Background as Military Politician Is a Plus for New Head of Joint Chiefs

Times Staff Writer

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wearing a full four stars on the shoulder boards of his dress uniform, stands at the pinnacle of the American military Establishment, serving as the pre-eminent adviser to the President and the secretary of defense on all matters military.

Yet the chairman controls no funds--that authority rests with the defense secretary. He makes no promotions--the heads of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines do that. And he commands no combat troops--they belong to commanders around the world with hands-on responsibility for military operations.

Thus, the 11 generals and admirals who have occupied the chairmanship, including Adm. William J. Crowe Jr., who took over the post this month, have all found themselves in a paradoxical position: After years of having their every order carried out with a heel click and a snappy salute, they must suddenly depend on political footwork and powers of persuasion to work their will.

“Military people, especially the kind who tend to rise to the top ranks, are more often than not command-oriented,” said a former military officer who has served in the Pentagon and the upper reaches of the White House staff. “The Joint Chiefs operation is an entirely different kind of thing. You don’t give orders there.”


The chairman’s lack of formal power springs from the way the nation’s military is organized. Each service--the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines--is organized along the traditional lines of military hierarchy; no single commander sits atop all four except, in a constitutional sense, the President.

And, given the interservice rivalries that have traditionally divided the Joint Chiefs, that means that working out efficient and effective defense policies that cut across service lines can be extremely difficult.

“A lot of how much the chairman affects things is a matter of personal relationships,” said Thomas L. McNaugher of the Brookings Institution, a former Army officer and West Point graduate. “There’s not a lot in a military career that prepares you for that.”

Crowe’s career may be better suited to his new job than those of many of his predecessors. He has served no fewer than six stints in Washington for the Navy.


Crowe, a balding, stoop-shouldered man famous for his rumpled uniforms, was born in Kentucky and reared in Oklahoma. He is married and the father of three children. And, in the course of his military service, he found time to earn a Ph.D. in politics from Princeton University.

It will take all of Crowe’s experience as a military politician to get things done as chairman of the Joint Chiefs. Critics charge that, because the chairman traditionally seeks the consensus of the four service chiefs who serve with him, the advice reaching the President usually represents the lowest common denominator of the services.

As a result, one former senior military officer said, decisions “tend to give each service a piece of whatever the action is, as opposed to militarily doing the best thing that ought to be done.”

The 1983 invasion of Grenada, intentionally designed so that all four services could take part, is a case in point.


The operation resulted in the deaths of 19 American servicemen, and a retired general complained: “It took three or more days to beat down one half-assed Cuban reserve construction battalion.” Edward N. Luttwak, author of “The Pentagon and the Art of War,” described the action as “war by committee.”

More generally, the former officer said, the Joint Chiefs’ pattern of offering advice “means our strategic concepts and weapons system development--the major ones--tend to be compromises among the individual notions of the services, rather than a national strategy.”

The Joint Chiefs, a senior Pentagon official said, should be able to urge the defense secretary, for example, to forgo another aircraft carrier in favor of more modern transport ships that can move soldiers quickly to where they need to be.

“But that’s a decision the Joint Chiefs can’t make,” he said. “The Navy says we have to have an aircraft carrier. The Army is reluctant to challenge the Navy on how it should spend its money. They all are reluctant to challenge each other, to avoid internecine warfare.”


If the chiefs cannot agree, the chairman must report that they are split--a course that inevitably weakens their recommendations. “What the chiefs don’t ever want to do is buck it up to civilians and let the secretary of defense intervene,” a former senior Pentagon official said. “They don’t want civilians making those decisions.”

Consequently, the chiefs have gone to extraordinary lengths to come up with unanimous decisions. And some civilian leaders at the Pentagon have learned, in the words of one source who worked with the recommendations of the chiefs, that “you don’t expect high-quality advice or crisp decisions.”

“In the end,” McNaugher said of the chiefs’ advice, “a lot of it is sound and fury signifying nothing.”

Proposals for remodeling the Joint Chiefs range all the way to creating a general staff under one all-powerful chief. The Senate Armed Services Committee staff suggested this month that the chiefs should remain at the heads of their services but that the Joint Chiefs of Staff should be replaced with a new military advisory committee made up of senior officers on their final tours of duty, who presumably would be able to divorce themselves from service pressures.


Committee Chairman Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.) said that today’s chiefs “are called on to do an almost impossible task--to represent their own services’ viewpoint but, simultaneously, to sacrifice that view to the greater common good of joint considerations.”

The makeup of the Joint Chiefs’ staff contributes to the problem described by Goldwater.

“Every colonel on the joint staff knows he’s there for three years and is then going back to his service,” a former Pentagon official said. “He knows everything he does is being watched. You will occasionally find some hero who did something against the interests of his service, but he’s most likely retired.”

Philip A. Odeen, chairman of a Georgetown University group that recently completed a study of Defense Department operations, said that a career Army officer assigned temporarily to the staff of the Joint Chiefs “is not going to say ships are more important than (Army) divisions.”


As a result, he said, “you end up with forces that don’t tie together. If the Air Force has to kill a program, they kill the A-10, because the A-10 supports Army troops.” Production of that jet, designed for close-in air support of Army units, was halted in 1983, although the 713 aircraft that were produced are expected to be used into the 1990s.

Aware of the Difficulty

None of this will come as any surprise to Crowe. During the swearing-in ceremony for his two-year term as chairman of the Joint Chiefs, he told the staff aides assigned to the chiefs:

“I am well aware of the difficulty in shedding your individual service orientations and addressing the broader concerns of the joint arena. The fact is, however, that the need for joint operations, joint thinking and joint leadership has never been greater.”


Crowe is probably better prepared than any of his recent predecessors to force his colleagues on the Joint Chiefs to focus on the “broader concerns.”

As commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Command since mid-1983, he directed the operations of U.S. military units from all four services covering half the globe. Before that, he served in a similar joint command position as commander in chief of the Allied forces in southern Europe. And his experience in the political thicket of Washington dates to a tour as naval aide to President Dwight D. Eisenhower 30 years ago.

“He understands how to make the current system work,” a Senate military affairs expert said.

Briefing for Reagan


Crowe demonstrated that talent in April, 1984, when President Reagan, on his way to China, stopped in Honolulu for a day and night of relaxation. White House aides, under orders to keep his schedule free of any formal meetings, reluctantly allowed Crowe to give the President a briefing on strategic conditions in the Pacific Basin.

The aides expected Crowe to show up with the entourage befitting his four-star rank and position as commander in chief of the U.S. forces in the Pacific. Instead, he arrived “by himself and without a note,” a participant in the meeting recalled.

Within half an hour, he was walking out of the White House suite at the Kahala Hilton in the shadow of Diamond Head, his briefing completed. But Crowe’s “tour de force,” as one participant described the session, had so impressed the President that the admiral had laid the path for a new job.