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Extended Service in Iraq

June 3, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT
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RAY SUAREZ: Soldiers, nearing the end of their enlistments but in units heading to Iraq and Afghanistan, were hit with some news yesterday. The Pentagon announced those troops now face involuntary extended tours of active duty, at least until their units return home. It’s called a “stop-loss” order, a tool Pentagon officials said helps ease the loss of personnel through retirement and discharge.

The order also serves to maximize cohesion and experience of troops in the field. The move affects active-duty and reserve units who are within 90 days of deploying to Iraq and Afghanistan. Such stop loss orders have been used before. This is the seventh since the 9/11 attacks, and the first since the president decided not to scale back the number of troops in Iraq.

For more on this we get three perspectives. Retired Army Lieutenant General Theodore Stroup was deputy chief of staff for personnel during the mid-1990s. He’s currently vice president of the Association of the United States Army, a private organization that advocates for the army. Retired colonel Douglas Macgregor is the author of “Transformation Under Fire: Revolutionizing how America fights.” Captain Andrew Exum was in the army from 2000 until last month. He served in Afghanistan and Iraq, and is the author of “This Man’s Army.” We invited a representative of the army to participate on this panel, but they declined. General Stroup, why put out a stop loss order?

LT. GEN. THEODORE STROUP (Ret.): It’s a technique that the army had to do from the standpoint of maintaining end strength across the board and then from the standpoint of the ongoing war, as I understand it, they wanted to take the combat units that are en route or programmed to go to either Afghanistan or Iraq, keep them together so there wouldn’t be any loss that would fall out of them as they go for their complete tour. It’s tough on the individuals, but from the standpoint of war fighting maintaining unit strength and unit integrity and as you said some cohesion it’s a necessary thing they have to do with the size that the army is today.

RAY SUAREZ: Is this the only way to do it in your view?

LT. GEN. THEODORE STROUP (Ret.): I’m a little bit prejudiced on that because I had to implement the first stop loss on soldiers in Desert Storm, but with the current size of the army it’s probably the best thing in terms of tools they have today and in terms of policy and legislated law.

RAY SUAREZ: Colonel, do you agree with the use of the tool, and is it the only way to accomplish that set of goals that the General just outlined?

COL. DOUGLAS MACGREGOR (Ret.): I don’t think the chief of staff of the army has much choice at this point. He’s living with a structure that he inherited. The structure really hasn’t changed much since 1942 except that it’s gotten progressively smaller. In 1998 we cut 25 percent of the combat troops in the army by eliminating the fourth company in our battalions which reduces the numbers of people who deploy and fight and conduct operations.

We’ve made the situation very difficult on ourselves by clinging tenaciously to old policies, old procedures that frankly have their roots in the second world war that frankly speaking have been irrelevant for a long time so he’s now in the position of having to take the old structure, find ways to fill it, find ways to keep people in the service because we cannot recruit, rapidly train up and infuse the force with enough people to compensate for the loss of qualified and experienced combat troops.

RAY SUAREZ: So you’re saying bad tool but really very little choice at this point?

COL. DOUGLAS MACGREGOR (Ret.): Structurally, I don’t think there’s any choice. We’re living with the consequences of almost 14 years of inaction since 1991 when we could have made a whole range of changes and reforms that would have put us in a much better position than the one we’re in today.

RAY SUAREZ: Captain Exum, what’s the cost in the view of the troops on the ground?

FORMER CAPT. ANDREW EXUM: Well, I just left the army last week, and I think that the real cost is going to be on morale, retention, and I think reenlistment as well. What I’m saying is not — I think both these gentlemen are entirely correct, that the stop loss policy may be the least bad option. However, if we’re going to call it an all volunteer military, then we need to be more honest about what we’re doing here. I believe in many cases — go ahead.

RAY SUAREZ: I’m sorry, you bring that up, that idea of an all volunteer military. Do you cross a dangerous line when you say to people whose hitches are up, no, sorry, you’ve got to stay, not two months, four months, but perhaps up to 15 months?

FORMER CAPT. ANDREW EXUM: Sure. You sure do, and the point I was trying to make in my editorial in the New York Times yesterday was that really what this is, what stop loss is and what the activation of what was formerly called the inactive ready reserve and is now called the individual ready reserve, what it is, is a political expedient way to meet the needs in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

In other words, when you ask an active duty soldier to stay in the army longer or, rather, when you force an active duty soldier to stay in the army longer, what you’re doing is you’re affecting a person that can’t complain to the press, that can’t be an advocate, and — and, you know, the reason I got involved in this is I wrote a book on a lot of the soldiers that were affected by this policy and are now going back to Iraq after two tours in Afghanistan, and quite frankly it’s unfair and I don’t believe our civilian leadership is being honest with the American public.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, General Stroup, you talk about unit integrity and the need to keep people in so that they who train together and serve together go fight together. Listening to Captain Exum, do you worry that in order to keep that unit integrity you also are exacting a toll on the individual members of that unit?

LT. GEN. THEODORE STROUP (Ret.): There is that possibility, and Doug referred to it in his remarks about the cohesion that comes with the units. The fact of the matter is you want soldiers to be together for a long time to experience the bonding that they come from, not only barracks living but arduous training and trading off on different duties and that and it works very effectively. Doug is a historian and can talk about that, probably replete with examples. It’s the way that the army is starting to move right now, but as he said the current chief is faced with some dilemmas and decisions that were made in the past when the decision was to make the army smaller and it really probably on reflection in the back, we need an army larger probably by 40,000, but it’s got to be funded, if it’s made larger. It can’t happen overnight, as he said.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Colonel, you talked about the era that led up to the predicament that the armed services find themselves in now, but if we’re not going to make the army larger right now, and if it takes some time to do it anyway, and it’s looking like the commitment in Iraq and Afghanistan is going to be a long one, do any of these supply and demand problems that are causing this stop loss now keeping people in the service now, have any time horizons where with you say, well, this is just a temporary thing and we’ll get through this in a matter of months?

COL. DOUGLAS MACGREGOR (Ret.): Well, let me suggest three things. First of all, we have never asked the hard questions. We have been living in a halfway house between the old citizen soldier army that relied on mobilization and a standing professional army. We called it a volunteer force, but we really have not made the leap into what I would call a standing professional army in which we asked the tough question which is who actually deploys and fights? Who do we keep in uniform? For the number of soldiers we actually deploy who go to places like Iraq or Afghanistan and perform critical duties, there are relatively few given the size of the total force. We have enormous overhead. We have enormous problems with our logistical structure. These things have never been addressed so we can convert spaces where we otherwise have clerks and bureaucrats to soldiers who actually do things. That’s the first problem.

The second problem is we’re not going to get a much larger army because we’re not going to draft. We can build a standing professional army, but we’ve got another organization, it’s called the United States Marine Corps, and the United States Marine Corps has to be viewed as a component part of this land force structure. There are 170,000 marines, more than 25 percent of your land power today potentially. The marines and the army need to be viewed as a force that is largely interchangeable. The marines have to begin to structure and organize differently and so does the army to perform missions ashore in places like Iraq and Afghanistan for much longer periods of time. And that’s very important.

RAY SUAREZ: Let me cut you off there. The challenge though that we find ourselves in with this latest stop loss, the forces that created that, you don’t see them changing anytime soon?

COL. DOUGLAS MACGREGOR (Ret.): Well, that’s up to the civilian leadership. I don’t think that we can expect the generals to reform the structure. It hasn’t happened over the last 14 years. They are not going to volunteer to make sweeping fundamental change. They will continue to tinker on the margins of the old structure and try to make things work better. They will ask for more troops, but throwing more troops at the old structure isn’t going to fundamentally change your problem and it will take so long to get them into the structure you’re probably not going to get much benefit from the action.

RAY SUAREZ: Andrew Exum, in your editorial you drew a distinction between officers and enlisted men. Tell me more about that.

FORMER CAPT. ANDREW EXUM: Sure. Well, I took a commission to be an officer of the United States Army so really even though I left the service seven days ago, I never really leave the army. I still have an obligation and if I’m called back, then I still have that obligation. However, with an enlisted soldier, I mean, you’re talking about guys that these guys signed contracts for a pre-determined amount of time to serve in the — to serve in the military, and they would like to be able to plan on when they are going to get out.

In other words, I had soldiers that were planning on going to college this summer. They were planning on starting new careers, and now because of the stop loss order, they are being told to hold on and go to Iraq for an undetermined amount of time. The bottom line is that’s just not a — it’s not a fair way to treat the guys that have already sacrificed so much for this global war on terror, and I believe what you see is that this is just another instance in which the civilian populace is being told that, hey, there are no additional costs to this war. The active duty can handle this war as it’s — as it’s currently structured and that’s just not the case.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, General, let’s talk a little bit more about the Guard and Reserve who have become a vital part of the mission in Iraq and Afghanistan. Are they really Guard and Reserve anymore, or are they just sort of regular forces under another name?

LT. GEN. THEODORE STROUP (Ret.): I’ve watched them in Bosnia and Kosovo, and I’ve been over and watched them overseas, and they are tremendous co-mingling and they are the army. One can question the degrees of training that they receive but they really are co-mingled, and we have what was envisioned that they would serve in a post-Cold War world, but there are a number of policy things that need to be fixed. They are also impacted by the stuff that we’re talking about tonight on stop loss. They are part of those 13.

I would comment historically going back to what our other panel members said up in New York, there have been other instances before the policy was called stop loss where soldiers and officers have been kept on extra active duty. The Berlin crisis was one. There was a missile crisis in Korea when I was a second lieutenant in the ’60s where I was kept 16 months versus 12. It impacted on that, too, so your civilian leadership will make that adjustment in keeping soldiers on active duty if there’s national security crisis or a demand for more soldiers.

RAY SUAREZ: Is there a cumulative negative impact to this? Some units have had their returns to the United States scheduled and canceled twice now. Does that have an even worse impact the second time around?

COL. DOUGLAS MACGREGOR (Ret.): I think it’s devastating. I think you can guarantee that large numbers of people will leave the force. I read a transformation report recently produced by the army that says that 739 of the soldiers currently assigned to the striker brigade that’s in northern Iraq will leave the service at the earliest opportunity when they return to the United States. That’s almost a third of that particular formation.

I think we’re going to see more of this because we did not think this through carefully and I’m talking about the generals who had to look for 18 months at the very high probability that we would intervene in Iraq. Nothing was done to posture and restructure the force. No one thought through the consequences of saying if we use these forces early, what are the forces that we’re going to identify that we can rotate into replace them? What can we do to ensure that people don’t have to stay in Iraq and Afghanistan for 12 months? What can we do to turn that tour into a six-month tour, which would have a profoundly positive impact?

I thought it was interesting today that the Marine Corps announced that after seven months they will in fact turn over the forces that they have in Iraq with new marine forces. They will not opt for the 12-month tour and I think the 12-month tour is devastating. Service in Iraq and Afghanistan for 12 months is far different from what people in this country appreciate. It’s like three or four years anywhere else.

RAY SUAREZ: Gentlemen, thank you very much.

LT. GEN. THEODORE STROUP (Ret.): Thank you, Ray.