War Stories

Broken Arrow

How the U.S. Army broke in Iraq.

The U.S. Army broke in the 1970s in the wake of the Vietnam War and the end of the draft. But if you ask officers who served during that period, few will recall the sounds of creaking planks, snapping beams, or rupturing buildings as the institution disintegrated. Instead, the crumbling occurred over time, becoming apparent only decades later.

Today’s Army is stretched past its breaking point by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The sounds of its collapse may be faint enough for policymakers in Washington to ignore, but they are there. An exodus of junior and midlevel personnel illustrates the crisis. Their exit has forced the Army to apply tourniquets like “stop loss” to halt the hemorrhaging, and it has also dropped its standards for recruiting and retention.

Four years into the war, the Army still has too few troops to persevere in Iraq and Afghanistan and too few deployed in each place to win. To surge its forces in Iraq, the Army has dipped deep into its well, returning units back to combat after less than a year at home, leaving many with little time to train incoming soldiers and come together as a team.

Of all the signs of breakage, perhaps the most acute is the decision to redeploy Army brigades to Iraq sooner and for longer tours in combat. The entire active-duty force is either deployed, set to deploy soon, or within one year of coming home from Iraq or Afghanistan. Short of conscripting millions of Americans to rapidly build a larger military, contracting out for a larger force, or mobilizing the entire reserves at once, military leaders say they have no other choice—to surge in Iraq, they must reduce the time soldiers spend at home between deployments and lengthen their combat tours from 12 to 16 or 18 months. But sending troops to Iraq after such a short time to reorganize, refit, and retrain is a recipe for disaster.

The combat-stress literature suggests there’s a finite limit to the amount of time that men and women can withstand combat. British historian Richard Holmes pegged this figure at approximately 60 days of sustained combat. In Iraq, we often wondered what our finite limit was, given the stresses of our advisory mission and the frequent attacks on our compound in downtown Baqubah. You can drink only so much chai with Iraqi leaders, and hit so many improvised explosive devices, before you burn out and need to go home. The soldiers and Marines fighting high-intensity operations in Ramadi probably had a different limit than my team, as did the troops assigned to staff duty in the International Zone or on major forward-operating bases.

To a senior Pentagon official studying a set of PowerPoint slides in the Pentagon, the question may seem academic. But to men under fire, it is anything but. Keeping units in combat for longer than a 12-month tour may push many troops past their breaking point, endangering both their lives and the mission.

Today’s Army and Marine Corps is more family-oriented than other forces fielded recently by the United States. My deployment affected my family far more than me. I knew when I was safe and when I was in harm’s way; families can only guess, piecing together what they get from CNN and sporadic e-mails from their loved ones. Extending soldiers’ tours crushes the hopes of their families, who pin so much on a fixed return date. Soldiers have always received “Dear John” letters, but it’s different now, because so many troops have spouses and children—and because today’s troops are getting “Dear John” e-mails and phone calls in real time. Extending these tours creates enormous strain for military families. And shortening these families’ time together between deployments all but guarantees family issues on the next rotation. Problems at home quickly become problems in Iraq or Afghanistan, forcing combat leaders to take time away from their mission to advise soldiers about family matters.

These extensions create enormous strain for reservists, 80,373 of whom are now on active duty. Unlike regular Army troops, who currently serve about a year in Iraq, reservists typically serve between 16 and 18 months away from their families—12 months in Iraq and then four to six months for training and processing before and after their tours. Extending the combat-tour length for reservists will create tours close to two years.

The Pentagon’s plans also call for many reservists to be called up for a second or third time in as many years. This effectively rewrites the social contract of the reserves. During the 1980s and ‘90s, soldiers joined the reserves on the understanding that they would train one weekend per month and deploy for either discrete missions or “the big one.” Over the last three years, the Pentagon has gradually transformed these part-time forces from a “strategic” into an “operational” reserve, meaning they can now expect to deploy one out of every five to six years, or more, depending on the situation.

Many reservists have chosen to get out of the military, creating a manpower crisis. Reserve units now frequently deploy to Iraq as composite units, victims of so many personnel exits and transfers that their soldiers often don’t even meet until they are called up to active duty. Consequently, the reserve units deploying to Iraq today are not as good as the units that went in 2003-04, and there are few reservists left to fight elsewhere should the need arise.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has said that the only thing worse than a broken army is a defeated army. But this puts the cart before the horse, because in this case, the breaking of America’s military will lead to defeat, both now and later. America cannot afford to send untrained, unready, or distracted troops into complex conflicts like Iraq and Afghanistan.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan show no sign of ending soon, and we would do well to conserve our military so that it’s ready to persevere, both in this war and the next.