The strain of war

When a Navy admiral took over as the nation’s top uniformed leader this fall, he homed in on the military establishment’s fears for the future of the Army by touring several forts in the heartland and listening to the concerns of young infantry, artillery and recruiting officers.

After 12 months fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan, 12 months back home before redeployment is “just not good enough,” one Army captain at Fort Sill, Okla., told Adm. Michael G. Mullen, enunciating one of the many problems that add up to major worries about an all-volunteer force that is in its seventh year of wartime stress.

“The ground forces are not broken,” Mullen said in October in one of his first public appearances as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “but they are breakable.”

Mullen’s pronouncement echoes a rising refrain in Congress and the Pentagon that the modern, all-volunteer Army is undergoing the hardest test in its 34-year history. More than the next phase in the struggle for a stable Iraq is riding, therefore, on President Bush’s reduction of troop levels following the surge of 2007. The Army’s prospects for an early recovery from years of continuous combat are also at issue.

Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I, a West Point graduate and former Airborne officer who sits on the Armed Services Committee, said after recent testimony by the Army’s top civilian and uniformed leaders that a number of signals — diminished levels of readiness, lower recruiting standards, rising attrition rates among junior officers — point to a watershed moment for the service. The Army has offered bonuses as high as $35,000 to retain officers and noncommissioned officers.

There is “just a feeling that we’re on the cusp, and if we don’t take appropriate action this could become an increasingly complicated and difficult problem,” Reed told reporters during a mid-November news briefing.

Reed argued that the Army must continue to reduce its combat force in Iraq before it can begin to repair the wear and tear from the long stretch of combat.

Along the way, there has also come a sense that, whatever happens in Iraq, the U.S. military budget will continue to increase and the Army may also have more growing to do.

The most arresting fact underscored during Reed’s questioning of Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the Army chief of staff, during a hearing last month was that roughly half of the Army’s 44 active-duty brigades are today rated not ready, by the Army’s own standards. (A brigade ranges from 2,500 to 4,200 soldiers.) Casey, the former commander of ground troops in Iraq, agreed with Reed that this represents “a significant deterioration” since the wars began.

The decline, he stressed, is not in the readiness of soldiers and equipment for their counter-insurgency missions. The troops at war “continue to do a magnificent job,” in Reed’s words. But Casey explained that the ready troops are either in Iraq and Afghanistan or else preparing to go.

“We’re consuming readiness as fast as we build it,” Casey said. In the near term, that means many Army units are not trained and equipped to full readiness in the full spectrum of missions — counterinsurgency aside — they could be called upon to perform elsewhere in the world.

The longer-term consequences for the Army could be worrisome if events in Iraq disrupt plans to reduce troop levels there by tens of thousands in the coming months. That could, in turn, disrupt Casey’s schedule for restoring full readiness and at the same time increase the size of the Army.

Army Secretary Preston Geren III said, at the November hearing on the Army: “All-volunteer force — you know, seven years of war — we’ve never done this before as a nation.”

The draft ended in 1973, late in the war in Vietnam, the last in a series of wars fought with an Army heavily dependent on draftees, and a war that aroused uncommon bitterness in society at large and within the ranks.

The shift to a volunteer Army has been broadly reckoned a success, despite the controversies of the time. “I was a product of the draft and always felt that we wouldn’t be able to sustain the things we’re doing today without compulsory service,” said Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., a Vietnam veteran who is one of the staunchest supporters of the war in Iraq. “I was wrong,” Inhofe said, praising the quality of today’s Army.

After the end of the Cold War, the active-duty army had decreased in size by about 300,000 to a low of 480,000 — a mistake, in Casey’s view, that was partially responsible for the Army’s failure to bring sufficient forces and equipment to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. “We were basking in the glow of the great success in Desert Storm, basking in the glow of success in the Cold War, looking around to spend the peace dividend.”

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