Is the war in Iraq weakening our military?

Don’t Panic!... Your war questions answered

Yes, but not in all of the ways you might think.

CBS News, now celebrating three consecutive months without airing any forged documents, recently reported that 5,500 U.S. soldiers have deserted the armed forces since the war in Iraq started. The desertions are the result of opposition to the war in Iraq and anger about poor equipment and training.

Typical of the “angry at the war” people is Spc. Jeremy Hinzman. He joined the 82nd Airborne in January 2001 and served in Afghanistan. However, he thinks that the war in Iraq is illegal and unnecessary, so he moved to Canada rather than ship off to Iraq.

In a statement indicating that Hinzman might not be a strong reader, he explained, “I had signed a contract for four years. I was totally willing to fulfill it. Just not in combat arms jobs.”

Spc. Joseph Jacobo has a more sympathetic story. The man spent much of his adult life in the military, including six years in the Marines. He then joined the National Guard, he says, specifically to fight in Iraq. However, he ditched his California National Guard post because he says that nobody at his Texas training base could adequately fix his rifle. He’s one of those picky soldiers who thinks that the military is, at the very least, obliged to give him a working weapon before sending him to war.

One thing the CBS News story didn’t emphasize, though - 5,500 isn’t a lot of desertions. According to the Pentagon, desertions are actually declining. The military’s largest branch, the Army, counted about 4,500 desertions in 2001. There were fewer than 3,000 in 2004.

The military’s biggest Iraq-related structural problems are recruitment and retention. The Army Reserve’s commander, Lt. Gen. James Helmly, warned the Army chief of staff last month that lengthy, dangerous deployments are turning the Army Reserves into a “broken force.”

Reservists and National Guard members have careers outside the military. Many of them signed up back in the days when the Army ran ads calling reservists and guardsmen “weekend warriors.” Thanks to the poorly planned Iraq war, tens of thousands of reservists and guardsmen can expect to spend 24-month-long weekends in Iraq. Close to 40 percent of our forces in Iraq belong to the National Guard and Reserves. That they’re poorly equipped and generally treated second-class by the Pentagon adds insult to injury.

Not surprisingly, recruitment levels for both the Army Reserve and the National Guard are declining. One of the most interesting (and alarming) statistics I’ve found is the dramatic drop in the number of black recruits. Since 2001, the number of African-American recruits has dropped from 22 percent to 15 percent.

Just a thought, America, but if we want to avoid a military draft, we need to work harder at not alienating African-Americans who, in the past, have comprised nearly 25 percent of our military. A good first step would be punishing politicians who flirt with or are ambivalent to racism. Let’s start with firing the genius who invited sentimental segregationist Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi to emcee President Bush’s second inauguration. Raising symbolic middle fingers at African-Americans during important government ceremonies doesn’t really encourage them to risk their lives in the military.

Another solution to the personnel shortfall would be changing the Pentagon’s policy on gay and lesbian service. Aaron Belkin, the director of the Center for the Study of Sexual Minorities in the Military (at the University of California at Santa Barbara, of course), says that, on average, three to four gays and lesbians have been kicked out of the military every day for the past decade because of their sexual preference. Three per day for a decade is 10,950, and that’s not even counting leap years!

I’m no Napoleon or Patton or anything, but it seems to me that gays and lesbians would be ideal candidates for service in Iraq. They love traveling and, since they aren’t permitted to marry, they don’t have any spouses to leave behind. Gay people have done a great job fixing up my violent, rundown neighborhood. I’m sure they’d work wonders rebuilding Iraq.