Combat Tours Still Too Long

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Photo: U.S. Army

Most soldiers I know greeted yesterday's news about the reduction in combat-tour lengths with a great deal of cynicism. It's not that they don't appreciate the reduction -- they do, and their families most certainly do. It's just that even a 12-month tour is such a hardship, such a departure from the deployment models used before the Iraq war strained the Army to its breaking point.

I can only imagine the profane responses from soldiers in Iraq when they heard the news -- particularly the point that the shorter tours only apply to troops deploying to Iraq after Aug. 1, 2008.

Many soldiers I know are literally green with envy over the Marines' shorter seven-month tours, which are modeled on the Marines' practice of floating combat units abroad for six-month-long cruises. The Army used a similar model during the peacekeeping deployments of the 1990s -- sending troops to Bosnia, Haiti and Kosovo for six-month stints (or less). When you include pre-deployment training, the tours include even more time away from home and family. But these deployment cycles are sustainable, largely because they give troops roughly twice as much time at home as abroad.

A 12-month combat tour is a different story.

This is an extremely long deployment, particularly for troops engaged in dangerous work outside the wire and away from the comforts of large U.S. bases. The combat-stress literature suggests there is a finite limit to the quantity of combat an individual can experience before he/she breaks down and becomes "combat ineffective." For sustained major combat operations, like Guadalcanal or the Hurtgen Forest, that figure is 60 days or so. We don't know exactly what the figure is for sustained counterinsurgency operations of the sort practiced in Baghdad or Baqubah. But there is a limit. And the most recent mental health survey statistics from the Pentagon indicate that we are rapidly pushing our soldiers and Marines toward it -- and beyond -- in order to sustain the force in Iraq.

It's a simple matter of supply and demand, according to outgoing Gen. Richard Cody, the Army's No. 2 officer. The current demand from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan "exceeds the sustainable supply," forcing the services to do irrational things in order to make ends meet. We know that soldiers and families need time to rest, recuperate, reintegrate, etc., between deployments, and that a 1:1 ratio of deployment:home time is not enough. But we're doing it anyway, and watching the results of this decision unfold like a slow-motion train wreck.

And so here we have another strategic cost of the war in Iraq. Beyond the numbers, this war is having a qualitative effect on the men and women who serve there. Iraq grinds people down just as it grinds down equipment. I worry that our Army will need at least a decade to bind its wounds from this war and prepare for whatever may lie over the horizon.

By Phillip Carter |  April 11, 2008; 10:01 AM ET  | Category:  Iraq
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Here's what I haven't figured out yet. Bush shortens the tour of duty to 12 months supposedly because the service general officers are concerned about people leaving the service after their long tour. I don't buy it, I think it's a political move to regain support in the military ranks, but whatever.

The reason the tour was increased to 15 months in the first place was due to lack of forces, an intent to stretch out deployments would mean fewer units were needed. So if we go back to 12 months, are we not in fact requiring more units (and more troops), will that not increase the discontent and potentially increase casualties among the force?

as you say, supply and demand. The demand hasn't gone down, so we have to increase supply since the timeframe is reduced.

Posted by: Jason | April 11, 2008 9:37 AM

Phil,

OUTSTANDING post. You really get to the heart of the issue. This recently announced "good news" is a shining example of "punting" a growing crisis down the field to a new administration.

I guess the two most important takeaways are the following:

1. This "change" has no impact on troop availability in theater until 8/01/09 - a full 7 months into the next administration.

2. Regardless of events on the ground, this change (while desperately needed) effectively limits the policy latitude for the next administration. Even if they could/needed to, a new administration would unleash a firestorm if exigent circumstances necessitated longer tours. Could this be a pretext to a "stabbed in the back" narrative? We'll see.

Posted by: IRR Soldier... | April 11, 2008 9:38 AM

I don't see the reasons for 15 or even 12 month tours. It is supposed to be more cost effective to only move units every year, instead of twice a year like the Marines do. But that cost analysis is short sighted as it does not account for all the money and logistics spent on mid tour leave.

I do not understand why the Big Army doesn't assign two or three units to own a piece of battlespace (at the BCT level which is how we assign deployments), and let those two or three units switch out as they see fit (which minor deconfliction with other units). Leave all of the equipment there, and just swap out people every 4-6 months.

I am sure there are complications with this logistical strategy, but I wonder if any serious research was put into it, or if we don't consider the idea because it is just simply not how we've always done it in the big army.

Even if it doesn't save a dime, I think it would be easier on service members. I've served a 10 month, 6 month and a 12 month tour. You can guess which one I liked the best. I would without hesitation do three 6 month tours, with 6 months in between trips, before doing a single 1 year tour.

Posted by: bg | April 11, 2008 10:08 AM

Mr. Carter thank you so much for this excellent, informed, insightful and thought-provoking blog. It is a great addition to the Post website.

Posted by: Bullsmith | April 11, 2008 11:05 AM

But BG, that would mean we're fully locked into a British Regimental System! Not that the Brits practice it anymore themselves.

It's ironic how the US Army spent most of the 20th Century trying to stay away from a regimental system, yet kept coming back to it.

Posted by: Jimmy Wu | April 11, 2008 11:31 AM


I understand the strain but isn't it true that most US troops are in support positions?
Do troops that spend most of their time in protected areas suffer the same rate of mental health problems?
Do troops stationed in Korea, Japan, Germany suffer the same rate of mental health problems?

Posted by: Richard | April 11, 2008 12:13 PM

"I understand the strain but isn't it true that most US troops are in support positions?"

Richard, I am not sure what you are asking, or what you are implying. This is a very common misconception. "Support positions" is not indicative of level of risk or exposure to traumatic events.

The old rules of "support" personnel "in the rear with the gear" while the combat arms did all the fighting, is no longer relevant.
For example: I met a 2LT who was a Quartermaster Officer. She never left the wire, never got shot at once. Instead, she had to visually identify and confirm every dead service member killed in Baghdad. Other examples of jobs considered "support" who face daily risk or exposure to lots of nasty war stuff include medics (anyone who serves in a hospital), truck drivers (any one who drives on the roads), MPs, and anyone living a on FOB that gets mortared on a regular basis.

I don't have the stats to support this, but I am willing to bet that support soldiers are less prepared to deal with the carnage of war, and again, just my guess, are more prone to having difficulties in dealing with the mental and psychological after effects. Some of us infantry types were already a bit crazy before we volunteered in the first place.

And I am really not sure what you are trying to imply by comparing garrison service members in Korea or Germany with service members in a "protected zone" in a war zone. The saying "apples and oranges" is an understatement.

Posted by: bg | April 11, 2008 12:28 PM

Correct me if I'm wrong, but aren't longer tours a key element of Petraeus' COIN strategy? That and embedding troops in the local population was supposed to develop mutual trust, thereby leading the locals to turn on the bad guys. At least that's what I recall.

I've also seen statistics that show casualty rates going up at the beginning and end of a deployment. Mental health aspects aside, one could say longer tours reduce casualties.

I'm not advocating longer tours, by the way. It just seems to me that the "best" way to fight this war may be in conflict with the way we've structured our military since the end of the draft.

Posted by: DPC | April 11, 2008 1:23 PM

Wich all leads up to the question posed by Lt. Col Gentile over at Small Wars Journal: How close is the US Army to "breaking"? The Norwegian Army practices 6 and 8 month tours for our active personel, in three rotations, and even that is putting a strain on things. For the nonmilitary readers, visualize the incountry strain of never knowing when it will hit.

Good post, sir.

Posted by: fnord | April 11, 2008 2:00 PM

DPC,

Casualties at the beginning of rotations tend to be high as a combination of things occur. The insurgents want to test the new guys, the new guys are unfamiliar with the area and the new guys are, well, new and make new guy mistakes.

Casualties happen at the end of the tour as a result of what we call "combat arrogance." We become so used to our operational environment, and so fatigued from nearly a year of daily operations, we cut corners, make assumptions and make mistakes. Another factor is that units realize that they've spent almost a year, and look back at what they've done. They either increase operations in hopes of making sure they are passing on a better operation, or they lock themselves down to try to avoid last minute casualties (which actually tends to increase casualties, strange enough).

I don't think longer tours fix either of these causes of increased casualties. The absolute best solution would be to keep troops there indefinitely until the job is done. But who would order that? Talk about retention and recruitment problems.

As I stated above, I believe there is another way to accomplish the same goal of continuity and relationship building. Have the same units return to the same area of operations every rotation and shorten the rotations. This does not happen. We sometimes see the same divisions return, but they usually have different BCTs and place them in different places each rotation.

Posted by: bg | April 11, 2008 2:04 PM

DPC,

You are right about dispering troops off the FOBs and into the populace is a key element of counterinsurgency doctrine, but strictly speaking, "longer tours" are not part of counterinsurgency doctrine. It is true that "successful" COIN operations last about 9-10 years or more, and that probably does mean multiple tours.

But the heart of the matter is this: COIN doctrine is premised on the fact that there should be a relatively high number of boots on the ground (say 1 soldier to every 20 locals) to execute COIN mission #1: protect the populace.

As I'm sure you're aware, the Army and Marine Corps do not have nearly enough personnel to meet this ratio of soldiers to people in, for example, Iraq. Remember what GEN Shinseki told the House Armed Services committee before the invasion (and before he was fired): in order to secure Iraq we'd need in the range of a few hundred thousand troops.

So, not enough troops to do stability/COIN operations = 15 month tours and a worn out Army. What makes this whole thing worse is that the administration never planned on doing the nation-building piece and, therefore, never thought to consider the most basic and necessary requirement for post-combat stability operations: the number of boots on the ground.

Posted by: Matt | April 11, 2008 2:12 PM

BG, thanks for explaining things to me, but I want to ask a follow-up question regarding longer tours and casualty rates: if we assume that the casualties for a given unit are bimodal (i.e. at mostly at the beginning and the end), and at a much lower rate in the middle, then overall we don't change a given unit's casualties much over a deployment by making it longer. In other words, a battalion is going to take X casualties during a deployment, on average.

However, we deploy fewer units over the same period of time, and in so doing overall casualities are lower.

This is just a number-cruncher's way of looking at things, and perhaps I'm confusing cause and effect.

Matt: it would appear from your posts that Gen. Petreaus should have asked Congress for many more soldiers, and given them a time frame of years if he's going to run this war by his own doctrine. Instead, he appears to be trying to leverage the Sunni militias to make up for the US troops he doesn't have.

Why won't he say so? Is it his duty as a professional military officer to give Congress his opinion? Or not?

Posted by: DPC | April 11, 2008 2:34 PM

DPC,

In the case you're assuming, then yes, the casualties would increase overall if we switch to shorter tours.

However, if we're moving to a BCT battlespace system like BG proposes, what we will get is that the leadership returning will already have relationship w/ the locals.

Since the leadership will already be familiar with the area and the people, you will not have as much of a spike initially. The leaders know what to look for, etc.

One key point here is that the small unit leaders on the platoon and company levels definitely will have experience over the terrain, since they are returning to where they were 6 to 12 months ago. Not so much on the officer side though, since the Army REALLY LIKES to rotate its officers all over the CONUS stations instead of homesteading at a particular Division/BCT.

So if we move to a 6 month system together w/ a fixed battlespace, then that would not change the casualty rate siginificantly.

Posted by: Jimmy Wu | April 11, 2008 3:12 PM

"This is just a number-cruncher's way of looking at things, and perhaps I'm confusing cause and effect."

Agreed DPC, I was going to say that you are missing an important causal relationship.

What you suggests sounds like this to me: If A (# of troop rotations) then B (casualties), therefore less of A results in less of B

What I suggest is shorter tours with soldiers returning to the same place that they left 6 months ago. This means that you lessen the "new guy" mistakes leading to casualties (one of the major causes of early casualties), and you reduce casualties as a result of troops getting too comfortable and arrogant. It would also reduce strain on the force, in my experience.

Posted by: bg | April 11, 2008 7:34 PM

Meanwhile, back in what we laughingly call the real world, the Iraqi government appears to have started a major assault on Sadr's party with considerable US support.

This is CNN's take on things: http://www.cnn.com/2008/WORLD/meast/04/11/iraq.main/index.html

Keep in mind that early reporting is usually inaccurate.

My personal (and poorly informed) theory is that Maliki has interpreted Sadr's continuing calls for cease-fires as a sign of weakness and he wants to strike before Sadr can rebuild his forces again.

Posted by: Pluto | April 11, 2008 8:05 PM

This stuff about the length of combat tours strikes me as very strange. The military, all of its branches, has encouraged our troops, of all ranks, to settle down and become family men (and women). The problem they're having is that b/c we've got soldiers and Marines with a wife a kid by the time they reach corporal, their combat effectiveness has declined. I do not mean to bash the military. I think that the fact that we have a military that is as capable and as professional as it is is nothing short of a miracle. I am only saying that by encouraging our troops to put down roots early and often, we can't simply take them off the front line like we used to. And I mean that in a metaphorical sense of course. I understand that there is no front line in Iraq,rather what I am saying is that, if our military were primarily made up of young, single men like it was in the past, we wouldn't need to send them state-side every 9 mos. or so. Instead, we could send them to Kuwait City or our military base there for their R&R. Now, we need to send these guys home to be w/ their wives and kids, which only increases the stress on them when they leave suburban Ohio for Baghdad. This is not a problem that will be easily fixed, if it can be fixed at all. The reality may just be that we are going to have to do 12 mo. tours and accept the mental health consequences afterward.

Posted by: Archimedes | April 12, 2008 10:29 AM


the "sea services" i.e. those nautical services have tours of only 7 months. of course the mission is mostly desert not naval in nature. We have effectively made the marines a part of the army controlled by the navy. This is a no no in military sense.. having two different chain of commands.. the Army for the military and the Navy for the sea services. This discrepancy in tours and the unstated discrepancy in funding hurts moral in those that have to stay longer/.

Posted by: wally | April 12, 2008 1:30 PM

Please help me find support information for my soldier son who is being sent back to Iraq after doing 16 months there and spending a year at home. He is a 20+ year veteran, age 40, never married, E7. He has always had an outstanding attitude but I am starting to see chinks in the armor. Before his first deployment he was upbeat and ready to go. He is still more than willing to do his duty takes pride in his leading his men but I am sensing an individual who is developing a brittle facade and raw exterior. I need to help him.

Posted by: Cheryl | April 15, 2008 12:39 PM

Please help me find support information for my soldier son who is being sent back to Iraq after doing 16 months there and spending a year at home. He is a 20+ year veteran, age 40, never married, E7. He has always had a supremely good attitude but I am starting to see chinks in the armor. Before his first deployment he was upbeat and ready to go. He is still more than willing to do his duty but I am sensing he is becoming an individual with a brittle facade and raw exterior. I need to help him.

Posted by: Cheryl | April 15, 2008 1:09 PM

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