Zeke Forrest tells it like it is...
Armistead Residence, Saint Simons Island, Georgia
Zeke was in Tyler’s unit in Iraq during the First Gulf War. It was during that tour that Zeke had been wounded. He was built solid as a tank; and though he was now in his late forties, his demanding exercise regimen kept him fit. He was damn good at what he did. (Exactly what Zeke did at Fort Bragg, Tyler didn’t know and hadn’t asked.)
Though Zeke was a soldier’s soldier, he had learned to successfully navigate the treacherous political waters of the armchair military bureaucracy. Tyler had always wondered how Zeke, an outspoken, blunt, and often profane warrior could tolerate that landscape, much less survive in the bastion of political correctness that the Pentagon was becoming. However, Zeke not only survived, he had gotten a star on his shoulder. Zeke’s promotion gave Tyler some confidence that at least somebody in the Pentagon knew what the hell they were doing.
Zeke’s last overseas assignment was as liaison to the Iraqi Army’s developing Special Operations units. His efforts were critical in acquiring and maintaining the funding and support needed to transform the Iraqis into a professional outfit.
Zeke hopped a military flight from Fort Bragg to Hunter Army Airfield in Savannah, rented a car, and made the quick drive down I-95 to Saint Simons. Once he arrived, Zeke, Chuck, Ashley, and Tyler, 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 that most of the stories were lies. Certainly Tyler, Chuck, and Zeke 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. Tyler was concerned about U.S. 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 Zack.
“What are the defense budget cuts doing to us, Zack?” Tyler asked.
In a West Tennessee drawl deeper and slower than Tyler’s south Georgia accent, Zeke 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 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 the 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.”
Tyler was listening carefully.
“It’s a mess, guys,” Zeke 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.”
Tyler 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, TVs, they can get a job and go to the movies. Their politicians are like all politicians, but generally not too corrupt; they’re not screaming fanatics and can actually have their asses booted out of office if the people get pissed.
“Another worrisome thing is that 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 would 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.”
Chuck nodded in agreement.
“Trust me, Tyler, 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 are up to something big. We have intel that says they are 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.”
Tyler asked for details, and Zeke 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, Tyler broached the subject of political influence at the Pentagon. Zeke 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 Tyler, “but I don’t remember hearing anything more about it.”
“I’m sure you didn’t. But 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 open their mouths, they all start their sentences with the same thing: ‘The Administration believes …’ We called ’em TABs.”
“This is not good,” said Tyler.
“Yeah, I hear you,” Zeke 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 Chuck.
“Let me tell you how bad it’s become,” Zeke illustrated. “The TABs scoured computer meeting announcements to find out what’s going on. Then they’d show up, take notes, and/or pull the TAB routine. After a while, the military people just stopped using computer meeting notices and set them up by phone. The damn TABs caught on and would roam the halls looking for meetings and invite themselves in. Some of them have very high security clearances and can go damn near anywhere they want.”
Tyler issued a low whistle.
“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 Tyler.
“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 are rumors she took IDs from three TABs who walked into a videoconference with Centcom and the theatre commanders in Afghanistan. I believe it could have 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.”
Zeke 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’s flunkies off the backs of good people trying keep the bad guys from blowing all our asses up.”