Don't Panic! April 08 2004

Your war questions answered

Is the U.S. military overstretched?

Stretching's only a small portion of the physical training required of military recruits, though any fitness expert will tell you that flexibility is just as important as strength, speed and endurance. So I don't see how one can really be overstretched.

(Writer pauses, embarrassed about this terrible and, frankly, not very funny mistake.)

Oh! You mean the other kind of overstretched. The "not enough manpower to achieve assigned tasks without serious negative consequences to national security" type of overstretched. Gotcha.

Let's focus on the Army, since it's the most strained of the armed services. The Army strives for what it calls the "rule of threes." For every unit out on a mission, there should be one unit preparing to deploy and another recovering from a deployment. Recovery is more than just rest. The Army's got a lot of complicated and delicate machines that require tremendous amounts of maintenance, not to mention fresh coats of desert camouflage paint.

Right now, though, what we've got is something closer to the rule of twos. The Army's one-third smaller now than it was during Gulf War I. Half the Army's combat units are now overseas, while the other half are preparing and recovering.

To keep up with the workload, the Army has had to rely more heavily on reservists and the National Guard than it has since we abandoned the draft after Vietnam. By May, at least 37 percent of our soldiers in Iraq will be reservists or from the Guard. That's up from 20 percent when the war started.

Reservists and Guard soldiers are doing the jobs asked of them with little grumbling, but the fact is they didn't sign up to be full-time military. They have employers, and even their own businesses, not to mention spouses and children who believed them when they promised they'd only be gone for a few weekends per year.

Speaking of abandoning the draft, the military can't force civilians to sign up these days, but they can, and do, force people who've already signed up to stay in the military beyond the period stipulated in their contracts. The Army calls that a "stop-loss" order. According to a December article in Time magazine, the Army has issued stop-loss orders blocking the departure of 40,000 men and women, including 16,000 Guard soldiers and reservists who would've been eligible to leave the military last year. Despite the stop-loss orders, or perhaps because of them, re-enlistment in the reserves was down 7 percent last year.

The shortage of manpower isn't just of the overall, boots-on-the-ground variety. The Iraq war used up a lot of Special Forces and secret paramilitary resources that should have been hunting for Osama. Critics of the Iraq war noted before the war even started that Iraq would pull vital resources away from the Osama hunt. At the time, those critics were often greeted with responses like, "Andisheh Nouraee, what kind of damned foreign name is that? You should go back to where you came from!"

I wonder what they'd say to Bob Andrews, former head of Special Ops for the Pentagon who was just quoted in USA Today as saying Saddam was not an imminent threat and the Iraq war diverted finite Special Ops and intelligence resources from the hunt for Osama. Andrews, by the way, supported the Iraq war.

There's a lot of support in Congress right now to increase the size of the military by 20,000 to 30,000 soldiers. But the Army estimates it would take five years to train two new divisions — five-and-a-half if they have to memorize all those potty-mouthed marching ditties. In the meantime, maybe we could, oh, I don't know, not fight unnecessary unilateral wars. Just a thought, anyway.

The Bush administration denies the military is overstretched and notes that adding 10,000 men to the military would cost $1.2 billion that would be better spent on a tax cut. No surprise, really. The administration is incapable of admitting fault. Remember, they're the people who think 9-11, the catastrophic national security failure that happened on their watch, is a reason to re-elect them in November!


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