Forrest hopped a military flight from Fort Bragg to Hunter Army Airfield in Savannah, Georgia, rented a car, and made the quick drive down I-95 to Saint Simons. Once he arrived, he, Longstreet, Ashley, and Armistead, with the ubiquitous Secret Service detail close by, dined on shrimp, grouper, and fresh vegetables and drank beer long into the evening, telling war stories. Ashley hoped most of the stories were lies. Certainly her husband, Longstreet, and Forrest hadn’t done all that stuff?
After some trout fishing in the marsh early next morning, the three men got down to business on the patio around noon. Armistead was concerned about US readiness due to recent defense spending cuts. He wanted to know the actual military situations in Iraq and Afghanistan. He was also concerned about rumors of political infiltration of the Pentagon’s policy-making and strategic-planning processes. If anyone knew the truth and would tell it, it was Forrest.
“What’re the defense budget cuts doing to us, Zack?” Armistead asked.
In a West Tennessee drawl deeper and slower than Armistead’s south Georgia accent, Forrest was his typical direct, no-nonsense self.
“It’s hurting us. As always, the first things to suffer aren’t obvious: training, maintenance, and upgrades. We have tanks that won’t run, airplanes that won’t fly, and electronics that are broken. Our readiness has deteriorated tremendously. My guess is it’s 30 percent off where it was three or four years ago.
“We’re still getting good people; a shitty economy always boosts recruitment. But training budgets have been cut to the bone. We’ve got everything from infantry recruits who don’t have bullets and grenades for live-fire exercises, to pilots whose training is stalled because the simulators are broken, to sailors who ain’t sailing because the ships don’t have fuel.”
Armistead was listening carefully.
“It’s a mess, guys,” Forrest continued. “We’re still developing and buying the new electronic toys, but we ain’t going to have anyone who knows how to use them. In my humble opinion, the Administration keeps the sexy stuff they can talk to the press about, but we’re rusting away from the inside.”
Armistead asked, “What about Iraq and Afghanistan?”
“Two totally different situations, Tyler. It’s going to take more time and money, but the Iraqis can take care of themselves militarily, certainly in a conventional conflict. Iranian nukes? That’s a whole different question. I’ve got a theory no one in Washington was interested in . . . probably means it makes sense.”
All three men laughed.
“I don’t think Iran’s going to screw around with Israel, but I do think they’re scared as hell of Iraq. There’s too much good going on there. Shit, simple things. They have beer and TVs, and they can get a job and go to the movies. Their politicians are like all politicians, but generally they’re not too corrupt; they’re not screaming fanatics and can actually have their asses booted out of office if the people get pissed.
“You ought to use that in a campaign ad, Tyler,” added Forrest.
“Another worrisome thing is the White House is calling the shots on the Iraqi counterterrorism efforts, micromanaging the hell out of it. Most of the problems over there are on the Iranian border; lots of bad guys and material coming across. The Iraqi Special Ops guys are excellent at interdiction, but if we let them cross the border for preemptive raids, a lot of lives could be saved. Hell, you can stand on a Coca-Cola crate and see the bastards’ staging areas with a good pair of binoculars. I still have good contacts over there, and the Iraqis are getting very frustrated.”
To underscore his point, he spit and smiled.
“Afghanistan is like chasing cockroaches. You know you’ll never get rid of them, but you have to keep them on the move so they won’t eat your saltines. We could put a million troops in the mountains and never catch the Al Qaeda bastards; it ain’t going to happen. We hurt ’em bad for a few years. But we didn’t have enough assets to keep ’em underground. And we have fewer assets there now than we did then.”
Longstreet nodded in agreement.
“Trust me, Tyler,” Forrest said, “Al Qaeda pretty much kept their heads down the last couple of years, but it’s not because we were on their asses. Another guess is they’re up to something big. We have intel that says they’re busy training and deploying in Africa and South America. Thorpe and his pals are telling everybody we’ve whipped them, but it ain’t so. We have just enough people on the ground over there now to protect ourselves. We aren’t out in the countryside or in the mountains. We haven’t heard the last of Al Qaeda.”
Armistead had asked for details, and Forrest had provided them. He was the kind of guy who didn’t tell you something unless he could back it up.
Later that evening and with no beer flowing, Armistead broached the subject of political influence at the Pentagon. Forrest went off like a bottle rocket.
“Tyler, if I hadn’t been in the middle of it and seen it for myself, I wouldn’t have believed it. Do you remember, right after Thorpe took office, there was a little publicity about some civilian political hack who was appointed to an assistant secretary job or something?”
“I recall,” replied Armistead, “but I don’t remember hearing anything more about it.”
“I’m sure you didn’t. He was the first of dozens Thorpe sent to the Pentagon. Their purpose is obvious, because they don’t know shit about anything even remotely related to national defense. They’ve spread themselves out like a bunch of rats, crawling in every nook and cranny to find out what’s going on. I was in a few meetings with some of them. They hardly open their mouths, just took notes. When they opened their mouths, they all started their sentences with the same thing: ‘The Administration believes . . .’ We called ’em TABs.”
“This isn’t good,” said Armistead.
“Yeah, I hear you,” Forrest agreed. “Their shit works when they’re in low-level meetings. Captains, majors, and DoD civilians are scared as hell of them. Most senior officers tell ’em to go pound sand. In either case, when the TABs make a report to whoever the hell they report to, some good people find their asses in a bind the very next day!
“Creepy,” interjected Longstreet.
“Let me tell you how bad it’s become,” Forrest illustrated. “The TABs scoured computer meeting announcements to find out what was going on. Then they showed up, took notes, and/or pulled the TAB routine. After a while, the military people just stopped using computer meeting notices and set ’em up by phone. The damn TABs caught on and would roam the halls looking for meetings and invite themselves in. Some of ’em have very high security clearances and can go damn near anywhere they want.”
Armistead whistled low.
“I’ll tell you this, Tyler. More national defense business is being done on the road, in homes, and in Arlington bars and restaurants than in the Pentagon. Military people are discreet, but they’re taking security risks they believe are necessary to do their jobs.”
“What’s Secretary Pickett’s stance on this?” asked Armistead.
“I think she’s doing the best she can. I think she takes a lot of shit from the White House and buffers the good guys. On a couple of occasions, the TABs said or did something particularly outrageous— don’t know what it was—and Pickett read them the riot act in public. There’re rumors she took IDs from three TABs who walked into a videoconference with Centcom and the theater commanders in Afghanistan. I believe it could’ve happened. There’s scuttlebutt that Pickett told security to shoot the bastards if they came back on Pentagon property. Probably not true, but fun to think about anyway.”
Forrest grinned broadly.
“But, seriously, guys, this chicken shit is not helping us keep our eye on the ball. When you have generals running around to find secret meeting places, they ain’t doing what they should be doing. And for sure the secretary shouldn’t be a referee. Now she’s spending her time keeping the Administration flunkies off the backs of good people trying to keep bad guys from blowing all our asses up.”
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