One of the more bizarre aspects of the Iraq war has been President Bush's repeated insistence that his generals tell him they have enough troops. Even more bizarrely, it may be true - I mean, that his generals tell him that they have enough troops, not that they actually have enough. An article in yesterday's Baltimore Sun explains why.
The article tells the tale of John Riggs, a former Army commander, who "publicly contradicted Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld by arguing that the Army was overstretched in Iraq and Afghanistan" - then abruptly found himself forced into retirement at a reduced rank, which normally only happens as a result of a major scandal.
The truth, of course, is that there aren't nearly enough troops. "Basically, we've got all the toys, but not enough boys," a Marine major in Anbar Province told The Los Angeles Times.
Yet it's also true, in a different sense, that we have too many troops in Iraq.
Back in September 2003 a report by the Congressional Budget Office concluded that the size of the U.S. force in Iraq would have to start shrinking rapidly in the spring of 2004 if the Army wanted to "maintain training and readiness levels, limit family separation and involuntary mobilization, and retain high-quality personnel."
Let me put that in plainer English: our all-volunteer military is based on an implicit promise that those who serve their country in times of danger will also be able to get on with their lives. Full-time soldiers expect to spend enough time at home base to keep their marriages alive and see their children growing up. Reservists expect to be called up infrequently enough, and for short enough tours of duty, that they can hold on to their civilian jobs.
To keep that promise, the Army has learned that it needs to follow certain rules, such as not deploying more than a third of the full-time forces overseas except during emergencies. The budget office analysis was based on those rules.
But the Bush administration, which was ready neither to look for a way out of Iraq nor to admit that staying there would require a much bigger army, simply threw out the rulebook. Regular soldiers are spending a lot more than a third of their time overseas, and many reservists are finding their civilian lives destroyed by repeated, long-term call-ups.
Two things make the burden of repeated deployments even harder to bear. One is the intensity of the conflict. In Slate, Phillip Carter and Owen West, who adjusted casualty figures to take account of force size and improvements in battlefield medicine (which allow more of the severely wounded to survive), concluded that "infantry duty in Iraq circa 2004 comes out just as intense as infantry duty in Vietnam circa 1966."
The other is the way in which the administration cuts corners when it comes to supporting the troops. From their foot-dragging on armoring Humvees to their apparent policy of denying long-term disability payments to as many of the wounded as possible, officials seem almost pathologically determined to nickel-and-dime those who put their lives on the line for their country.
Now, predictably, the supply of volunteers is drying up.
Most reporting has focused on the problems of recruiting, which has fallen far short of goals over the past few months. Serious as it is, however, the recruiting shortfall could be only a temporary problem. If and when we get out of Iraq - I know, a big if and a big when - it shouldn't be too hard to find enough volunteers to maintain the Army's manpower.
Much more serious, because it would be irreversible, would be a mass exodus of mid-career military professionals. "That's essentially how we broke the professional Army we took into Vietnam," one officer told the National Journal. "At some point, people decided they could no longer weather the back-to-back deployments."
And we're already seeing stories about how young officers, facing the prospect of repeated harrowing tours of duty in a war whose end is hard to imagine, are reconsidering whether they really want to stay in the military.
For a generation Americans have depended on a superb volunteer Army to keep us safe - both from our enemies, and from the prospect of a draft. What will we do once that Army is broken?
Originally published in The New York Times, 5.30.05