CONSIDERING the surroundings, the plaque on the office door does not appear particularly foreboding: two chessboards dominate the lacquered shield, overshadowing the more traditional military insignias. Nor does the name beneath the plaque sound too threatening: the Studies Analysis and Gaming Agency (SAGA), you think, sounds like a fun place, perhaps the headquarters for a bunch of pudgy high-school kids who spend their afternoons at board games while their mesomorphic friends are outside playing touch football. But then you think again about the surroundings, which are the Pentagon, and about the people behind the door, who are generals and admirals and Cabinet members, and about the object of the games they play, which generally have a lot to do with wiping out foreign civilizations. And then the realization hits you, like a hard icy lump in the pit of your stomach. The friendly folks who brought you Vietnam and Cambodia are back for more good times.

At least, they're on their way. Back in the early '60s, when Robert MacNamara was trying to run the Defense Department the same way he had run the Ford Motor Company--at a profit--"computer simulations" of wartime situations were all the rage. The generals and admirals and Cabinet members would huddle together with groups of high-power academics--McGeorge Bundy, former dean of the Faculty here, always comes to mind as the prime example--and then they would all play high-voltage computer games to test out any theories they had managed to devise. But then one day, some technicians fed in the wrong numbers somewhere, and what came out of the computer was the ten years' agony called Vietnam--and so the computers and the outside experts fell out of favor for a few years. Now they are back.

They have returned to the offices of SAGA, a currently little-known branch of the Pentagon that is reported to be gaining steadily in influence with the top military brass. The civilians return two or three times a year--SAGA's top-secret guest list reportedly includes influential university presidents, major corporation officials and important foundation chairmen--and then they play around with new computer scenarios for blowing up the most strategic parts of the world. It's all a game, of course, and no one ever gets hurt; all that happens, it seems, is that the generals and their high-power friends manage to get some jollies by annihilating a few million computerized natives of the Horn of Africa, which is reportedly this year's favorite target. No one has fed in the wrong numbers yet.

Indeed, it may be too early to start worrying about this odd pastime. SAGA, after all, has yet to gain broad public acceptance along the lines of that accorded the think-tankers of the early '60s. President Bok, for instance--perhaps remembering the fate of Bundy and the rest of the "best and the brightest"--said last week he had never been invited to a SAGA brain-storming session, and knows of no one else at Harvard who might have gotten the call. Several other Ivy League presidents have issued similar denials--making it clear that SAGA, for the time being at least, is not the type of club where you can find the cream of the academic elite hanging around. Add to that the fact that up to now, the Pentagon brass have been reluctant to pump any really big money into massive simulation projects, as they were so happy to do 15 years ago. For now, then, SAGA is still just playing games.

UNFORTUNATELY, that is only part of the story. While Pentagon gamesmen have made their return to the fold only recently, pressure has been building for a number of years for a re-instatement of another Vietnam-era favorite, the Selective Service System. The movement has been subtle, of course: no bills have been introduced to Congress yet, and so far very few Congressmen have gone to the stumps with formula-like speeches about devotion to God, flag and motherhood. But lobbying for the draft has apparently gone on behind the scenes, taking the less obvious form of news documentaries, reports of "concerned citizens' groups," and the ever-present Pentagon predictions of an impending apocalypse. A recent CBS-TV documentary, for instance, focused on charges that the current all-volunteer army cannot find the crack troops needed to face any attack by the Soviet Union; the implication throughout the show was that the U.S. armed forces are not now in "a proper state of readiness," and may never be--as long as the all-volunteer format persists. Other critics, especially in the Southern delegations to Congress, have perceptively pointed out the serious problems of the army's low pay scales. As they attract mostly ghetto residents eager for a job at any price, these low rates of pay have helped create a disproportion of minorities in the enlisted corps--a disproportion that supposedly reflects in a heightened racial tension, a mercenary mentality, lowered morale and threats to discipline in the ranks. Yet the conclusion these critics usually reach is not the obvious, but expensive, one of raising army pay. Instead, they would infuse the army with new blood--white blood--and thus create a steadying influence, by resuming the draft.


These, of course, are not new arguments--ever since the all-volunteer army took over in 1975, they have been constantly rolled out to support the opposing concept of conscription. What is new, however, is the degree of support they are now finding across the country.

WITH VIETNAM a rapidly fading memory, with former anti-draft protesters such as the Berrigan brothers safely ensconced on the lecture circuit, with McGovern giving way to Carter and, just possibly, to Jerry Brown, opposition to the draft and to what it represents is no longer such an automatic reflex. The knee-jerk liberals no longer twitch when reminded of Chicago and Kent State, of the cries of a generation that would not go to war, a generation that could not support a system that it believed reaped extra dollars out of every platoon that charged into battle. Instead the talk in Congress is now of prudence and economy, and the virtues of a lean, hard fighting force. It is safe--even profitable--to forget the lessons of the past decade.

The signs of this new mood are not yet obvious, but they are there. In Congress, agitation for reconsideration of the draft is growing--often instigated by Congressmen, such as Rep. Joseph P. Adabbo (D-N.Y.), who five years ago were on the other side of the fence. Even more significant, however, is the apparent eagerness of many students to accept a second portent of a growing militarism: for as most major newspapers have formed the habit of noting. Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) programs, and other military-funded scholarship plans, are experiencing a renaissance at a number of major campuses. The reason seems fairly clear. Perhaps at Harvard, where post-graduate work is the almost universal rule, where there is less of a need to reach out for the security that a hitch in the army's officer corps can offer in an increasingly unpredictable economy, we can still send our ROTC students down the river to cross-register at MIT. But elsewhere, at Princeton, Penn, Cornell, even Berkeley, the situation is different. ROTC is thriving, as more financially squeezed middle-class students sign up by the day--a sad acknowledgement of the fact that when the economy goes sour, interest in things military invariably rises. War is indeed good business.

THE RESURGENCE of ROTC programs, coupled with the possible return of the draft, casts a different and rather chilling light on the computer games that go down in SAGA's Pentagon office. Games may be fun, but they lose a great deal of their appeal when some of the contestants decide to play for keeps. That is exactly what could happen when the Pentagon brass realize they do not have to fool around with numbers anymore, because all of assudden they have the boys back in uniform. MacNamara and Bundy may be gone, but no one has to tell the Joint Chiefs of Staff what to do with their neat battle plans and shiny weapon systems. They already know that war is good business; they are just waiting for everyone else to agree with them again.

And so it goes, with middle-class students swelling the ranks of ROTC, with increasingly loud murmurs emanating from the corpse that was the Selective Service System, and with the Pentagon's computers humming and clicking along, playing a neat counterpoint in the background. Of course, not everyone agrees with what is going on: at Georgetown University, for instance, the Rev. Richard T. McSorley, professor of theology, still demonstrates alone against the school's ROTC program. Decrying what he calls the army's attempt "to 'psychologize' students into accepting militarism," McSorely marches alone every week in front of the school's main library, wearing a sandwich board that asks, "Would You Be Proud of an 'A' in ROTC?"

But no one joins McSorely. They are all off playing games.

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