Opinion

Army is broken and in need of repair

WASHINGTON—"Armies are fragile institutions and, for all their might, easily broken."

Remember those words? They were written here, in this column, at the end of September 2003. I laid out the recipe for how to break a magnificent Army that had taken nearly two decades to rebuild itself in the wake of the Vietnam debacle.

In that early fall two years ago, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld was still running victory laps and the words of his boss, President George W. Bush, were still ringing: "Bring `em on!"

Sadly, those two were, and still are, in charge.

Now they've broken the Army, and after this administration is history, it will take 12 or 15 or 20 years to repair the damage it's inflicted on an institution that our country desperately needs in a century as dangerous as this one.

Both political parties, though, have failed the American voter by offering up candidates for high office who, in simpler times, would barely have qualified for tar and feathers and rides out of town.

How can I say this about the Army when just a week ago, at the Association of the U.S. Army convention, Secretary of the Army Francis J. Harvey and a veritable galaxy of stars were declaring, under orders, that everything in the Army was just fine; better than good; never better.

I say this because we don't jump when Mr. Rumsfeld yells frog, and I look at the evidence that accumulates day by day. I hear this from other generals, active and retired: The U.S. Army is utterly broken and in need of immediate repair.

It's not just recruitment, although that's bad enough this year and looks as if it will be a great deal worse in fiscal 2006. The Army fell more than 7,000 bodies short of recruiting the number of soldiers it needs this year. Some say that shortfall will become 15,000 or 20,000 during the next 12 months, even though the Army hopes to throw lots of money at the problem.

If Congress approves, the Army plans to double its $20,000 enlistment bonus for trigger-pullers to $40,000. And if a young enlistee further agrees to be sent to one of the divisions bound for Iraq or Afghanistan in the next rotation, he'll get an extra pay raise of $400 a month for 36 months.

Has it come to that? Must we now acknowledge that the only way we can attract young Americans to protect and defend us is to buy them? The Army has already relaxed its once-sacred standards so that twice as many recruits who score in the lowest category on mental aptitude tests can enlist, along with many more high school dropouts and other borderline candidates.

Now Secretary Harvey has laid out how, without increasing the Army's strength, he'll beef up what he calls "the operational Army," the Army that kills people and blows things up, without increasing the long-term permanent strength of the Army by even one soldier above the hopelessly low total of 482,400.

It's a brilliant capitalist stroke worthy of a cold-blooded CEO. We'll hire civilians who like to be paid low civil service wages to replace military people who treat and nurse the wounded coming home from Iraq; replace those who handle payroll issues for other soldiers; replace those who do a thousand crappy jobs well because they know that what they do is important to other soldiers. Then we can ship the "savings" off to Iraq or some other pre-emptive war.

Another part of the plan calls for shutting down some of the Army schoolhouses and shifting more than 11,000 of those who educate and train soldiers to more lethal jobs. It seems somewhat counterintuitive to reduce training at the same time that we begin to fill the ranks with the less intelligent, less fortunate or just plain unlucky who walk the streets of the black and Hispanic ghettos and people from the hills and hollows of Appalachia.

If contracting out Army work to the private sector—the Halliburtons and Blackwaters—works so blessed well, why then don't we contract out our national defense in its entirety to the bottom-line guys?

No doubt the private sector would be happy to bid on our wars and fight them for cost plus 20 percent. They could hire all the military people put out of work when we close down the Army and Marine Corps and Navy and Air Force. We could put in a penalty clause if they lose the war.

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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

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