Although they seem to have faded out of the headlines and been put on the back burner by the politicians in the nation’s capital in recent weeks, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan grind on, whether we're paying attention or not.
This week, we had a new estimate that those wars ultimately may cost the American taxpayer a whopping $2.7 trillion, all of it added onto a national debt that already tops $9 trillion. That’s a tidy sum for a foreign adventure whose architects thought would be over in six months and mostly paid for by Iraqi oil revenues.
Also this week, the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Michael Mullen, hit the road to talk to the Army captains and majors who, along with the lieutenants, sergeants and enlisted soldiers, bear the brunt of repeated combat tours in the mountains of Afghanistan and the sands of Iraq.
The admiral got a real earful during stops at Ft. Leavenworth, Kans., and Ft. Sill, Okla., when he asked those line officers what was on their minds.
He told the officers that our military today has an incredible wealth of combat experience at their level after so many officers have pulled two, three and even four tours of hard duty, and that his job is to keep all that experience on duty in the years to come.
The captains and majors told their boss that a policy of repeated combat deployments for 15 months in the war zone with only 12 months, at best, back home simply isn't good enough. Many said the long absences are a threat to their marriages and family life, and that the divorce rate among junior officers is soaring.
Mullen told them he's working to balance things a little better so that after 15 months in combat they'd be guaranteed at least 15 months back home, but even so modest a goal would take time to implement in a force stretched as thin as this one is. Some responded that even that wasn’t good enough; that 24 or even 36 months at home is needed after a combat tour.
The Army reportedly has a shortage of 3,000 captains and majors this year, and recently began offering them bonuses of up to $35,000 if they'd agree to remain on duty for another three years. The shortage was forecast to rise to 6,000 by 2010 as the Army tries to grow by 65,000.
Even with the offer of the cash bonus or free graduate school or their choice of assignments, the exodus of young officers continues to grow at a pace that worries commanders. The U.S. Military Academy at West Point was founded to educate career officers for the Army, and upon graduation each officer owes Uncle Sam five years on active duty. The hope is that most will remain for a full career, and historically just 28.8 percent have opted out after five years.
A total of 35 percent of the West Point Class of 2000 left the Army in 2005; 46 percent of the Class of 2001 left in 2006, and a staggering 58 percent of the Class of 2002 left active duty when their obligation expired this year.
Those figures are mirrored among officers who are commissioned through university ROTC programs, with attrition rates now at a 30-year high. The Army Reserve reports that the situation is even worse for critical ranks and specialties: The Reserve has only 58 percent of the sergeants first class it needs, 53 percent of the needed captains and 74 percent of needed majors.
It's clear that we're grinding up our seed corn in Iraq and Afghanistan. For much too long, the administration and former defense secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld sought to fight their wars on the cheap, without adding desperately needed but expensive manpower to an Army that started with only 486,000 troops on active duty.
By the time the powers that be agreed to begin adding an additional 10,000 per year in a “temporary” increase, on top of the 80,000 it must enlist each year just to replace departing soldiers, getting young men and women to sign up had already become such a serious problem that the Army started paying enlistment bonuses of up to $20,000 for new recruits.
To make the numbers, the Army also has lowered its standards and begun accepting high school dropouts and offering waivers to sign up recruits with criminal records or physical problems and even some who scored in the lowest quarter on the armed services vocational aptitude test.
That's only made more trouble for those captains Adm. Mullen talked to this week. One complained to Mullen that he was forced to spend 80 percent of his time dealing with the 13 “problem children” in his 100-man company.
Mullen told the junior officers that his service dates back to the Vietnam War, and he remembers vividly how our military was broken at the end of that war, and how hard it was to repair the damage. He said he doesn’t want to see the current wars break the force again.
But that's precisely what is happening as troops, families and equipment are ground down by asking too much of too few. Just over half a percent of our 300 million citizens carry the entire burden and make all the sacrifices in an inexcusably unfinished war of necessity in Afghanistan and a costly war of choice in Iraq.
There seemingly is no relief in sight, even after George W. Bush leaves office on January 20, 2009, and that's bad news for our nation and a crying shame if you're wearing the uniform and serving it.