Tuesday, October 30, 2007

A Risk I'm Willing to Take...For You

While GOP frontrunner Rudy Giuliani's handpicked foreign policy guru, Norman Podhoretz, waxes ever hopeful about the prospect of triggering the rest of a series of US-led wars in the Middle East, reality intrudes to dispel some of the fantastical thinking that has enchanted Rudy. From Joseph Galloway at McClatchy:

The Army reportedly has a shortage of 3,000 captains and majors this year, and recently began offering them bonuses of up to $35,000 if they'd agree to remain on duty for another three years. The shortage was forecast to rise to 6,000 by 2010 as the Army tries to grow by 65,000.

Even with the offer of the cash bonus or free graduate school or their choice of assignments, the exodus of young officers continues to grow at a pace that worries commanders. The U.S. Military Academy at West Point was founded to educate career officers for the Army, and upon graduation each officer owes Uncle Sam five years on active duty. The hope is that most will remain for a full career, and historically just 28.8 percent have opted out after five years.

A total of 35 percent of the West Point Class of 2000 left the Army in 2005; 46 percent of the Class of 2001 left in 2006, and a staggering 58 percent of the Class of 2002 left active duty when their obligation expired this year.

Those figures are mirrored among officers who are commissioned through university ROTC programs, with attrition rates now at a 30-year high. The Army Reserve reports that the situation is even worse for critical ranks and specialties: The Reserve has only 58 percent of the sergeants first class it needs, 53 percent of the needed captains and 74 percent of needed majors.

Patricia Kushlis delves into a similar phenomenon that is hampering the State Department's efforts to fill up to 50 of its vacant posts at the behemoth-like Baghdad embassy. Despite the attempted turn toward neo-imperialism undertaken by the Bush administration, as ably described by John Judis, the American people don't seem to have been inspired by the same nostalgia for days of conquest gone by.

The Army, in order to try to make up for lagging recruitment levels, has taken to lowering standards for incoming GI's (from waivers for behavioral issues and past criminal conduct, to dramatically lower aptitude test requirements). While this attempted fix might keep up appearances in terms of the meeting of recruitment goals, the same band aids are not available when attempting to retain West Point and ROTC grads (the ranks of which are not being thinned out, preemptively or otherwise, by the imposition of such standards).

Regardless, the measures employed to buoy those recruitment levels are taking a toll on the readiness, morale and effectiveness of the armed forces in total and, as Galloway points out, making the lives of our serving officers that much more difficult:

[The lowering of standards has] only made more trouble for those captains Adm. Mullen talked to this week. One complained to Mullen that he was forced to spend 80 percent of his time dealing with the 13 “problem children” in his 100-man company.

Mullen told the junior officers that his service dates back to the Vietnam War, and he remembers vividly how our military was broken at the end of that war, and how hard it was to repair the damage. He said he doesn’t want to see the current wars break the force again.

The grinding down of the officer class - largely resulting from the sustained burden of extended deployments in Iraq and, to a lesser degree, Afghanistan on too small a contingent of officers - could portend more grievous consequences should a crisis arise in the near future. Despite this vulnerability, the visible signs of fraying, and regardless of General McCaffrey's (and others') warning about an imminent "meltdown" of certain service branches, the GOP candidates, as typified by Giuliani, are in various states of urgency regarding the need to voluntarily and without casus belli create just such a crisis.

This time, the crisis of choice will come in the form of the opening of a third front in Iran to go along with the two currently raging. More worrisome than the GOP fields' mongering, though, is that certain powerful factions in the White House seem to share that zeal.

The way that those that favor military confrontation with Iran attempt to reconcile the current predicament involving our armed forces with the increased strain that would result from the opening of a third front is to promise, again, a quick and easy war. This time, the best case scenario is supposed to play out something like this: We unleash a massive campaign of airstrikes against Iranian targets and Iran (despite its significant retaliatory capacity) does not respond in any way that would require an escalation and use of ground forces on our part.

This wishful thinking is premised on the notion that Iran will either be so helplessly crippled by our display of air power or sufficiently chastened such that it will reluctantly go along with our carefully laid out, and delicate, plans. This makes little sense though. For one, recall how we dismantled Iraq's military structures, and yet Iraqis have continued to find myriad ways to exact a toll on our forces. Iran, right next door and with numerous connections, resources, contacts and allies in neighboring Iraq, could easily participate in such a role. Further, the same war proponents that assure us that Iran won't respond are busy trying to convince us that Iran's leadership is consumed by the single-minded purpose of interfering with, and frustrating, our designs in the region and beyond. But if we attack them through targeted airstrikes alone, they will suddenly play nice?

In recent years, Iraq war supporters have taken to lecturing those that have criticized the disconnect between rosy war plans and actual execution by frequently turning to the military truism that no battle plan survives first contact with the enemy. Yet many of those same Iraq war defenders would have us plunge headlong into another potentially devastating conflict under the assumption that our war plan will survive in near pristine condition after the fighting starts - and throughout.

I'd call this magical thinking, but "magical" has too pleasant a connotation. This is lunacy. But as Galloway points out, the risks involved are deemed acceptable by far too many of us:

Just over half a percent of our 300 million citizens carry the entire burden and make all the sacrifices in an inexcusably unfinished war of necessity in Afghanistan and a costly war of choice in Iraq.


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