The Breaking Point

Not many people read Prodigal Soldiers: How the Generation of Officers Born of Vietnam Revolutionized the American Style of War – you have to be really into military theory for such things – but you could get a copy.  Consider this assessment from Library Journal

 

The transformation of the American armed forces from the dispirited shell-shocked military at the close of the Vietnam era to the superbly trained, highly motivated, and universally respected victors in the Persian Gulf War is as dramatic a tale as any in American military history. Kitfield, an award-winning journalist on defense issues, follows the careers of dozens of army, navy, air force, and marine officers from their early service years in Vietnam to their success as commanders in the defeat of the Iraqis. While organizational and technical issues play a role, the book concentrates on the human aspect of this startling redirection of the U.S. military. A useful supplement to Michael Gordon’s The Generals’ War and Al Santoli’s overlooked Leading the Way, this is an essential addition to Vietnam and Persian Gulf War collections.

 

Not interested?  Those of us with an Army officer in the family are. Back in 1990, at West Point, when Colin Powell spoke at the graduation (it should have been J. Danforth Quayle, but someone the good sense to quash that), all the graduating cadets seemed the best of the best – thoughtful, courteous and ready to do their best.  Honor, Duty, Country – it didn’t seem farfetched at all.

 

But something has happened, and we may be back to square one again – with a dispirited shell-shocked military.  The young men (and a few young women) from that sunny afternoon did their best, and are still doing their best, but they face new issues now.  We jumped in the rental car, drove down to Newark and caught the plane for the coast.  The new second lieutenants went off to get Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, and did a superb job.  They knew what they were doing – and did it well.

 

Now things are different.  Many say the Army is broken, again. That seems to be what Phillip Carter is saying in Broken Arrow, a column recently posted at SLATE. He says the Army broke in Iraq, in the current effort there, not the first.

 

Carter is an attorney with McKenna Long and Aldridge out here in Los Angeles – in their Government Contracts practice group – and a former Army officer, and an Iraq veteran. He might know. He did nine years of active and reserve service with military police and civil affairs units – and while on active duty before UCLA law school he did work testing and evaluating the Army’s digital battle command systems. In 2005 through 2006 he took a leave of absence from the law firm to serve in Iraq – with the Army’s 101st Airborne Division, as an adviser to the Iraqi police. He’s been there.

 

And here’s his thesis –

 

The U.S. Army broke in the 1970s in the wake of the Vietnam War and the end of the draft. But if you ask officers who served during that period, few will recall the sounds of creaking planks, snapping beams, or rupturing buildings as the institution disintegrated. Instead, the crumbling occurred over time, becoming apparent only decades later.

 

Today’s Army is stretched past its breaking point by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The sounds of its collapse may be faint enough for policymakers in Washington to ignore, but they are there. An exodus of junior and midlevel personnel illustrates the crisis. Their exit has forced the Army to apply tourniquets like “stop loss” to halt the hemorrhaging, and it has also dropped its standards for recruiting and retention.

 

His sources include retired Major General Robert H. Scales, the former commander of the Army War College, with this

 

Bean counters in the Pentagon tell us that Army recruitment and retention are in good shape. Problem is, our cumbersome readiness reporting system only informs leaders in Washington of conditions on the ground many months after the force begins to break. Today, anecdotal evidence of collapse is all around. Past history makes some of us sensitive to anecdotes and distrustful of Pentagon statistics. The Army’s collapse after Vietnam was presaged by a desertion of mid-grade officers (captains) and non-commissioned officers. Many were killed or wounded. Most left because they and their families were tired and didn’t want to serve in units unprepared for war.

 

If we lose our sergeants and captains, the Army breaks again. It’s just that simple. That’s why these soldiers are still the canaries in the readiness coal-mine. And, again, if you look closely, you will see that these canaries are fleeing their cages in frightening numbers.

 

The lesson from this sad story is simple: When you fight a long war with a long-service professional Army, the force you begin with will not get any larger or better over the duration of the conflict. For that reason, today’s conditions are pretty much irreversible. There’s not much that money, goodwill or professed support for the troops can do. Another strange consequence is that the current political catfight over withdrawal dates is made moot by the above facts. We’re running out of soldiers faster than we’re running out of warfighting missions.

 

He also refers us to his previous discussion of the new Army directive that attempts to alleviate the personnel crunch by retaining soldiers who had been previously designated for early discharge during their first term of enlistment because of alcohol or drug abuse, unsatisfactory performance, or being overweight, among other reasons. That doesn’t even cover lowering recruitment standards to overlook felonies and gang activity. Times are tough indeed.

 

Now his is not impressed with returning units back to combat after less than a year at home, “leaving many with little time to train incoming soldiers and come together as a team.”

 

The problem is clear – “Four years into the war, the Army still has too few troops to persevere in Iraq and Afghanistan and too few deployed in each place to win.”

 

The recent decision to redeploy Army brigades to Iraq sooner and for longer tours in combat – to man “the surge” – is folly –

 

The entire active-duty force is either deployed, set to deploy soon, or within one year of coming home from Iraq or Afghanistan. Short of conscripting millions of Americans to rapidly build a larger military, contracting out for a larger force, or mobilizing the entire reserves at once, military leaders say they have no other choice – to surge in Iraq, they must reduce the time soldiers spend at home between deployments and lengthen their combat tours from 12 to 16 or 18 months. But sending troops to Iraq after such a short time to reorganize, refit, and retrain is a recipe for disaster.

 

It’s a matter of natural limits –

 

The combat-stress literature suggests there’s a finite limit to the amount of time that men and women can withstand combat. British historian Richard Holmes pegged this figure at approximately 60 days of sustained combat. In Iraq, we often wondered what our finite limit was, given the stresses of our advisory mission and the frequent attacks on our compound in downtown Baqubah. You can drink only so much chai with Iraqi leaders, and hit so many improvised explosive devices, before you burn out and need to go home. The soldiers and Marines fighting high-intensity operations in Ramadi probably had a different limit than my team, as did the troops assigned to staff duty in the International Zone or on major forward-operating bases.

 

To a senior Pentagon official studying a set of PowerPoint slides in the Pentagon, the question may seem academic. But to men under fire, it is anything but. Keeping units in combat for longer than a 12-month tour may push many troops past their breaking point, endangering both their lives and the mission.

 

And there’s the “other life” of those doing the fighting –

 

Today’s Army and Marine Corps is more family-oriented than other forces fielded recently by the United States. My deployment affected my family far more than me. I knew when I was safe and when I was in harm’s way; families can only guess, piecing together what they get from CNN and sporadic e-mails from their loved ones. Extending soldiers’ tours crushes the hopes of their families, who pin so much on a fixed return date. Soldiers have always received “Dear John” letters, but it’s different now, because so many troops have spouses and children – and because today’s troops are getting “Dear John” e-mails and phone calls in real time. Extending these tours creates enormous strain for military families. And shortening these families’ time together between deployments all but guarantees family issues on the next rotation. Problems at home quickly become problems in Iraq or Afghanistan, forcing combat leaders to take time away from their mission to advise soldiers about family matters.

 

That is a distraction, and there is the matter of the “weekend warriors” –

 

These extensions create enormous strain for reservists, 80,373 of whom are now on active duty. Unlike regular Army troops, who currently serve about a year in Iraq, reservists typically serve between 16 and 18 months away from their families – 12 months in Iraq and then four to six months for training and processing before and after their tours. Extending the combat-tour length for reservists will create tours close to two years.

 

The Pentagon’s plans also call for many reservists to be called up for a second or third time in as many years. This effectively rewrites the social contract of the reserves. During the 1980s and ’90s, soldiers joined the reserves on the understanding that they would train one weekend per month and deploy for either discrete missions or “the big one.” Over the last three years, the Pentagon has gradually transformed these part-time forces from a “strategic” into an “operational” reserve, meaning they can now expect to deploy one out of every five to six years, or more, depending on the situation.

 

So, guess what?  Many reservists are bailing out.  That just makes things worse –

 

Reserve units now frequently deploy to Iraq as composite units, victims of so many personnel exits and transfers that their soldiers often don’t even meet until they are called up to active duty. Consequently, the reserve units deploying to Iraq today are not as good as the units that went in 2003-04, and there are few reservists left to fight elsewhere should the need arise.

 

Carter is just not impressed with Senator McCain saying again and again that the only thing worse than a broken army is a defeated army –

 

… this puts the cart before the horse, because in this case, the breaking of America’s military will lead to defeat, both now and later. America cannot afford to send untrained, unready, or distracted troops into complex conflicts like Iraq and Afghanistan.

 

Sure, but what are you going to do?  Rumsfeld, when faced with some angry soldiers who wondered why they had to scavenge in Baghdad junkyards for anything they could find to up-amour their Humvees, famously said, “You got to war with the Army you have, no the one you’d like to have.” He didn’t add, “Until you have no Army at all.”  He just sarcastically told them to suck it up.

 

Maybe some of those soldiers heard echoes the movie the movie they took their kids to see long ago and a world away – “Some of you may die, but that is a sacrifice I am willing to make.”  Thanks a bunch, Lord Farquaad.

 

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan show no sign of ending any time soon – “The Petraeus plan will have U.S. forces deployed in Iraq for years to come. Does anybody running for president realize that?”

 

Now what?

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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