October 1, 2009  

Too few

Thanks, Mr. Secretary, but don’t stop now!

There’s a Bill Mauldin cartoon from World War II that shows two exhausted, bearded infantrymen slouched over on their feet along a road while one nearby officer asks another: “How ya gonna find out if they’re fresh troops if ya don’t wake ’em up an’ ask ’em?”

Thanks to good leadership and management, the Army’s not quite to the Willie-and-Joe stage yet, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ July approval of a 22,000-person increase in Army strength is a common-sense acknowledgement that lower- and midranked infantrymen and other combat soldiers need some relief, since the impact of repeated rotations to combat zones falls hardest on the troops in the ranks. Increased accessions should begin easing the strain within the year, certainly by 2011.

At a time when we’re throwing billions at banks and car companies, though, the U.S. continues to be strangely parsimonious with its Army. At the end of the Vietnam War, the Army mustered 1.5 million soldiers in the active force; subsequent reductions and “peace dividends” brought it down to 480,000 at the beginning of the “war on terror.” Today, after grudgingly increasing manpower through eight years of war, the service will be allowed to grow to 569,000 in the active force, with another 550,000 Reserve and National Guard troops — and it’s still not enough. Career soldiers and reservists alike still will face repeated combat tours at a rate that would have staggered the Cold War force. They are the ones paying the price for pinching Defense Department pennies.

For most of our history, the Army was expected to expand and contract at need. It’s only a memory now, but commissioned officers used to carry two ranks — their permanent grade and a mobilized rank in the Army of the United States (AUS), so that the officer corps could be expanded quickly. Old-timers will remember that not a few NCOs also held commissioned rank in the Reserve or AUS; more than one company commander saw his first sergeant retire as a major or lieutenant colonel.

There were drawbacks. The mobilization army was not nearly as professionally skilled as the Army today, and the seesaw demobilization periods almost always found us paying a terrible price for a lack of preparedness when the next war came, as in the case of Task Force Smith in the Korean summer of 1950. And a professional army is more highly disciplined and more durable; it would have been difficult to fight prolonged wars in Afghanistan and Iraq with draftees.

But the mobilization Army also had some advantages, one being that it was tremendously, strategically versatile. With the advantage of a huge manpower pool, the active Army and its reserve components could not only field conventional fighting forces, but could experiment with different kinds of combat and support formations, staff far-flung headquarters and logistics units, provide advisers to allies and technicians to countries around the world and do a hundred other tasks that U.S. strategy required. The current force is versatile too, but combinations of tight budgets, the high cost of the professional force and concomitant personnel ceilings necessarily make Army leaders chary of wasting people — not to mention fighting two wars and meeting all the other “peacetime” commitments that have not gone away.

So with the perspective of 40 years’ hindsight, the Army today is at once much more highly professional than at any time in its history, though it seems oddly less versatile than the drafted force the U.S. sent to Vietnam. Its current attempts to put everything under a “brigade” flag seem oddly reduced, somehow, from an Army that once deployed field armies and army groups, and assistance commands around the world.

At any rate, the latest increment of approved manpower will provide some relief to the troops who are carrying the nation’s wars — plural — in their rucksacks. Even with the increase, though, the combat force is still looking at just over a year at home between rotations to a combat zone. Drawdowns in Iraq will provide no relief while we ramp up in Afghanistan, and who can guarantee peace after these wars have wound down? We may never again see 1.5 million active-duty soldiers under arms, but in the world today and for the foreseeable future, 569,000 in the regular force is still too few. AFJ

BOB KILLEBREW is a retired Army infantryman who writes on defense issues