SPECIAL REPORT/ESSAY

THE HIGH COST OF PEACE

DEFENCE CUTS THREATEN LIVELIHOODS

HILARY MACKENZIE June 4 1990
SPECIAL REPORT/ESSAY

THE HIGH COST OF PEACE

DEFENCE CUTS THREATEN LIVELIHOODS

HILARY MACKENZIE June 4 1990

THE HIGH COST OF PEACE

DEFENCE CUTS THREATEN LIVELIHOODS

No one was cheering the end of the Cold War in the seedy, wood-panelled bar of American Veterans Post 77 in Anniston, Ala. With military cutbacks already affecting nearby Fort McClellan, membership in the post has fallen to 550 from a 1987 peak of 2,000 active and retired army personnel. And as the men and women downed their beers and chasers at Formicatopped tables and reflected on the boom years of East-West confrontation, Anniston’s future appeared even bleaker. Fort McClellan, one of the largest employers in the area and home to the U.S. army’s military police and chemical training schools, is threatened with possible closure by 1993. In anticipation, real estate values have plummeted and businesses have frozen all expansion plans. Retired Master Sgt. Jean Medeiros, who, like some 25,000 other veterans in the area, uses the military hospital and the subsidized PX supermarket, admitted

that she prays for a new international crisis to head off the impending closure. “I’m hoping they’ll start a buildup of chemical weapons,” she said, “so that we can keep this place open.” Anniston’s plight is similar to that of scores of communities throughout the United States that are heavily dependent upon the so-called military-industrial complex for their livelihood. With communism crumbling and the Warsaw Pact collapsing, the Pentagon in January issued a list of more than 150 domestic and overseas bases that are candidates for cutbacks or complete closure—the latter group including Fort McClellan. In all, Defence Secretary Richard Cheney has proposed spending reductions of 10 per cent, or $210 billion, between 1992 and 1997. But many members of Congress argue that Cheney’s so-called peace dividend is not enough. Some informed insiders maintain that the White House will ultimately have to accept cuts totalling $526 billion, or 25

per cent, over the same period.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon has embarked on a radical re-examination and redefinition of its role. Experts say that, in the future, defence planners are likely to place less emphasis on preparing for a superpower conflict and more on defending U.S. interests in the Third World and combatting the international drug menace. Such changes are spreading pain and confusion throughout the U.S. military. Said Ronald Fraser, an analyst at Washington’s nongovernmental Center for Defense Information: “There is chaos in the Pentagon as military planners struggle to come up with a long-term defence strategy.”

Mournful: But in communities like Anniston (population 30,000), concerns are more down-to-earth. In the veterans hall, as a lone jukebox spun out country tunes and pool tables lay unused, 31-year-old army widow Kathie Fagg wondered out loud about the fate of Anniston. “The only thing that keeps this town going is the fort,” I she said mournfully. “It’ll become a W ghost town.” Retired army Chief War® rant Officer Larry Smith wagged a finger and warned: “This is only the beginning. We’re into a different world. Wars aren’t going to be fought with weapons, but with economies and marketing.”

Anniston’s defenders argue that Fort McClellan should survive the defence cutbacks because it trains military police for small-scale conflicts. Said Representative Glen Browder, the local Democratic congressman: “The military police school is not aimed at East-West nuclear war. We are looking at lowto midintensity situations like Panama and Hurricane Hugo.” In Anniston, officers and civilians alike accuse the politicians in Washington of playing Russian roulette with their lives. A group of local residents has started a letter-writing campaign and presented a 60,000-signature petition to Cheney to try to save the fort. Addressing a meeting of that group in February, Alabama Gov. Guy Hunt declared, “The decision to close the base should not be made by some pencil pusher at the Pentagon.”

Outside Fort McClellan’s Baltzell Gates, 59year-old Ken Dowdy runs a taxi service that ferries recruits to the string of cheap motels, fast-food restaurants and shopping strips that service the camp. “It’s going to be real bad,” he said. “In the taxi business, we know where we carry people and how much money they spend.” He added that he did not know how he would survive if Fort McClellan closes after a scheduled decision is announced next month. Said Dowdy: “The uncertainty has cut our business in half.”

Already, the bold letters “Anniston—The Model City” that hang in a window of a vacant building on Main Street reflect a bygone era. More realistically, a new sign underneath advertises “Space for rent.” Next door, a furniture business tries to lure customers with a

huge notice: “Prices slashed.” During the boom years of President Ronald Reagan’s military buildup in the 1980s, Fort McClellan’s 9,581 military and civilian population pumped up to $655 million a year into the local economy. If the fort closes, analysts say, about 10,400 people, or one in five of the local labor

force, could lose their jobs. And the real estate market could collapse.

An estimated 38 per cent of Calhoun County’s home sales are directly tied to the military, and another 10 per cent indirectly. The fort, explained retired military police colonel Richard Martin, “has been a magnet for retired army people who have come to live in and

around Anniston for access to the PX and the military hospital and the social life that goes with an army town.” Property values (the average modest house costs about $72,000) have dropped by 10 per cent since January. That, in turn, has had a ripple effect throughout the local economy. Said attorney A. W. Bolt:

“There's not a man, woman or child within a 50-mile radius who won’t feel it.”

To make matters worse, Anniston has suffered a second blow: its army depot is under orders to lay off 500 of its 4,400 employees by October. The depot, secured within a double eight-foot-high steel-mesh fence topped with barbed wire and patrolled around the clock, is

the country’s only maintenance and refitting plant for heavy tanks like the M-48, M-60 and the newer, 70-ton M-l, and for the sleek antitank Tow, Cobra, Dragon and Hellfire missiles. It also stores deadly nerve and mustard gases that are scheduled for destruction by 1998 under a congressional order. Morale has slumped markedly among depot workers, causing many to leave while they can still get skilled jobs locally. “People have seen the writing on the wall,” said Sarah Whatley, chief of manpower and management for the depot. Added Billy Bickerstaff, the depot’s chief of recruitment and placement: “We had a war plan, not a peace plan.”

The peace dividend has left an indelible mark on the 29.4square-mile depot site. The vast machine shop, where tanks are stripped of their oily engines, 385-gallon fuel tanks, turrets and 6,000 parts before being repaired and reassembled, is working well below capacity. At its peak, 600 mechanics, welders and machinists moved six tanks daily to the test site. Now, 350 mechanics move one or two tanks a day. Said congressman Browder: “With the collapse of communism, at first you cheer. Then, you realize what it means for your home town, and it’s a sobering experience.” As the defence cuts bite more deeply, that sentiment will no doubt be echoed by elected officials and ordinary citizens across the country.

HILARY MACKENZIE in Anniston