By Roger Repohl
THE BRONX, N.Y. - Last week the PBS documentary series “The American Experience” aired “Building the Alaska Highway,” Tracy Heather Strain’s taut and telling account of one of the most spectacular engineering feats of World War II: 1,500 miles of road cut through virgin land in the harshest of environments and completed in under eight months.
Think about that. Now think about Iraq.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor in December of 1941, faced with the very real possibility of a Japanese invasion from the north, the War Department set as top priority the construction of a supply route from Dawson Creek in British Columbia, through the Canadian Yukon to outside of Fairbanks, forging the last link between the 48 states and the heart of the Alaska Territory. Conceived by bureaucrats with little first-hand knowledge of sub-Arctic terrain and weather, the Alaska-Canada (or Alcan) Highway was begun in March of 1942. Eleven thousand soldiers of the Army Corps of Engineers, most of them raw recruits with no road-building experience, were sent up to do the job. Three of the seven regiments were African-American, put to their first great test of the war and proving their resourcefulness and grittiness. In addition, five thousand experienced Canadian and American civilian construction workers, supervised by the Public Roads Administration, complemented the force.
The plans of the bureaucrats were modified by reality. Seat-of-the-pants engineering built the highway: every obstacle forced a workaround, every failure forced a try-again. Bridging rivers and blasting rock were one thing; muskeg bogs that immobilized trucks and mosquitoes that ate you alive were quite another.
Enduring mythic hardship - frostbite in April, sweltering heat and insect-bite in July - these men completed the project on November 20, 1942, months ahead of schedule. And none too soon; that summer the Japanese had captured two of the Aleutian Islands at the westernmost tip of Alaska. The highway allowed a military buildup in Alaska that stymied the enemy’s ambitions and supplied the Soviet Army on the Eastern Front.
How was this remarkable feat of engineering and construction accomplished, and with such speed? It had to do with two things: attitude and apparatus.
As for attitude, the Army of 1942 was drawn from a nation of survivors of the Great Depression. Not only had people learned to endure economic hardship for over a decade, they had also been trained by Franklin Roosevelt to think collectively. Facing the Depression required a mustering of national will and the application of centralized power. When the U.S. Congress declared war in 1941 (yes, it actually declared war, not granted “war powers” to the President), the people’s will and the government’s power shifted from the enemy within to the enemy without. Would the U.S. have been able to conquer two mighty nations in less than four years had it not been steeled by its fight against poverty?
As for apparatus, the U.S. Army was an integral self-sustaining whole. It was not just a fighting force, it was its own support force as well. It maintained its own equipment, supplied its own provisions, built its own bridges and roads. It had all-around general expertise, invaluable for meeting all the unknowns and unexpecteds of war. There was little that it couldn’t do on its own, because its resources were its own and applied in a unified way.
Now think about Iraq. Think about Halliburton and Blackwater. Think about how long it’s been and how much has been spent and how little has been done. It’s all about attitude and apparatus.
The attitude of the country and its military subset is very different now. Ronald Reagan, FDR’s ideological opposite, retrained the nation away from collective commitment and toward individual gain. He trained it to see government as obstacle, not instrument. Self-interest, not the common good, became the operating ethic. Privatization was seen as the means to shrink an inept, costly federal bureaucracy while allowing free-market competition, efficient and self-regulating, to provide the best services at the lowest cost. The Invisible Hand of capitalism, not the meddling hand of central planning, would guide the nation.
Reagan’s social philosophy, like FDR’s before him, has endured long after he left the scene; its high-water mark may have been reached in the present administration, with its schemes for privatizing even the most hallowed national trust like public lands and Social Security.
Nowhere has this attitude been more misapplied than in the apparatus of the military. Over the years, and especially during the Rumsfeld tenure, the armed services have come to be run on a business model. The Army’s job is to fight; why should it have to deal with food or construction or other peripherals when private firms can do it all better and cheaper?
The multi-billion-dollar outsourcing mess in Iraq has proved that model wrong. Beyond the enormous profits made by private companies for support services, and beyond the spotty and shoddy attempts at “reconstruction,” is the debilitating effect of self-interest upon a military campaign. In Iraq it has reached right up to the fighting itself, where legions of mercenaries from firms like Blackwater compose a parallel army, making exponentially more money than the soldiers serving their country.
The issue in Iraq is more than money. The issue is fragmentation, both of resources and of will. If the military in its present configuration had to build that road in Alaska, they might still be working on it.