THE element of surprise has been, since the dawn of warfare, a central tenet in military planning. Protecting this edge requires secrecy, to keep from enemy eyes vital information about an army's intentions and capabilities. History is replete with examples in which loss of secrecy contributed to defeat. Against this backdrop, it is somewhat dismaying that the Pentagon, American commanders in the Gulf, and the White House are engaged in a public debate about whether United States forces will be prepared for war by Jan. 15, the deadline set by the United Nations Security Council for Saddam Hussein to withdraw from Kuwait.
Last week, the deputy commander of US forces in the Gulf, Lt. Gen. Calvin Waller, told reporters that the troops would not be fully ready for combat until February, at the earliest. The White House has tried to play down General Waller's assessment, but press reports this week say the view is widely shared by senior US military officers.
The flap raises two subordinate questions. First, are military leaders in this crisis talking too much? One top Air Force general has already been cashiered for his remarks. Or is public discussion of fundamental issues necessary (albeit inconvenient) in a democracy, given the need for public support of war aims and strategy? The issue will be debated as long as democracies fight wars.
Second, has Waller's assessment aided Saddam by giving him more time, and undercut the credibility of the military threat - thereby making war more, not less likely? Or did it just give Saddam an insignificant respite, and ensured that ultimately the military threat will be more credible? Again, room for debate.
Far more important than these secondary issues, however, is the substantive one raised by the discussion: Are US forces in the Gulf ready for war?
Barring an emergency, American soldiers should never be ordered into combat without every advantage that numbers, positioning, firepower, logistical support, tactics, and training can afford them. The men and women serving in the Gulf deserve no less. Such readiness increases prospects for victory, enhances the safety of troops, and - paradoxically - improves the likelihood that force won't be necessary, as we all hope and pray.
Of course, for cautious generals readiness can be an end in itself, as Lincoln learned with the ever-preparing George McClellan. Ultimately, readiness is the commander in chief's call. But until there are signs that US commanders in the Gulf are simply dragging their feet or protecting their reputations, they must be given the time to do the job right.