The prospect of Harford County's economy losing in excess of 4,000 military and defense contracting jobs associated with various activities at Aberdeen Proving Ground is as unsavory a scenario that could be visited on the local economy.
Such a scenario, however, is exactly what's possible in the coming years.
For just shy of a century, Aberdeen Proving Ground has been a place where many generations of people have found good, steady jobs with enviable benefits packages.
So long has APG been on the local economic scene that it had come to be regarded almost as a natural resource. Over the years, there had been reductions in force, known like just about everything in the armed forces by its acronym RIF, but only about a decade ago did anyone ever give serious consideration to the possibility of a total revamping of the U.S. armed forces in such a way as to make the post much smaller or eliminate it completely. Another acronym long since eclipsed RIF as the economic creature under the bed at APG: BRAC. Inexplicably, BRAC is the acronym for the U.S. Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission, as BCRC never seems to have caught on.
The idea behind BRAC is reasonable: The economic value of military installations prompts voters and the people they elect to advocate for the retention of even outdated and unnecessary installations. The commission was established by Congress to make decisions about what military functions were needed and where, based solely on military and defense needs, not on political clout.
Historically, APG had been a range for testing tanks and artillery, but in the years since 1917 when the post opened, many other more massive, and remote, test ranges have come into being. When the BRAC commission last made a major review of the nation's facilities, it was feared APG might not make the cut.
Though the munitions testing component did end up shifting away from Aberdeen, that round of BRAC changes brought an infusion of research and development positions to the post. The result was a net increase in jobs at APG.
Now another review of military installations is anticipated, and fears that APG could see a reduction in its payroll have been rekindled. Earlier this week, more than 250 people turned out for a session to review what could be done to stave off such a change.
It's a natural and reasonable reaction. People need steady jobs, and when jobs are threatened by governmental policy changes, it seems reasonable on a certain level to lobby against those policy changes.
On another level, however, it is perfectly reasonable to ask if defense policy should be decided not by whether it is effective at securing the nation, but by whether it employs enough citizens.
It's a question that troubled one of the greatest men of war to have served on the side of freedom, Dwight D. Eisenhower. As commander of Allied forces in Europe during World War II, he coordinated D-Day, presided over the liberation of France and helped bring about the destruction of the Nazi regime. As president, he concluded the Korean War in such a way as to preserve the non-communist South Korea.
He also gave a particularly eloquent farewell address at the conclusion of his second term as president in which he warned against allowing the American republic to become too consumed with its own military might, and the related economic booms. The late president's words often are cited simplistically, sometimes as though he had been advocating for a return to the pre-World War II era when armies were raised and military production ratcheted up only in times of war.
His comments are a good deal more pragmatic. He recognized that threats posed in the world necessitated the maintenance of a high level of readiness. His warning was more against allowing that need to become all consuming.
The section of the speech dealing with the issue follows:
In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.
The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.
We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or our democratic processes.
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We should take nothing for granted.
Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.
He would go on in the speech to caution against allowing scientific advances in the name of defense to dominate the nation's efforts at scientific discovery and against allowing the situation to arise wherein "a government contract becomes, virtually, a substitute for intellectual curiosity."
The whole of the speech, which has elements that are both uplifting and steeped in a sense of foreboding, can be read, with changes marked in Eisenhower's own hand, at http://www.eisenhower.archives.gov/research/online_documents/farewell_address.html
The prospect of the local economy losing 4,000 jobs because of changes in defense policy as outlined through the BRAC process is indeed frightening. The ripple effects could well affect plenty of people who have no direct economic relationship with APG.
Still, the post is a military installation and needs to be managed as such, not as a federal make-work program. If we want a government whose policy is to directly employ a lot of people, well, that's an entirely different kind of discussion.
If APG ends up facing cuts as a result of any new round of BRAC cuts, it's worth remembering not only Eisenhower's words, but also the harsh reality that the last round of jobs added at APG came as the result of cuts and closures at military installations elsewhere in the country. This situation reflects another view of defense and warfare much more ancient than those expressed by Eisenhower, namely the Biblical notion that those who live by the sword also die by the sword.