The Army, After Iraq
New York Times Editorial 3/18/2007
You do not have to look very hard these days to see the grave damage the Bush administration’s mismanagement of the Iraq conflict has inflicted on the United States Army. Consider the moral waivers for violent offenders, to meet recruitment targets. Or the rapid rotation of exhausted units back to the battlefield. Or the scandalous shortages of protective armor. Or the warnings from generals that there are not enough troops available to sustain increased force levels for more than a few months.
Adding 7,000 soldiers a year, as President Bush now proposes, will bring the Army’s overall strength to 547,000 by 2012. That will help, but not much, and not at all in Iraq. America’s all-volunteer military was simply never designed to be deployed as it has been for the past few years: unilaterally, indefinitely, and at peak strength in the middle of a raging civil war.
Exiting Iraq with America’s forces, credibility and regional interests intact is now, understandably, the nation’s most immediate concern. But in the process, crucial lessons need to be absorbed from this unnecessary, horribly botched and now unwinnable war.
The first lesson is the continued importance of ground soldiers in a world that defense planners predicted would be all about stealth, Star Wars, satellites and Special Operations forces sent on short-term missions. Now we know that enemies hunkered down in caves and urban slums can be as dangerous as those in defense ministry bunkers — and that rebuilding defeated nations is crucial to lasting security.
Beyond Iraq, the Army needs to move out of permanent crisis mode — with almost every available division deployed, just returned or preparing to be shipped out. It needs a force large enough to be able to devote time and resources to develop skills it is now chronically short of, and is sure to need in the post-Iraq future: soldiers and translators fluent in Arabic and other languages; military teams able to work with local populations in civic reconstruction, health and education projects; sergeants and officers who can help friendly governments train their own armies to provide security without relying on large numbers of American troops.
America needs to keep investing in military technology. But it needs to stop shortchanging ordinary soldiers. They cannot match the lobbying firepower of high-tech defense contractors, but our security depends on them. Congress needs to heed the lessons of Walter Reed, armor shortages and other scandals and make wiser budgetary trade-offs.
The volunteer military cannot be expanded at will. Nor does it need to be. When not abused as it has been for the past four years — but not the preceding 30 — it provides superior-quality troops and better morale, and is more consistent with the free-choice values of America’s market society.
As long as United States troops are in Iraq, meeting the recruiting quotas of an expanded force will be difficult. The multiple combat tours, the warehoused wounded, the deteriorating Iraqi security situation are a lot to overcome.
Once that is behind us, the Army can be increased substantially, and should be, so long as Congress can assure the country that it will never again delegate away its war powers as carelessly and recklessly as it did in 2002. And so long as the next president understands that the point of having a large Army is to strengthen American diplomacy, not to launch impulsive and unnecessary wars.
Simply legislating a bigger Army will not be enough. The administration and Congress need to offer a better deal — better training, better protective equipment and better family support — to the men and women the Army needs to recruit. And they need to offer soldiers a clear pledge: if the armed forces are asked to fight, it will be only as a last resort, after full and informed Congressional debate, and never just at the whim of a president.