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The Price of Pushing Our Troops Too Far

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When I was on active duty in the military, an Army friend used to remind me: “Any day you’re not being shot at is a good Army day.” Today’s troops, especially if they’re “boots on the ground” in Iraq and Afghanistan, don’t have enough good Army days. Many of them are on their fourth or fifth deployments to a combat zone. They’re stressed out and tired; they miss their spouses and families. And often they’ve seen things they wish they’d never seen.

But you’d hardly have known this listening to the debate over President Obama’s decision to escalate yet again in Afghanistan. Its tone was remarkably antiseptic. I can’t help recalling old wargames I played as a kid in which deploying infantry brigades to faraway places was as simple as picking up a few cardboard counters, tossing the dice, and pinning my troops to a new spot on the map. No gore splattered on my face when I rolled snake eyes after pushing my grunts too far into the Fulda Gap while playing MechWar ‘77.

As we roll the dice again in Central Asia, it’s clear that we’re pushing our Army and Marines too far. Naturally, our troops, notably the brass, will deny this. For them, it’s “Army Strong” or “Semper Fi”; only losers whine or bellyache. Well, we Americans need to recognize the limits on our troops, even if they refuse to do so.

So let me be blunt: We’re wearing them out.

Our “Wasted” Troops

Quietly, almost imperceptibly, our Army is hollowing out. Such is the predictable result of eight years of ceaseless deployments in support of ill-advised wars. Remarkably, the Army has, so far, managed to maintain its combat effectiveness, in part by its recourse to a “Stop Loss” policy -- essentially a backdoor draft (only recently curtailed by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates) that involuntarily extended the enlistments of 60,000 troops. It has also relied heavily on the use and reuse of the Reserves and the National Guard. Governor Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania noted last month on Meet the Press that “our troops are tired and worn out. [With respect to the] Pennsylvania National Guard, most of our guardsmen have been to either Iraq [or] Afghanistan, over 85 percent, and many of them have gone three or four times and they’re wasted.”

Signs of severe strain, of being “wasted,” are often not visible to the American public. Nevertheless, they are ominous and growing. Suicides have hit record highs in the Army. Cases of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and depression, having reached an alarming 300,000 in 2008, according to Invisible Wounds of War, a RAND study, continue to escalate, constituting a mental health crisis for the Army. Traumatic brain injuries from IEDs and other explosive shocks in our war zones, difficult to diagnose and even more difficult to treat, may already exceed 300,000, another health crisis exacerbated by a lack of treatment available to veterans. Divorce rates among active duty troops continue to climb. An epidemic of domestic violence and crime has been linked to returning veterans and to the difficulty of readjusting to “normal” life after months, or years, in combat zones. These are just five of the better documented signs of an Army that’s struggling to cope with wars of unprecedented length and still uncertain outcomes.

To maintain its force structure, given these kinds of symptomatic pressures, the Army has taken several questionable steps. It has boosted the maximum age of enlistment from age 35 to age 42 at a time when its operational tempo is burning out far younger men and women. It has authorized enlistment bonuses of up to $40,000 for new soldiers, and reenlistment bonuses to select soldiers, also for up to $40,000. As the Army attempts to entice enlistees with big-money bonuses and benefits, it’s also accepting more recruits who lack high school diplomas; the rate of new recruits with high school diplomas declined to 71% in 2008, a 25-year low. Counterinsurgency (COIN) campaigns -- the sort of wars promoted by Centcom commander General David Petraeus and Afghan War commander General Stanley McChrystal -- theoretically demand restraint, tact, and flexibility exercised at the squad level by so-called strategic corporals. What’s the likelihood that enough of today’s recruits will develop the sophistication, the so-called “soft” yet decidedly hard-won “people skills” they need to succeed as strategic corporals?

Within the officer ranks, the Army has been boosting the success rate of those promoted to major (a point at which weaker officers are typically winnowed out) to better than 95%. In the past, it hovered around 80%. As Colonel Paul Aswell, chief of the Army’s Officer Personnel Policy Division notes, “Every [Army promotion] board is going to select every officer that they can to [the rank of] major for as far as I can see right now.”

Because so many seasoned but stressed-out captains are choosing to leave the Army after their initial service commitment is up, the selection rate for major will likely remain above 90% for years to come. “[W]e really don’t think that’s healthy,” concludes Aswell. Plans to add 65,000 new recruits to the Army over the next few years only exacerbate the problem; an expanded Army necessitates even more field-grade billets. Many of these new billets are likely to remain vacant, since it takes 10 years to develop the “Iron Majors,” who, along with mid-level NCOs, form the core of the Army.

Instead of a stable pyramid, then, think of an expanded yet still exhausted service taking on a more unstable, hourglass shape: heavy at the top with long-serving colonels and generals, heavy at the bottom with “green” privates and lieutenants, but corseted at its essential core due to shortages of experienced platoon sergeants and battle-hardened company and battalion commanders.

In the military, leaders are supposed to be promoted based on demonstrated potential to fulfill the expanded responsibilities inherent in a higher grade, but here the Army is trapped in a Catch-22 situation: It has to promote virtually every eligible captain to major (and quickly) precisely because so many captains are leaving the military.

Whether at the company or field-grade level, the simple fact is that the Army is bleeding experienced officers. Ever larger numbers of promising lieutenant colonels, for instance, are now taking earlier-than-expected retirements, opening further “must-fill” rungs on the promotion ladder. I know of two highly qualified Army lieutenant colonels who, as outstanding battalion commanders, could easily have reached colonel and might perhaps even have ended up with a general’s star. Tired of repeat deployments, constant stress, and extraordinary burdens placed on their spouses and children, they chose instead to retire from active duty.

As we bleed experienced officers and promote marginally qualified ones almost automatically, it’s sobering to consider another modern drain on the military -- the vast pay disparities that exist between those serving in the All Volunteer Army and civilian contractors often operating beside them in the same combat zone. Whereas an unmarried Army sergeant makes roughly $85 a day and a married captain roughly double that, a “protective security specialist” employed by Blackwater (now Xe) makes 14 times the pay of our sergeant. Of course, no one joins the Army to get rich, but such dramatic inequities are hardly conducive either to high morale or to retaining experienced military specialists who know they can sell their skills at top value elsewhere.

Indeed, the Army (and so the American taxpayer) is being forced to compete with Xe, Triple Canopy, DynCorp International, and similar private security outfits for the services of experienced non-commissioned officers (NCOs). Even a reenlistment bonus of $40,000 for a staff sergeant with interpreter/translator experience may be unpersuasive when such an NCO could double or triple his take-home pay -- and perhaps decrease his stress level as well -- by hiring on with a paramilitary contractor.

So what, you may ask? Well, despite what Napoleon said, an Army doesn’t march on its stomach. It marches because experienced NCOs boot it in the butt and get it moving in the right direction. NCOs are the backbone of any effective army. Lose too many and you’re done for.

“Decades More” of Dread and Death

It’s this under-compensated, over-stressed Army that we’re sending into Afghanistan to accomplish what could only be termed a herculean task. It’s not only supposed to defeat the Taliban insurgency by force of arms -- something its troops are, at least, trained for -- but build a nation by negotiating a complex “human terrain.” That’s Army jargon for the reality that roughly 80% of so-called nation-building operations basically add up to armed social work. Simultaneously, our troops are being tasked with training an Afghan army that, despite years of effort, exists more on paper than in the field.

By all appearances, that Afghan army is hollow. Making it solid and reliable in a few short years is truly a bridge too far for our trainers.

And if that’s an overly imposing task, no less imposing are the literal mountains of Afghanistan. One can hardly overstate the mind-numbing fatigue suffered by troops fighting at high altitude. Our soldiers typically carry nearly 100 pounds of equipment, including body armor, weaponry, helmet, ammunition, water, radio, extra batteries, night vision goggles, GPS receiver -- the list goes on. Now, think of hauling yourself and 100 pounds of gear up goat paths at altitudes exceeding 10,000 feet. Think about fighting a lightly-armed, lightly dressed, fleet-footed enemy with better knowledge of the harsh terrain, and with physiologies acclimated to the thinner, drier air.

I asked an Army battalion commander to put the plight of our troops and the challenge of COIN in terms the average American could understand. His reply was sobering:

Dread is the term most soldiers apply to their emotions in the six months leading to deployment. Not dread of the enemy, but dread of the prison-like conditions of their service [overseas]. There are no leave breaks in Paris or at the canteen. Even coming home for mid-tour leave is stressful as hell.

Then of course you add the mental grind of constant exposure to [the] lethal threat of roadside bombs and sniper fire and hotter engagements. Or the converse that many times absolutely nothing happens for these soldiers other than traveling to, securing, and returning from endless marginally productive meetings with local leaders. [Add to that] the separation from family, the enforced celibacy and enforced sobriety and uncorrectable disruption of social lives.

Imagine working without a break in your current job with no weekends… no social events, no wife, no bars, no permanent buildings, no funding. That’s what the grind is… Putting up with those conditions and heading out the gate every day… and grinding away at those armed social-working tasks is the new criterion of valor.

The cost of winning an insurgency is staying at it for years, decades. In a fundamentally flawed operating environment like Afghanistan, we could be there at or above our current level of commitment for decades more.

Decades more: So much for an 18-month timeline for our latest Afghan surge and withdrawal.

The Horrifying Legacies of War

By sending up to 35,000 more troops to Afghanistan, we’re further stressing a military that, if not entirely “wasted,” is nevertheless showing serious signs of strain. This shouldn’t be surprising. Our Army, after all, isn’t made up of rootless, robotic “universal soldiers,” but men and women who are deeply rooted within our communities. Indeed, that very rootedness may help explain their remarkable staying power over the last eight years. Sooner or later, however, such roots will be cut if we continue to send them on lost causes.

Consider our latest “surge”: What will happen to our Army if its augmented presence only alienates Afghans further? What if it ends up strengthening Taliban recruitment efforts and prolonging the war instead of shortening it? What if our enemies simply choose to wait us out? Are we truly prepared to stay for a decade, or even decades, more?

Prolonging a stalemated war will, in fact, only mean more hurt for both Afghans and Americans. The hurt to Afghans will undoubtedly be worse, for their homes are the battlefield, but our own hurt shouldn’t be underestimated. More broken bodies and shattered minds. More echoes of the horrifying violence that accompanies war.

To paraphrase William Faulkner on history’s relationship to the past: Even when war is officially declared over, it’s not dead. It’s not even past. The horrors of war endure in the hearts and minds of the people who experience them, and they dwell, to some degree, in the collective consciousness of us all.

Are we willing, then, to sit and watch as our military strives to endure what may ultimately prove unendurable? Do we really want to risk returning to the hollow army of the mid-1970s, reeling from defeat in Vietnam, that judged the American public numb to its service and sacrifices?

What if, upon returning to the American “homeland,” whether in 2012 or 2052, an exhausted, embittered, and demoralized army again judges us and finds us even more wanting? What if, as in the 1970s, some alienated soldiers come to see the public as treacherous backstabbers, with all the potential dangers that entails?

As we embrace policies and strategies that erode our army, we risk more than a weakened military; we risk breeding resentments and recriminations that could lead to a future domestic surge of militant nationalism of our very own, conceivably imperiling the foundations of our democracy.

And that’s a peril -- and a price -- too terrible to contemplate.

William J. Astore is a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF). He taught cadets at the Air Force Academy, officers at the Naval Postgraduate School, and applauded thousands of troops as they crossed the stage to graduate from the Defense Language Institute. A TomDispatch regular, he currently teaches history at the Pennsylvania College of Technology. He may be reached at wastore@pct.edu.

Copyright 2009 William Astore

Cross-posted with TomDispatch.com.