AUSTIN, Texas -- One thing I have always admired about the U.S. military services is their ability to learn from their mistakes. They have institutionalized this ability in the form of remarkable After Action Reviews, which include rigorous dissection of every aspect of whatever operation they were last required to take.

These AARs are both unsparing and illuminating -- I recall the particularly trenchant review of the (SET ITAL) opera bouffe (END ITAL) episode in which they were required to invade Grenada, an exercise so stunningly silly that it is beneath comment. They should have sent a Texas Ranger.

Of course, the military spent years poring over Vietnam, the one it lost. Even now, the feelings of many are still so tender on that one that I feel obliged to point out they didn't actually lose it -- they were sent into an unwinnable situation.

One result of all that study and re-study of Vietnam is that the military is now considerably more cautious when asked by politicians to take on some dubious enterprise for some dubious geopolitical purpose. We saw that instinct toward caution both before the Persian Gulf War and again today. It has nothing to do with lack of courage, but with an institutional memory of who pays the price when politicians and their advisers are dead wrong.

Sometimes, the military learns lessons one would prefer it had not. After Vietnam, there was some bitter blaming of the press for having reported that the sucker was hopeless. The consequence is that American military action is now accompanied by an ungodly, Orwellian degree of media management, which does not, I think, serve the country well.

I have never thought the military was well-served by its civilian eyes and ears, specifically, the CIA. It is now a matter of public record that the CIA vastly overestimated Soviet capabilities throughout the Cold War, as well as engaging in follies too numerous to mention. Lewis Lapham once hilariously nailed the Muffie-and-Skippy-III quality of that outfit.

Other times, the military's lack of information seems inexplicable. As Mark Bowden wrote in his superb account of our action in Somalia in "Black Hawk Down," a street map would have saved lives -- along with the realization that all you need to take down a zillion-dollar chopper is an RPG. Hitting the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, the time we took out a civilian Iranian airliner and the sub that surfaced under a Japanese trawler seem to fall in the category of "Huh?" But as I say, the military has shown it learns from its mistakes.

As an institution, it is most frequently criticized for its utterly bizarre capacity to eat money. Getting the Pentagon to spend money sensibly, or even keep track of it -- one day it announced it couldn't account for $7 billion -- is apparently a task beyond human resource. For generations, we've been sending beady-eyed bean-counters like Robert McNamara into the Pentagon to straighten things out, and they all stagger out years later with a dazed look about them.

Granted, the really monumental wastes of money are usually political follies -- the eccentric history of Reagan's Star Wars detailed by Frances Fitzgerald in "Way Out There in the Blue" being one of the most memorable. The cost is now at $100 billion and rising -- there is not an unemployment office or a children's health program in the country run with such insanely loose accounting.

Some critics have fingered the built-in redundancy of inter-service rivalry as the culprit, but no one seems able to explain such surreal incidents as the $400 hammer and the $800 toilet seat. This summer's scandal over the Pentagon charge cards used at strip clubs, and to buy fine china, cigars, a trip to Vegas, two pictures of Elvis, etc., was in that vein. The current issue of The Nation has an eyebrow-raising account of a military country club in the Alps that supposedly teaches East European slugs the beauties of democracy. This would be funnier if I did not know Mexican-American taxpayers who sweat in the sun all day and have never seen a ski slope.

What got me started on the military is the case of Lt. Gen. Paul Van Riper, the no-bull Marine who commanded the Red forces in last summer's war games. Red was the unnamed evil dictator of a rogue state in the Persian Gulf. Thirteen thousand troops were involved and $250 million spent on the rehearsal, according to numerous print sources.

Blue attacked, and the wily Van Riper, using low-tech to foil high-tech, sank most of the Blue fleet. Whereupon, they called the whole thing off. The sunken fleet rose from the depths, dead soldiers came back to life, and Red was ordered to look the other way and turn off its air defense while Blue made amphibious landings. Van Riper continued to harry Blue until he realized his subordinates had been ordered not to listen to him anymore. He sat out the rest of the exercise, making mordant comments from the sidelines.

Van Riper told The Guardian: "Nothing was learned from this. A culture not willing to think hard and test itself does not augur well for the future."

Institutions can rot from within.

To find out more about Molly Ivins and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at COPYRIGHT 2002 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.