For all practical purposes, Fort George G. Meade in Anne Arundel County stopped being a combat-oriented military base long before the 1st U.S. Army headquarters left last week.
Yes, troops moved through the installation during the brief Persian Gulf war. But ever since the end of the Cold War, Fort Meade has evolved steadily from a base where soldiers train for battle to a federal office park. More paper-pushing than drilling takes place there. So from a functional standpoint, the departure of the 1st Army, headed to Fort Gillem, Ga., to be merged with the 2nd Army, means little.
Symbolically, however, it is terribly significant, which explains why those with close ties to the base reacted so emotionally when the 1st Army's red-and-black "A" flag came down for the last time. The loss of the famous unit, which moved to Fort Meade in 1966, officially marked the end of an era in which the base was an important cog in the nation's defense machinery.
Even after Fort Meade's mission began to change, the mere presence of the 1st Army -- formed in 1918 in France, bloodied in the Meuse Argonne offensive in World War I, first to break the Siegfried line, cross the Rhine and meet westward-moving Soviet troops in World War II -- sent a message that, first and foremost, this still was a military installation.
Now it is gone, and there are no more illusions about Fort Meade's importance as a defense operation. Some defense-related activities will continue, but the military culture that defined the Odenton area has been replaced by government bureaucracy. White-collar professionals have taken the place of soldiers.
The nation simply doesn't need as many soldiers and military bases as it did during the Cold War, a fact that many military communities learned painfully last week when 90 installations were recommended for closure. Odenton is lucky; Fort Meade is merely being realigned, and the economic impact of losing the 1st Army's 200 military and civilian employees will be nil because several hundred jobs from other bases are being transferred there.
So Fort Meade will continue. But it will be a different Fort Meade, dressed in a business suit rather than Army camouflage. The country is at peace. Better to shed a nostalgic tear over the end of the era the 1st Army symbolized than weep over a new generation headed off to war.