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The Future -  Is the Army Broken?
With the U.S. Army deployed in a dozen hot spots around the world -- on constant alert in Afghanistan and taking almost daily casualties in Iraq -- some current and former officers are saying the Army is on the verge of being broken. Offering here their views on the status of the Army and the military in general are Gen. Thomas White (U.S.Army-Ret.), Secretary of the Army 2001-2003; Lt. Gen. Paul Van Riper (U.S. Marine Corps-Ret.); Thomas Ricks, Pentagon correspondent for The Washington Post; John Hamre, president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies; Dana Priest, staff writer for The Washington Post; Col. Douglas MacGregor (U.S. Army-Ret.); Walter Slocombe, former director for national security and defense in the Coalition Provisional Authority; and Gen. Joseph P. Hoar (U.S. Marine Corps-Ret.), commander of CENTCOM 1991 to 1994.

photo of white

thomas white
(Gen., U.S. Army-Ret.), Secretary of the Army, 2001-2003.

…Is the Army broken?

read the full interview

Yeah, I think so. We're on the brink. We are in a situation where we are grossly overdeployed, and it is unlike any other period in the 229-year history of the Army. We have never conducted a sustained combat operation with a volunteer force, with a force that we have to compete in the job market to hire every year. Every other force that we've ever done this with, going back to the Vietnam period to something comparable, has been a draftee conscript force.

So what we are all worried about is that the manpower situation will come unglued. ... The Army is people; it's not weapons or platforms. Somebody once said, "A soldier's not in the Army; they are the Army." And the quality of the soldiers [has] been the enormous advantage we've had since the volunteer force was put in place, and the quality of the noncommissioned officers corps.

Well, that is a married Army, among other things. You may recruit soldiers, but you retain families. And I think we're all concerned that we are teetering on the brink here and that if we can't get to a lower operational tempo, or at least have some point in the future that we can set our sails against where it might occur, that the Army on the manpower side's going to come unglued.

So that Army that we talked about at the beginning that was happy to see the grown-ups finally come, that military is how different than the one the next administration will inherit?

Enormously different. The one that they inherited had very low Reserve component mobilization, for example. That Army maybe had seven or eight brigade-sized units deployed overseas. So maybe one brigade in five was deployed; now we have two brigades out of three, or three brigades out of four. ... So while the good news is you have a veteran, higher level of combat experience between the active component of the Reserve of any Army since the Second World War, the price is that particularly Reserve component people will say, "I'm as big a patriot as anybody else, but I've been gone three years out of the last four, and that's not what I signed up for." And I think we're all concerned that that's where we're headed. …

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paul van riper
(Lt. Gen., U.S. Marine Corps-Ret.).

…Post-Iraq, do you think the Army is broken?

read the full interview

No, the United States Army is not broken. We've got a great Army. The Army for some reason lost its doctrinal roots after the first war in the Gulf. I don't understand why. They literally led this renaissance of thinking that took place in the '70s and '80s, and that produced a wonderful document, Field Manual 100-5, titled Operations. ... The Army, for some reason, post-Desert Storm, walked away from that manual and wrote a new one that was almost unintelligible, and it was so successful that this very rich intellectual activity that we saw was squashed. And it began to be conformist. My take on it is it's been short-lived, and we're seeing that same energetic thinking reoccurring in the Army, which to me is good news.

What does the next president or the next administration inherit?

Let me take the question in two parts. Let's look at Iraq. I don't think that the Defense Department is capable of solving the problem in Iraq now. If the problem is going to be solved, it'll be through two means: the Iraqi people, number one, and number two, those soldiers and Marines on the ground. Between the two, they'll get it right, and we'll have at least some adequate outcome -- not the outcome we anticipated when the war started, but at least one that's more hopeful.

I'm not saying, though, that that's going to happen. What I fear is that the rivalries between the various groups -- the Kurds, the Sunnis and Shiites -- will eventually boil over, and we'll see some sort of a balkanization of Iraq.

What the next administration needs to do, though, when it looks at the Defense Department, is two things. First, step back and say: "We know that terrorists are a problem. Is the strategy that the previous administration laid out for fighting terrorists what we need? Can we improve that?" And then when they do, decide, "All right, where are we going to concentrate?" ... You articulate this to the military and the State Department, Commerce Department, all of those agencies of government, what they call the agency process, and bring all these elements to bear. There needs to be a clean slate, start over and see where we are.

In terms of the military itself, we've got to have this new focus on the basics. Go back to studying the profession, trying to understand unconventional war, develop a theory, and then write the doctrine and move forward. ...

What this country needs to do is look where its casualties are. Retired Army Maj. Gen. Bob Scales lays out, I think, a very good argument. Over the last 100 years, in particular the last 60 or 70, the vast majority of casualties, by an order of magnitude, are with the infantry. I don't mean just ground forces -- with the infantry. Yet very little of the resources goes to that infantry. Just imagine, if this country put $1 million into each Army squad and each Marine Corps squad, what you might be able to do in not only terms of the equipment you gave it, but in terms of the training, the way you intended to employ them as you develop ideas.

And lives would be saved?

Lives would be saved. …

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thomas ricks
Pentagon correspondent, The Washington Post.

What does the phrase "breaking the Army" mean to you?

read the full interview

"Breaking the Army" means, essentially, losing the people who make it such a good Army. The United States has not always had a great military. It's had a lot of brave men always, a lot of èlan and vigor, but a well-trained, professional military is a very different thing. We have that. We haven't had it for very long. We've had it for 20 years. And it's not a given that you keep it. You make a military by going out and getting good people, not screwballs, by training them and by keeping them together in units that have cohesion among their peers and trust of the people that lead them.

You break that by breaking all those pieces, by not giving them adequate training, by giving them tasks they can't do, by moving them around so frequently that they don't know the guy on their right or their left, by deploying them so often that their wife wants them to leave the military, and ultimately they do. ... You put in a bunch of strangers who are maybe not as well trained, who are not as trusted. The sergeants start getting disgusted with this and say: "I don't want to lead this unit. I have better things to do with my life. I gave at the office. I've done Iraq two or three times." They start leaving. That's the backbone of your Army, when the well-trained sergeant who is a good leader says: "I'm sick of this. I've done seven or 12 years. I don't want to stick around for 20 to get my full retirement. I'm leaving now." ... And then a good sergeant looks and says: "Well, my buddy John left, and my buddy Bill left. I'm leaving. I'm not going to stick around." And so the worry I hear among some generals now is that, while they think in the short term that they are okay, the longer this keeps up, the more training degrades, the lower-quality personnel you might get, the more people might decide to leave. It all kind of intensifies, and the decline can be precipitous.

Any sense from people about how far away that is?

One general said to me spring 2005. ... [In] spring 2005, the 3rd Infantry Division will be back for its second tour in Iraq. The 101st Airborne may be looking at redeploying to Iraq at the end of that year. And people are making decisions: "Do I want to stick around for my second tour?" What lies beyond that? A third tour.

There have also been a few signs [lately] that those key guys, the seasoned sergeants at certain parts of the military are leaving. And this is just small numbers. We are not really sure what they mean, but those might be warning signs.

And what does it mean if you break the Army? What happens?

Well, the nightmare is the Army of the late 1970s. I remember looking at some statistics. I just fell off my chair. I was astonished. I think it was the Marine Corps in one year, in the late 1970s, had over 1,000 violent racial incidents, any one of which likely would make a front-page story in The Washington Post. Back then it was routine.

What does it mean when you break an Army? It means you have officers having to wear pistols on their hips to go into barracks at night for fear of being attacked. It means widespread drug use. It means people not joining the Army because they don't want to go into that environment, and [it means] a race to the bottom. It is very hard to turn around. The great achievement of today's colonels and generals is that they are the guys who turned it around in the wake of the Vietnam War. When there was every incentive to leave the Army, they rebuilt the Army. And now the tragedy for some of these guys is, this magnificent Army they spent 25 years rebuilding is now really going through the agony of Iraq, where it's fighting a fight it is not designed for. It's a sprinter, and it's in a marathon. It's a high-intensity war organization fighting a guerrilla war. These guys are sweating and bleeding every day. They are pouring their hearts and souls into it, but it is not really what they are trained to do, and it might not be the best way to do it.

The first time [Rumsfeld's] secretary of defense, he inherits a post-Vietnam military that is broken. And then Iraq and Afghanistan take place, and decisions are made by this same secretary which to some extent re-break the military.

It is certainly ironic that the military that Donald Rumsfeld knew in the mid-1970s, when he was first secretary of defense, was probably at its lowest point in modern American history. The military that Rumsfeld comes back to several decades later is at the top of its game. If anything, I think one of my concerns about the U.S. military in Iraq is they come off a string of victories. The term that came out of World War II was victory disease, which was the greatest vulnerability of the Japanese. They overextended themselves.

In the same way, I think the U.S. military in Iraq was slow to respond to Rumsfeld's legitimate criticisms. I think the Army especially really got itself in a stance of opposition to Rumsfeld, almost "We don't care what he's saying. He's wrong. Whether he's right or wrong, our secretary of defense, we just disagree with him." They felt that a lot of the painful lessons of the Vietnam War might have been ignored by him: Always have more troops and supplies than you believe is necessary because you never know when things could go wrong.

I also wonder whether Rumsfeld simply bit off too much. I think Iraq and the rest of the stuff that's going on out there, the war on terrorism, is really taking up enormous amounts of time and energy at the Pentagon. It does make me wonder about the transformation initiatives that they came in talking about.

Is the Army broken? And if so, what are the implications?

I don't think the Army is broken now. I think the Army is bruised and worried. My impression of troops in Iraq is that the active-duty troops, the young infantry guys, are actually pretty happy with what they're doing. My real worries are the Guard and Reserve, who have been relied on very heavily in Iraq. Forty percent of the troops now in Iraq -- 135,000 U.S. troops -- 40 percent of them are from the National Guard and the Army Reserve. A lot of these guys are happy to do that first deployment, but many of them now are on their second or even their third. While I don't think the Army's broken now, if we have to keep 135,000 troops in Iraq for another couple of years, I think you're going to have some real problems. We do not currently have a military, especially an Army, configured for a long ground war on the other side of the planet.

So where do we go from here in Iraq? And what about Iran?

I think in one way or another, we, the United States, are stuck in the Middle East in a way that few of us anticipated. I don't think Iran ultimately is going to be a military threat; I don't see the U.S. invading or attacking Iran. But I do see the U.S. military being on the ground in Iraq for a long time. Now, we may get kicked out by a government there even next year, 2005, but even if that happens, I think we'll be back for a third war at some point -- especially if that happens. We are the dog that caught the car. People always talk about the dog catching the car, but the dog never does. But we did. So I think we're in Iraq in some way or another for a long time. We may get kicked out and go back in. We may just be there for decades. …

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john hamre
President of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

read the full interview

…The Bush administration inherited a certain kind of military, a certain kind of aspiration and expectation by the military of the Defense Department. Now here we are. A new president, or a continuation of this administration in a different form, will inherit whatever is there. What is there? What is a snapshot of the military now?

I think, first, it's a military of unprecedented competence in the tactical art of warfare. There's no military that has been as seasoned, as experienced, as skilled as this one is for the tactical art of war. This is probably the most experienced military we've ever had. Senior officers have now been through three wars together. It's unbelievable, remarkable.

There's a depth of capacity to integrate technology and tactics, doctrine and people, that's never been matched. It was very good when I was there, and it's gotten better since I left.

I think it is a military that's traumatized by the larger problems of security. They're in a very difficult environment now that really goes beyond the training base and the doctrinal base of operations. We've now had eight years of being in Bosnia. We are approaching our 18th month of being in Iraq in a very difficult insurgency for which we're not dramatically better today than we were 10 months ago, 12 months ago, and I think that's had a disquieting effect on them. Many of them now realize that this full dimension -- not just the tactics of fighting wars, but the imperative of securing the ultimate strategic victory -- is a lot more complicated and a lot more difficult. ...

The administration really had planned on doing away with and dismantling the schoolhouses that train the military [in] how to deal with civilians after wars. When they first came to office, they just did away with it. They said, "We're not going to do any of that stuff." We're now in the very midst of having to build all of that, and much more robust.

They did? When?

We had a schoolhouse down in Louisiana -- Fort Polk, I think it was -- that was training on civil interaction, and they basically said: "We don't do nation-building. We're not going to do that." And they were doing away with it. Now we realize that's exactly what this phase four is all about. We weren't particularly good at it when I was there, although we had developed some capability. But this is much bigger, much more complicated, and I think the military, frankly, is a bit adrift in dealing with this. …

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dana priest
Staff writer for The Washington Post.

read the full interview

…Here we find ourselves just before the presidential election. What will the new president, or the new administration, inherit?

Given that you don't know what's going to be going on in Iraq, the military is incredibly overstretched. They're calling up Individual Ready Reserves now -- people who served in the military, got out, and now they need them back. We have so many troops in Iraq, but also we have Afghanistan, and you have the war on terrorism that probably is not going to be won any time soon. ... If John Kerry is elected, he may well find that he wants to keep the military at the forefront of the war on terrorism, in the operational sense.

In Iraq, it's just too hard to tell. Barring a miracle and some unforeseen trend, you have great instability in Iraq and the Iraqi government trying to get on its feet. And the last thing the United States would want is some pocket of that to become a safe haven for a version of fundamentalist Islam that allows the Al Qaeda-like organization to live and organize in.

Even if they find bin Laden, Afghanistan has the potential to become something of what it was before, because you have the resurgence of the warlords. So there's no doubt that we're going to have, as we have now, lots of human rights violations, resurgence in the growth of the poppy crop and what that brings with it -- criminal elements, unstable government, and that sort of thing. And you've also seen the return of the Taliban. The U.S. military, deployed in Iraq as it is, is not going to redeploy in Afghanistan and spread out. NATO is not going to do that either. They're trying to train an Afghan force, and they're willing to help out there, but they're not going to, again, fan out and bring stability to Afghanistan. You could very well see the resurgence of the Taliban in a way that it then becomes a safe haven for Al Qaeda again. That's the way that it's moving, and what is going to stop that is not clear. …

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Douglas macgregor
(Col., U.S. Army-Ret.).

read the full interview

… People have told us the Army is very close to being broken, if it hasn't been broken already. What do you think?

I think it is. I think it is, absolutely. The stop losses are symptomatic of it. People inside the force are very frustrated and very unhappy. The 12-month tours are a catastrophe. No one wants to enlist to do that sort of work. The people who will enlist are people that are good people, but they have no choice. But your enlistments and your retention are way down. People are frustrated with the chain of command that didn't listen to them, frustrated with their inability to effect any change, frustrated that no one would take seriously their experience, because now you've got soldiers, sergeants, lieutenants and captains with infinitely more combat experience than the people commanding them. We need to listen to them.

And what would they say?

They would build a different force from the one that is currently being fielded. They would tell you that your battalions are too small and the brigade formations are too small. They certainly subscribe to my view that you don't need any divisions, but you need much more combat power at the lowest level, and you need a great deal less overhead. …

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walter slocombe
Former director for national security and defense in the Coalition Provisional Authority.

read the full interview

…As a sort of summary, how do you feel about the state of the Pentagon now?

First of all, I think it's important to understand what an amazing job the American military has done at essentially a job very different than what they thought they were going to have to do. They did an obviously terrific job with the large unit fighting. But most of the administration out in the field, not just on the security front, but in the dealing with the Iraqis, trying to build up local authority, has been largely in the hands of military people, civil affairs people operating under local commanders. And in general they've done an excellent job. Now, again it takes time, and there are problems, and you make bets on the wrong people and so on. And there are always problems of getting the resources allocated. But the American military has done a remarkable job with that, requiring very different skills from most of what their training was in, and at the same time having to fight an extremely difficult counterterrorist, counter-guerrilla type of operation.

So the idea that somehow the American military was totally hopeless at this, I think, is just wrong. And I think also there's been a real recognition that massive firepower, while it might really feel good and accomplish things in the short run, can't be the answer. And it was a very smart decision not to level Fallujah or not to level Najaf. There's got to be an element of restraint. In our own self-interest and in pursuant of objectives, it's important.

I think that one of the lessons the military will take away from this -- which is a traditional military lesson, but that doesn't make it wrong -- is you can't do things on the cheap. ... People who want things good, quick and cheap are not going to get them. …

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joseph p. hoar
(Gen., U.S. Marine Corps-Ret.), Commander, CENTCOM (1991-1994).

…Do you think the United States Army's broken?

read the full interview

I'm not in a position to say that, but I think if we continue to do what we're doing, over a period of time there's every reason to believe that it will be broken. My guess is that within the Reserve and National Guard portion of the United States Army, if it's not broken, it's well on the way to being broken.

And that's not for a minute to say that there are not people serving in the National Guard and in the Army Reserve that are proud of their service, that are willing to serve, and they're making a huge contribution. This is a very different issue. What the issue is for a lot of young people that never thought that they would serve overseas in a combat zone for an extended period of time, who have young families, who have had to walk away from reasonably well-paying jobs to serve in the Army at much less money, this is a huge hardship.

I asked you near the beginning of this interview for a snapshot of the military at the beginning of the Bush administration. Here we are at the end of this particular administration. What's the snapshot of the military now?

Well, the burden of the war, of course, has fallen unevenly on the United States Army and the United States Marine Corps, because what's required are people with rifles on the ground. And it's not only in Iraq, but it's in Afghanistan as well. And the people that have been in Afghanistan will tell you that they are very much second cousins to the things that are going on in Iraq; that there just aren't enough assets to do two of these things simultaneously. ... The Army is clearly overcommitted. There's no way that you can build a reasonable rotation structure that allows one-third of the operational Army to be deployed and two-thirds back, one just returning and recovering and one training to get ready to go. There just aren't enough units in the Army to do that. ... I think there's an upper limit to how much you can stand. I think Abu Ghraib did not help the institutional Army at all, and I don't think we've finished paying the price on that. If that particular problem isn't rooted out completely, it's going to continue to live in the Army and fester and manifest itself in other ways. …

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posted oct. 26, 2004

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