An upcoming decision on whether to begin drawing down U.S. troops in Iraq sets the stage for yet another round of inside-the-Beltway wrangling on the burdens this war is piling on the armed services.
At issue is the long-term impact the war will have on the Army, particularly, and whether the demanding troop-rotation schedules are draining the service to the breaking point.
In this debate, the vantage points are as diametrically opposed as they can be. On each flank are seemingly irreconcilable views of what the Army is today — a “thin” green line that could buckle any day, or a “solid” green line that has not been this strong since the dark post-Vietnam days.
As often is the case in a politically charged polarizing polemic, the truth probably is somewhere in between.
By all accounts, the Army today is showing a determination to complete its job in Iraq, and to finally silence those critics who persistently have accused the service of resisting change and holding on to its Cold War grandeur.
To its credit, the Army has, in a relatively short four years, begun to come to grips with the ugliness and the indignities of fighting in cities — after many of its top leaders acknowledged that their forces had not been trained or equipped for counterinsurgency guerilla warfare before the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
“It amazes me how well the Army has held together in spite of these incredible stresses,” says retired Army Maj. Gen. Robert H. Scales. The Army’s ability to keep up with the troop commitments required in Iraq, says Scales, is “not due to any great set of policies. It’s due principally to the enormous resilience of the American soldiers.”
But serious questions remain about how long this can last. Or whether the unpopularity of the war eventually will make it politically too costly for the administration and Congress to continue to pour the enormous sums of money required not just to keep the troops there but also to pay for the expanded array of financial incentives now needed to retain and recruit soldiers and Marines.
The nation has to fear that the Army eventually will break, says former Defense Secretary William J. Perry. “We believe that the Bush administration has broken faith with the American soldier and Marine — by failing to plan adequately for post-conflict operations in Iraq, by failing to send enough forces to accomplish that mission at an acceptable level of risk, and by failing to adequately equip and protect the young Americans they sent into harm’s way,” Perry writes in a study he co-authored with other former government officials and military experts.
“These failures have created a real risk of ‘breaking the force,’” Perry concludes.
Another widely circulated study — commissioned by the Defense Department — reached a similar verdict. The frequent deployments eventually will burn out the force, and the Army gradually will become a “thin green line,” argues Andrew Krepinevich of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. In 2005, the Army was 6,700 recruits short of its goal, which is the largest deficit the service has seen since 1979, he notes. And although retention rates remain high in the active-duty force, “there are storm clouds on the horizon,” mostly because of the strain that repeated deployments and the climbing number of casualties are placing on military families.
Scales contends that it’s premature to make bold predictions about the war’s long-term effects on soldiers, which he describes as a potential “third tour syndrome.” The Army lacks enough experience or data that offer any clues on how repeated deployments affect morale, retention or recruiting. “In my generation, I don’t know anyone who voluntarily decided to take a third tour in Vietnam,” says Scales. “And yet we have soldiers now who are on their third tour.”
Army officials, for their part, are voicing frustration about what they claim is a media bias toward gloom-and-doom.
“The punditry talks about a ‘thin green line’ and a ‘broken Army,’” carps Gen. Richard A. Cody, Army vice chief of staff. “Our commanders call it a ‘solid green line.’”
Also visibly frustrated by the ballyhoo surrounding this issue is Gen. William S. Wallace, head of the Army Training and Doctrine Command. “This Army is not broken,” he says. “When I joined the Army in 1969, that was a broken Army. Anyone who thinks this army is broken is full of crap.”
Wallace dismisses reports such as Perry’s or Krepinevich’s as “fatally flawed.” These experts, he insists, “don’t talk to the right people and don’t have the right perspective.”
The fiery animosity that pervades this debate brings to mind those pre-9/11 spats between the administration and Congress about the Army being “overcommitted” in peacekeeping missions around the world. For the Army, it brings truth to the notion that reality is a question of perspective. Things actually could get worse, as evidenced by the chaos in Iraq, the prospect of a standoff with Iran and the repeated warnings by administration officials that we are in a “long war” with no end in sight.
Even if U.S. troops leave Iraq next year, the Army hardly will be out of the woods. The “long war” — a euphemism for manpower-intensive guerilla warfare — will demand that the Army continue to support grueling rotations.
Next year, the Army expects to unveil a new troop-scheduling system known as the “Army force generation model.” The idea is to develop predictable rotation schedules so that active-duty units only will deploy one year out of three, and Reserve and Guard only one year out of six. That sounds like welcome relief to soldiers who already have been to Iraq three times in four years. But it may not be enough, despite the Army’s highly optimistic forecasts.