Weekend Reading about our Wars

Contents

  1. From Lebanon to Hezbollahstan“, Bret Stephens, Wall Street Journal  (13 May 2008) — “Bombing the runway of the Damascus airport for the role it plays in serving as a conduit for Iranian arms to Hezbollah would also be an appropriate signal of American displeasure.”
  2. Aid at the Point of a Gun“, Robert D. Kaplan, New York Times op-ed (14 May 2008) — “… there is an increasing degree of chatter about the possibility of an American-led invasion of the Irrawaddy River Delta {Burma/Mayanmar}.”
  3. The cost of iraq afghanistan and other global war on terror“, Congressional Resarch Service  (11 April 2008)
  4. Military check-up time“, Michael O’Hanlon, Washington Times (4 May 2008) — O’Hanlon presents data that refutes widely held perception that the Army is breaking under the strain of the long war.

Reading these, America looks like a bellicose nation.  Not a pretty picture.

Articles and excerpts

I.  From Lebanon to Hezbollahstan“, Bret Stephens, Wall Street Journal  (13 May 2008) — “Bombing the runway of the Damascus airport for the role it plays in serving as a conduit for Iranian arms to Hezbollah would also be an appropriate signal of American displeasure.”   Rather than excerpt from this nonsense, here is a reply by Abu Muqawama — excerpt:

{Abu Muqawama} thinks bombing Syria would be pretty foolish and that suggestions that we do so bear the twin hallmarks of the neo-conservative approach to military power:

  • a childlike faith in the ability of military power to solve any problem, and
  • complete disregard for what might be the consequences of said military action.

II.  Aid at the Point of a Gun“, Robert D. Kaplan, New York Times op-ed (14 May 2008) — More madness.  Excerpt:

France’s foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, has spoken of the possibility of an armed humanitarian intervention, and there is an increasing degree of chatter about the possibility of an American-led invasion of the Irrawaddy River Delta {Burma/Mayanmar}.

As it happens, American armed forces are now gathered in large numbers in Thailand for the annual multinational military exercise known as Cobra Gold. This means that Navy warships could pass from the Gulf of Thailand through the Strait of Malacca and north up the Bay of Bengal to the Irrawaddy Delta. It was a similar circumstance that had allowed for Navy intervention after the Indian Ocean tsunami of December 2004. … In other words, this is militarily doable.

… It seems like a simple moral decision: help the survivors of the cyclone. But liberating Iraq from an Arab Stalin also seemed simple and moral. (And it might have been, had we planned for the aftermath.) Sending in marines and sailors is the easy part; but make no mistake, the very act of our invasion could land us with the responsibility for fixing Burma afterward.

III.  The cost of iraq afghanistan and other global war on terror“, Congressional Resarch Service  (11 April 2008) — The report considers only current costs.  No mention of replacing tanks and aircraft.  The words “pension” and “disability” do not appear in this analysis.  Excerpt:

CRS has estimated the allocation of all DOD budget authority (BA) by the three operations — Iraq, Afghanistan, and enhanced security — because DOD has not done so.  Although DOD has reported the total amount appropriated for the Global War on Terror (GWOT), DOD does not allocate all of these funds. There also continue to be discrepancies between CRS, DOD, and CBO estimates of the total amount of war funding enacted, which appear to reflect different interpretations of which funding is war-related.

As of passage of the FY2008 Consolidated, CRS estimates that Congress has provided a total of $655 billion, compared to $645 billion for CBO and $636 billion for DOD. CBO and CRS totals may be larger because they include funds not counted as GWOT-related and CRS’s total also includes funds for enhanced security that are now included in DOD’s regular baseline program.

IV.  Military check-up time“, Michael O’Hanlon, Washington Times (4 May 2008) — O’Hanlon presents data that refutes widely held perception that the Army is breaking under the strain of the long war.   Excerpt:

But how well are people holding up? Key measures of personnel readiness include the experience and aptitude of typical troops, the availability of individuals with critical specialized skills, and the ability of the military to recruit new members and retain those already in.

One recent worry relates to a lowering of personnel standards. For example, the military has accepted more recruits with general equivalency degrees rather than high-school diplomas; it has enlisted a higher percentage of applicants scoring very low on its aptitude tests; and it has also taken on more individuals over 40 years old as first-time military personnel. … As of 2005, moreover, 90% of recruits continued to have high-school diplomas, comparable to the 1985 figure at the height of the Reagan buildup. And the typical recruit scored better on the Armed Forces Qualification Test (AFQT) in 2005 than in 1985.

That said, while figures for the other services have remained good, the Army has had some worsening problems of late, with the high-school graduation figure for 2007 declining to just over 70 percent of new recruits – comparable to the norm of the 1970s. That suggests a trendline that needs to be arrested and reversed, even if overall statistics on the quality of new recruits are reasonably solid.

Moral waivers for new recruits for their criminal histories have increased substantially in recent years. A total of 860 soldiers and Marines required waivers from convictions for felony crimes in 2007, up by 400 from 2006.  While most of the convictions were for juvenile theft, and the aggregate total is modest compared with the size of the force, only by arresting such trends will the quality of the force be ensured.

… So much for finding new soldiers and Marines; what about holding on to those we already have? There has been a recent rumor that West Point graduates have been leaving the service at drastically increased rates as soon as their minimal obligations are satisfied.  In fact, this appears not to be true. The last year for which data are available as of this writing (the class of 2002, which was eligible to leave the service as of 2007), showed a 68% re-enlistment rate, only 4 percentage points below the 1990s average. 

More generally, company grade officers (first and second lieutenants as well as captains, and West Point grads and others all combined) have not been leaving the force at a greater than normal rate.  The average attrition rate during the Iraq war has been less than the average rate of the late 1990s, for example. A similar conclusion is true of majors.

Nonetheless, there is a problem: The Army is now short several thousand officers in aggregate. The reason is not what one might think. As noted, officers are not quitting in droves. Rather, the Army is trying to increase the number of its officers as it enlarges the number of brigades in its active-duty force by at least 25%.  In addition, the Army did not enlist enough young officers in the early 1990s, meaning the current pool of officers from which to recruit for mid-level positions is too small.

How about the general morale of the force? One way to assess this is to look at those having serious problems in their lives. Soldiers and Marines’ divorce rates have leveled off somewhat at about 3.5%, after reaching 3.9% in 2004, and are not worse than in the general population – but still above the 2.9% of 2003.

Suicide rates reached 17.3 per 100,000 soldiers in the U.S. Army in 2006, not far off from the age-adjusted and gender-adjusted average for the U.S. population on the whole (for males, for example, the rate is 17.6 per 100,000), but still much higher than the rate of 9.1 per 100,000 soldiers in 2001.

Most of all, many soldiers and Marines face huge personal challenges and often tragedy, in part due to the strain of the wars. These trends area serious reason for worry. But as noted, they are not totally out of the norm of historical experience either.  For one group of soldiers surveyed in 2008, among those who had been to Iraq on three or four separate tours, the fraction displaying signs of post-traumatic stress disorders was 27% (in contrast to 12% after one tour and 18.5% after two).

As of early 2008, among the 513,000 active-duty soldiers who have served in Iraq, more than 197,000 had served more than once, and more than 53,000 had deployed three or more times. That means almost 15,000 people have faced PTSD after a third or fourth tour. We must of course do everything possible to help these individuals.

As we near Memorial Day, the above statistics should not only cause us considerable concern at a policy level, they should of course further reinforce our desire and commitment to honor those who serve our nation in uniform, now and in the past.  Thankfully, however, they do not add up to a broken force or a military on the verge of collapse. We should not continue to deploy them lightly at the pace of the recent past.  But the picture that emerges from the above information is that our soldiers and Marines are continuing to find it within themselves to do the near-impossible to protect the country.

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