War Stories

The Reserve Mutiny

How the Iraq war is crippling the Army Reserve.

First reports are always wrong, or so the military maxim goes. The initial dispatches from Iraq said that a platoon from the Army Reserve’s 343rd Quartermaster Company had committed something close to mutiny in the desert by refusing to deliver supplies in combat. Subsequent reports indicate the unit may have objected to the mission for more tangible reasons than simply fear: Its vehicles were in sorry shape, and it lacked the firepower to survive the mission. Still, the incident has raised alarm from Baghdad to Washington, because such mass disobedience is nearly unheard of in today’s all-volunteer U.S. military.

But the U.S. military hasn’t always been so free from insubordination. During World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War, conscript-based units did precisely what the soldiers of the 343rd allegedly did. The military held 2 million courts-martial in a force of 16 million during World War II, with similar disobedient behavior occupying a significant part of the docket. The similarities between insubordination in past wars and the behavior of the 343rd raise the question: Is there any difference between today’s reserve units and the draftee forces of years gone by?

Although American active-duty forces have been driven hard for the past three years in Iraq and Afghanistan, they have also benefited from that combat service. Soldier for soldier, today’s combat-hardened force is the best military in the world, largely because of its recent duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. The professional active-duty force of today still represents the best argument for why we do not want to resume the draft:A conscript-based force simply can’t achieve the skill, unit cohesion, or professionalism of today’s active military.

But America’s weekend warriors are a different story. The reserves are increasingly taking over the Iraq and Afghanistan missions because of the strain on the active forces. Nearly 400,000 reservists have been mobilized since Sept. 11, 2001, with 158,000 Army and Marine Corps reservists serving on active duty now. The Army has been stretched so thin that it has had to mobilize 5,600 members of its Individual Ready Reserve to fill out its ranks.

The reservists closely resemble the draftees of days gone by. Reservists train for one weekend a month and two weeks in the summer: Thirty-nine days a year is hardly enough to build true tactical competence on the complex tasks of warfighting. Soldiers in logistics units like the 343rd learn how to drive their big rigs and maintain them, but they hardly have time to practice convoy defense or route reconnaissance. The lack of training time is compounded by other resource problems in the reserves. Many reserve leaders don’t have significant active-duty experience, so they lack the expertise necessary to train their units on these important missions. Reserve equipment—particularly in the National Guard—suffers from decades of neglect. It is not uncommon for reservists and National Guardsmen to drive vehicles that are older than they are.

When the Army created its “total force concept”—the mix of active and reserve forces it has today—after the Vietnam War, it allocated combat units mostly to the active force, while support and logistics units were put in the reserves. The Army assumed it didn’t need highly trained truck drivers on active duty as badly as it needed infantrymen, tankers, and aviators on active duty. The problem with this model in Iraq is that truck drivers are front-line soldiers: A supply convoy driving up the Main Supply Route from Baghdad to Fallujah is as likely to see action as an infantry patrol, if not more so because the insurgents know the convoy is an easier target. Thus, the soldiers in harm’s way the most are in many ways the least prepared.

Mass conscription was invented in 1793 by the French Committee of Public Safety *which dubbed it the leveé en masse—as a way of mobilizing an entire nation for war, in order to field the largest army possible. The advent of the draft in the late 18th century brought with it a new, attrition-based model of warfare, with carnage on a scale never before seen. The essential strategy of “second generation warfare,” as some theorists today call this French model, was to throw as many men and machines as possible into the war effort and to exact the highest price possible from your opponent. Good training and equipment might help some troops survive, but in the larger picture it was irrelevant to national success. What mattered was sheer volume. In many ways, the U.S. victory in World War II represented the apotheosis of this warfighting model, for the Allies defeated the Axis not because of strategic acumen, but because of our ability to churn out divisions of men and materiel while simultaneously destroying the war industries of the Axis with airpower.

One of the Pentagon’s best arguments for rejecting the draft was that it wanted to move away from this style of warfare, where whole divisions of conscripts were thrown into the meat grinder of combat. Today’s all-volunteer U.S. military fights differently. Instead of employing pure mass, it uses skill and maneuver and technology to fight, such that it won’t have to suffer needless casualties, or even inflict them. Because of this, today’s professional force has helped minimize one of the great moral dilemmas of war.

But the unfortunate truth is that today’s Guard and reserve units are being thrown into the fight in ways similar to conscript-based units of past generations. Reservists today get mobilized, trained on the most basic tasks of war, and then shipped to Iraq in a matter of weeks. Today, just as in World War II and Korea, we are throwing unprepared units into battle with the hope that they survive and gel as a team in the ultimate Darwinian environment. The reservists in Iraq lack the training, equipment, leadership, and resources to do their job. And their morale proves it; surveys conducted under the Army’s auspices last year showed a marked difference between the attitudes of active-duty soldiers and Marines, and of reservists like those in the 343rd.

There remain a number of salient differences between today’s soldiers and the draftees of the World War II and Vietnam generations. Unlike conscripts, today’s reservists are volunteers, and they have gone through the rigors of boot camp. But from an operational perspective, some of those differences have been slowly ground away by the exigencies of the mission in Iraq. Consequently, reservists today are acting in ways that look startlingly like conscripts of yesterday. The reservists in the 343rd made a conscious choice between the risk of court-martial and the risk of a combat mission, based on their gut feelings about their equipment, training, leadership, and likelihood of survival. Professional soldiers face such risks every day, and yet they persevere because they have faith in their units, leaders, training, and equipment. The reservists of the 343rd Quartermaster Company appear to have run out of faith, perhaps because the Army—which treated them as disposable—never gave them enough reason to have it.

Correction, Oct. 19, 2004:This piece originally stated that Napoleon invented the “leveé en masse.” In fact, the Committee of Public Safetyinvented it; Napoleon is credited with using the leveé en masse to revolutionize warfare.(Return to corrected sentence.)