrium) procurement by requiring a degree of bureaucratic review that the military found oppressive. Efforts to reform procurement have gone on almost continuously since the passage of the Defense Reorganization Act of 1958. The Kennedy administration, the Nixon administration, and, yes, the Reagan administration all in their first year announced major procurement reforms, and Reagan then began his second term by appointing a commission on “defense management.” In July, the current defense secretary, Dick Cheney, announced his own procurement reforms.

Fitzgerald would say that procurement reform hasn’t yet worked only because it hasn’t been done right. After three decades of its not being done right, we have to begin to wonder whether there is some systemic reason for its failure. The obvious answer—Fitzgerald’s answer—is that the defense contractors have bought enough political power to protect themselves from reform. Even if it’s really that simple, the logic of the argument implies that a frontal assault on the contractors wouldn’t work. The defense reform literature, including Fitzgerald’s two books,1 always insists on the point that the defense budget could be cut without weakening the country—in fact it would strengthen the country by making the military more efficient, reducing the deficit, and freeing resources to address other national needs. Surely this is true, but it’s very difficult to cut just the waste from each military program. The more promising opportunity for reformers right now is not in procurement per se, but in strategy: to look for what might be called conceptual waste, which has created unnecessary weapons systems, such as the Army’s Bradley Fighting Vehicle System, and military missions, such as the Readiness Command (nee the Rapid Deployment Force) in Florida, that could be cut at a stroke, without requiring the daunting task of day-to-day monitoring of ongoing waste.

This is not to say that there aren’t good, practical reform ideas in procurement itself. Even writers who look kindly on the procurement system, like McNaugher and Jacques Gansler, the author most recently of Affording Defense (MIT Press), want some changes that would lead to cheaper and more reliable weapons systems, such as more emphasis on research and testing before production (McNaugher) and making cost more important to acquisition decisions (Gansler). Fitzgerald mentions in passing that if the military retirement age were not so ridiculously early—most career people leave the service between their late thirties and mid-forties—officers wouldn’t feel they had to befriend the defense contractors in anticipation of the day when they will be middle-aged and looking for work.

But the main reason why procurement got out of control in the Eighties lies beyond the tight circle of contractors and the Pentagon. It is a product of the odd way that the issue of national defense, especially defense spending, plays itself out in American politics.

The professional military today, like the “opposition culture” that figures so prominently in neoconservative lore, considers itself to be apart from, and despised by, the decision-making center in American society. it lives physically apart, on bases. It is a subculture in which money isn’t the measure of success. It is apart in class terms, since the children of the well-to-do no longer serve in it. The military feels blamed, unfairly, for starting and then losing the Vietnam War. Even aside from the reaction after Vietnam, it believes the self-indulgent, shopping-happy public lacks the will to protect itself from foreign enemies. Military people tend to agree with many defense-reform positions, but to mistrust the defense reformers’ motives. Anyone who criticizes defense practices or wants to cut the budget is “anti-defense,” which is to say, a unilateral disarmer at heart. Fitzgerald quotes one memo from an Air Force major that captures the prevailing military attitude:

We need to re-arm America. We need to spend our defense dollars prudently. We need whistle blowers and watch dogs to keep internal vigil and help make needed changes from within. We don’t need internal detractors to add more fuel to the pacifist anti-defense movement by going external with all their information.

In addition to whatever self-interest the military leaders may have in keeping the procurement machine going, they believe they have to trick the country into maintaining military preparedness. To cite the example of the ostrich temper of the public most often heard in the Pentagon, it took Pearl Harbor, rather than Hitler’s invasion of Poland, to convince the country to begin seriously arming for World War II; some of the early American ground troops trained with wooden sticks in place of rifles. This explains why defense spending is so strongly tilted toward procurement of ambitious weapons systems: the idea is that we have to use any period of public receptivity to increased defense spending as the occasion to maintain our technological edge and to “get the platforms” (defense-ese for expensive vehicles), because if a war started tomorrow we couldn’t get these up to speed immediately. Readiness, sustainability, and force size can all be accelerated on short notice as soon as the public’s will to defend itself materializes, which is to say in wartime.

The military’s attitude would matter less if it weren’t for the tendency of the rest of Washington to view the defense budget in purely symbolic terms. Most debate outside the community of defense specialists has to do with what the big number—total defense spending—should be. In part this is a natural consequence of our decision to have a large armed force for deterrence rather than fighting, which leads to the idea that spending itself is a deterrent because it’s a sign of national will. Moreover, in the columnist-congressman-appointee world in Washington that dominates the debate on all issues, most haven’t bothered to learn exactly what the defense budget is spent for.

The arguments for more defense spending only rarely include the military reasons why we need some new weapon; instead, they’re about such large statistical questions as how much the Russians are spending and how defense spending as a percentage of the gross national product has declined. To the extent that it gets more specific, one is likely to hear either the kind of points that sound good in briefings but don’t stand up to careful scrutiny (“our B-52s are older than the pilots who fly them”) or calls for large dollar commitments for purposes of making a foreign-policy point instead of undertaking a real military activity.2 Surely the invasion of Afghanistan and the taking of hostages in Iran, neither of which drew a serious military response from Washington, were largely responsible for Congress’s addition of more than $100 billion a year to defense spending in the early Eighties. And when the defense budget stopped growing—practically on a dime, in the spring of 1985—it was because of the deficit, the cumulative effect of all the horror stories about overpriced spare parts, and the growing sentiment in favor of nuclear arms control (which has had relatively little impact on defense spending), rather than any systematic review of our defense posture. While Congress, in a liberal mood, was cutting the defense budget this summer, it actually restored a couple of expendable weapons systems—the Navy’s F-14 D fighter and the Marine Corps’ Osprey troop carrier—that the Pentagon wanted to cut.

When Reagan took office, the defense budget was increased by $50 billion almost immediately, and it rose by more than 50 percent between fiscal 1980 and fiscal 1985. Thanks to David Stockman’s memoirs, we now know that the size of the first big Reagan increase was essentially plucked out of the air; as in the defense debate generally, the strategy was much less important than the number. At the same time that it greatly increased spending the Reagan administration returned to the armed services some of the power that Robert McNamara had taken away from them and lodged in the office of the secretary of defense. (Cheney’s procurement reform consists mainly of reversing this decision and taking some of the services’ new power away.) The result was that the services were given free rein to decide how to spend their increased budgets. The spending that followed, naturally, was heavily tilted toward procurement, which rose by 111.9 percent over five years, while the cost of operation and maintenance was going up by 34.8 percent and military personnel by only 10.6 percent.3 It is widely suspected that some of the strategies that emerged in the early Eighties, such as the “maritime strategy,” which requires a sixhundred-ship, fifteen-carrier navy, were cases of the tail wagging the dog, in the sense that they were invented to justify the purchases the military wanted to make.

The Bush administration seems to want to hold defense spending at its present level or even to cut it. Cheney’s first budget was $10 billion lower than the valedictory defense budget that the Reagan administration published only a few months earlier, and contained hints that Cheney is not in the Weinberger style. He cut the budgets of the B-2 bomber and the Strategic Defense Initiative, abandoned the goal of a fifteen-carrier navy, and canceled a few weapons systems. If the US-Soviet talks on reducing conventional forces in Europe lead to an agreement, it could mean a cut of about $12.3 billion in the $300 billion defense budget.4

But most of the big procurement increases of Reagan’s first term are still “in the pipeline” and can’t be touched. Well into the Nineties, a large percentage of each year’s defense budget will have been previously allocated. Procurement of the Air Force’s new training plane, the T-45, cost $392 million in fiscal 1988, and will cost $644 million in fiscal 1991; the Navy’s DDG-51 destroyer, $10 million in 1988 and $3.6 billion in 1991; the Army’s new LHX light helicopter, $30 million in 1988 and $447 million in 1991. William Kaufmann of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard has estimated that inherited procurement obligations during the Nineties amount to more than a trillion dollars.

Because the overall level of defense spending is no longer rising, we face difficult options. To repudiate our procurement obligations would be very difficult politically, and would cause havoc in what is called “the defense industrial base”—the contractors are big corporations that have a great many employees and can’t easily convert from military to civilian production. But honoring these obligations would require cutting down on operations and equipment maintenance, or stretching out procurement over time, which would increase the cost of each weapon. We ought to find a way to decrease the defense budget that will minimize these internal disruptions, while responding to the changes that are going on in the world.

The Soviets have been saying that they are going to cut their defense spending substantially—by a third through the mid-Nineties, the new prime minister, Nikolai I. Ryzhkov, told the Congress of People’s Deputies in June. Even if this may be to some degree disinformation, it’s certainly true that the idea of a fierce continuing global competition between us and the Soviets, which underlies our whole defense posture, is in need of updating. Budgetary necessity at home as well as perestroika in the Soviet Union would make this a good time for a systematic review.

At the moment, we have what the military likes to call “a strategy-forces mismatch,” meaning that we’ve taken on more obligations to respond to possible attacks than our armed forces can handle. The mismatch could be rectified either by vast increases in the defense budget—the military’s preferred solution—or by cutting back to a realistic number of missions, by questioning whether we have forces in places where we don’t need them (like our major deployment in Germany), and whether we are buying weapons systems that are unsuited to modern war, such as aircraft carriers, ground-support helicopters, and deep-interdiction bombers. One point on which Fitzgerald is absolutely convincing is that the armed services are not the institution to reformulate military strategy. Like all other important issues, it’s better handled by an informed public than by the interested parties. But first the public has to learn the subject.

This Issue

October 26, 1989