On guard duty at a remote outpost one hot, moonlit night in Afghanistan, when a soft wind carried the scents of dust and wood smoke and cattle, a 34-year-old Army sergeant named Jesus told me he was recently divorced and felt his real home was with the two dozen men of his platoon. "A lot of us are here because society has no further use for us," he mused.
"The Army," he said, "has become home for a lot of restless souls looking for a way to self-meaning, to be selfless and do the job that many others won't." He paused to scan the dim horizon with his rifle scope and then added wistfully, "We can never really go home."
But career soldiers like Jesus, who over the past 10 years have sacrificed normal work and family life to master the arcane arts of war, may suddenly be hitting obsolescence. That was the cold message delivered by President Barack Obama at the Pentagon Thursday: The 2.5 million blue-collar workers of the military who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, the soldiers and Marines and Navy corpsmen -- the grunts, the "boots on the ground" -- are no longer needed.
In the conflicts of the future, the United States will require high-tech, agile, fast-moving, "lean and mean" forces, according to the new strategy that Obama introduced at a rare appearance in the Pentagon briefing room. "The tide of war is receding," he said. "We have the opportunity -- and the responsibility -- to look ahead to the force that we are going to need in the future."
According to the new strategy document and remarks from the president, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, those forces will have to be smaller and cheaper. After all, Obama said, "We have to renew our economic strength here at home."
Grunts are expensive. Pay and other personnel costs, which run about $154 billion this year, make up about one-quarter of the defense budget. And they'll be fast-acting budget cuts: Unlike trimming the multiyear contracts to build jet fighters and submarines, personnel cuts take effect immediately. Get rid of one soldier and his pay instantly stops. For that reason, presidents and Congress have almost always turned first to manpower when contemplating deep defense budget cuts.
It's been an enduring pattern: Americans fight one war, then gut the military, and are caught unprepared for the next one. "We always profess that we will never fight a protracted war on land again -- and we always do," said Robert H. Scales, a retired Army major general, former commandant of the U.S. Army War College, and military historian.
After World War I, the Army was cut by 75 percent and entered World War II with an active-duty strength of 269,000 troops. Hastily recruited soldiers, badly trained and poorly armed, were sent into battle and suffered heavy casualties in the 1943 Battle of Kasserine Pass in Tunisia.
During World War II, the Army built up to 8.2 million active-duty soldiers, but after the war was cut again, down to 593,000 in 1950. That July, President Harry Truman sent the first combat unit into Korea to stop the North Korean invasion. Task Force Smith, composed of just over 400 poorly trained men supplied with two days' rations and borrowed weapons, was virtually demolished. Within five days, more than half of them were dead or missing and the North Koreans were heading further south.
After Operation Desert Storm in 1991, the Army was again sharply reduced, from 780,000 soldiers to 480,000. Because so many professional soldiers wanted to stay in the service, the Army was forced to fire more than 25,000 officers.
Each time, senior officers have said, the Army lost the expertise of midlevel officers and senior sergeants that was badly needed when the force was eventually mobilized. Keeping hard-charging soldiers in a force that's again being cut and relegated to the sidelines will be difficult, a senior officer said privately.
"Every administration -- Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Nixon, Bush and Clinton -- they always say we'll never get involved in a big ground war again," said Scales. "The problem with that logic is that the decision is really based on the enemy's actions. Sure, we would prefer not to have a war, but our enemies will always choose to fight us on the land. They'll concede our advantage in the air and at sea and exploit our vulnerability on the ground."
Obama has read history. At the Pentagon Thursday, he promised that "we have to remember the lessons of history. We can't afford to repeat the mistakes that have been made in the past -- after World War II, after Vietnam -- when our military was left ill-prepared for the future. As commander in chief, I will not let that happen again. Not on my watch."
But in describing the new, improved-for-the-future military, Obama listed capabilities mostly provided by high-tech hardware: intelligence gathering, remote surveillance and reconnaissance, countering weapons of mass destruction, penetrating enemy-held territory with missiles or bombers, and counterterrorism operations by special forces. Those are not missions requiring grunts.
As the Army chief of staff, Gen. Ray Odierno, who fought for almost seven years in Iraq, scowled behind him, Obama declared "the end of long-term nation-building with large military footprints." Instead, Obama said, "we'll be able to ensure our security with smaller conventional ground forces."
How that will happen was not spelled out, either by Obama or the strategy document itself. And that left some analysts puzzled.
"Exactly how do we create smaller and cheaper forces that can be so flexible, ready, and deployable that they can fight and defeat any aggressor in any fight in every kind of war at once?" wondered Anthony Cordesman, the veteran defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
More important -- especially to grunts like Jesus -- Cordesman asked, "How do we maintain an all-volunteer force -- the willingness to stay in military careers for the years required to be fully effective -- and cut spending? What are the details of the human factors necessary to make such a strategy workable?"