Why Isn't the Army Broken?
In 2005 and 2007, I predicted doom for the United States Army. Citing a range of indicators, from recruiting and retention problems to disciplinary issues to mental health statistics, I argued the Iraq war was grinding down the all-volunteer force and anticipated we would see a total meltdown by 2007 or 2008, when Army units started on their third tours in Iraq.
Events have proven me wrong. The Army keeps rolling along, albeit weary, bruised and bloody, like Rocky Balboa in the twelfth round of a fight. Why?
A few thoughts:
1. The Professional Military Ethic. We've built a force for which serving is a calling, not a job, and we've inculcated a professional military ethic that prizes selfless service, duty, loyalty, commitment, etc. Leaving the service, particularly in wartime, runs counter to this ethic. The theme is bolstered by the (true or false) rhetoric of senior military and political leaders who characterize the Iraq war as part of a generational, existential struggle on behalf of the nation.
2. Being All They Can Be. Most of the soldiers and Marines now serving joined the military after 9/11. They signed up knowing they would deploy, and wanting to do so. For these troops, multiple deployments to Iraq or Afghanistan are part of the bargain, and they're willing to shoulder that burden. (By contrast, multiple deployments were not part of the social contract for the Army Reserve and National Guard, so we're seeing far more problems there.)
3. Money and Incentives. Money can't buy you love, but it can buy military manpower. The Army has poured money into recruiting and retention programs over the past four years to bring recruits in the order and to keep sergeants and officers from leaving. These incentives have worked. Or, at least, they've worked to keep those in the service who were probably going to stay anyway or who were on the fence. And that's enough, although there continue to be shortages in specialties like aviation, special operations, military police, and intelligence, partly because the military is competing against private industry for the same talent.
4. Churn. The all-volunteer force is structured to accomodate a high-rate of turnover in the enlisted and officer ranks, particularly at the junior levels. Our recruiting, personnel and training systems accept that most recruits or junior officers will not stay past their first enlistment -- or sometimes even make it through that period. Consequently, losing large numbers of these personnel doesn't necessarily break the force, because the whole military is built to accomodate this personnel turnover.
5. The Few and the Proud. Approximately 1.7 million servicemembers have deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan, along with tens (hundreds?) of thousands of American civilian government employees and contractors. But according to the Army, just 197,000 soldiers have deployed more than once, and only 53,000 have deployed three or more times. I'm told the percentages are comparable for the Marines. Which means that only a fraction of today's troops are actually serving multiple tours and bearing the heaviest burden of the war. There's this other massive part of the force that hasn't deployed yet, or has deployed just once, for whom the strain isn't as acute. That is helping the aggregate health of the force.
What do you think? Why you think our Army hasn't broken yet under the strain of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars? Or has it?
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