WASHINGTON—The third rotation of American soldiers and Marines into Iraq is under way. The Pentagon is doing the old robbing-Peter-to-pay-Paul thing to boost total troop strength temporarily to 150,000 for the coming Iraq elections.
What that means is some outfits find themselves on their way back over after only nine months at home since their last combat tour. In other outfits where they were expected home for Christmas, the troops instead got a two-month extension on top of their "standard" 12-month combat tour.
This time around, about 50 percent of the troops going in will be Army Reserve and National Guard soldiers. The burden just gets heavier and heavier, and the Reserve commander has warned his superiors that his force is being broken by poorly thought-out Pentagon policies and overuse.
The Army's response was to propose a change of policy to allow the reserve troops to be called up for 24 months instead of 18 months, and more frequently.
Meanwhile, senior Army leaders say they are thinking of going to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld with a request that a temporary three-year increase in regular Army strength of 30,000 be made permanent at a cost of $4 billion a year. That would make permanent Army strength 515,000.
In other news the Army is inviting retired officers and soldiers to volunteer to return to active duty. They picked up 4,000 of them last year and hope to lure back 5,000 volunteers this year. Others will be swept back on duty involuntarily by levies on the pool of inactive reserves—people who have finished their four-year enlistments but are subject to recall anytime in the four years after they go home. Some of them forgot to read that fine print and have been surprised by the interruption of their new civilian lives.
The Army is beefing up the Recruiting Command with 2,000 more recruiters because they are finding it increasingly difficult to get high schoolers, and their parents, to listen to the pitch, given the casualty rates in Iraq. Re-enlistment and enlistment bonuses are headed much higher in an effort to patch things up.
Reserve and Guard re-enlistment rates are heading south. The number of active-duty soldiers transitioning to Reserve or Guard slots is plummeting. This is the inevitable price of trying to do a 300,000-soldier job with 138,000 soldiers. It is the inevitable result of rosy expectations on the part of President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary Rumsfeld of what awaited us after winning the three-week military victory in Iraq. It is precisely what was predicted in this column more than a year ago under the headline "How to Destroy a Great Army."
There are those who say the Army is already broken. Others say the stress cracks will finally widen into open fractures on the fourth Iraq rotation next fall. Either way, both schools of thought are in agreement that, once broken, the process of repairing the institutional damage could take a decade, just as it did in the bleak years after we pulled out of Vietnam.
Lest you think there is no good news whatsoever, let me hasten to tell you that this Army, like the one that was broken in Vietnam, contains within its ranks the NCOs and junior officers who will eventually repair the damage done by arrogant civilian leadership.
In Iraq and Afghanistan the innovation and good tactical thinking is being demonstrated at the lowest levels, by platoon leaders—young second lieutenants just out of ROTC or Officer Candidate School or West Point. They and their platoon sergeants and the young soldiers they lead have been given responsibility far beyond their years or training.
They are being asked to be diplomats, civil engineers, even politicians in a hostile and dangerous environment and they are finding ways to make their own piece of ground a bit better and safer for the Iraqis who live there and for themselves.
Now the question is how do we keep enough of the good ones in the Army over the long haul so they will be there when the time comes to repair and rebuild from within. When the Army collapsed, post-Vietnam, many promising young officers fled the turmoil. But others, like Gulf War heroes Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf and Gen. Barry McCaffrey and Gen. Fred Franks to name just a few, stuck to their guns—confident that the Army they loved could be saved.
That time will come again, when the authors of the present disaster are gone. When it does the Army will find what it needs to fix itself within its ranks.
It always has and always will.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Joseph L. Galloway is the senior military correspondent for Knight Ridder Newspapers and co-author of the national best-seller "We Were Soldiers Once ... and Young