The new army
Colorado Springs, Colorado — Beetle Bailey, meet Richard Wadford. He looks about the same as the US Army private you know so well. But, Beetle, you might have a hard time relating to him. For openers, Private Wadford walked into the recruiter's office of his own accord -- none of this "Greetings from Uncle Sam" in the mailbox. He volunteered, and -- get this , Beetle -- so did everyone else in this man's (and women's) army of today. Hard to believe that someone would actually want to be a "grunt" and run around in the mud and get yelled at. Or that when Private Wadford signed that bottom line, the army signed a check in his name for $2,500 cash, up front.
Things have changed dramatically, Beetle. In 1973, President Nixon and his Secretary of Defense, Melvin Laird, put an end to the decades-old draft by creating the all-volunteer army. The action took some of the heat generated by the Vietnam war off the administration and gave Americans just what they wanted at the time, an army they didn't have to think about, one that stayed out of the headlines.
For the last decade, the United States military strategy has been centered on its stockpile of nuclear weapons, with the idea that the Soviet Union will never attack if it would mean total destruction of both countries, a deterrent strategy referred to as MAD, Mutual Assured Destruction. While America was concentrating on the nuclear race, however, the Soviet Union built up a conventional army that outguns and outnumbers that of the United States.
The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan has put the army back under the public microscope. Many now question whether the all-volunteer troops can stand up to the kind of military muscle the Russian bear is flexing in the East. The cost of maintaining the army, the quality of its soldiers, the caliber of both its weapons and combat skills, and especially its ability to attract recruits from a rapidly shrinking manpower pool have been the subjects of intense argument in Washington over the last year.
Is the US volunteer army sufficient? Or does the army need to be beefed up? Should the "war talk" now percolating in Washington be taken seriously, or is it just the usual saberrattling by the Pentagon?
"Saber rattling?" comments one member of the army's top brass. "I guess you could say that, but, more to the point, some people call it 'scabbard rattling.'" He hastens to add that the United States Army could not really be compared to an empty scabbard. "There is a sword in there," he says, "but it's a short sword, a short sword with a very sharp point."
That "short but sharp" sword is honed to a fine edge at, among other places, Fort Carson here in Colorado Springs, the most popular base among army men and women and the home of the crack Fourth Mechanized Infantry Division, the Iron Horseman. Its troops are highly mobile, relying on either tanks or armored personnel carriers to move about. The commanding officer, Brig. Gen. Lewis Menetrey, pushes constantly for increased readiness, the ability to move troops and equipment into a transport plane at a moment's notice.
Officers on the base, as well as those in the Pentagon, concur that the volunteer soldiers at Fort Carson today are just as good as their predecessors. But, say the officers, there aren't enough of those soldiers.
"In some ways today's soldier is better than the drafted soldier," says General Menetrey, "because he is better motivated. Any reasonable man would prefer to have a soldier that came in of his own free will instead of one that was forced in."
However, he points out, "We are hurting in numbers, and if we cannot maintain our congressionally mandated strength then something else will have to be done. That is for Congress to decide, but I have no quarrel with the [quality] of today's soldier."
In interviews here at the base, most officers echo this sentiment, but the degree of candor with which they speak is uncertain; they also make it clear that they are anxious not "to say anything against my employer." The moves in a military career are as competitive and calculated as any in private industry. In describing today's army, they use such phrases as "probably adequate" and "it could be better, but so could a lot of things." This is not terribly praiseworthy talk from a group of men who traditionally take enormous, and often colorfully expressed, pride in the ability of their fighting machine.
"This is a good army for peacetime," says Lt. Col. Earl Burley, chief public affairs officer for the base, "but if push came to shove in the Mideast and there was a war, I don't know how well we would do. We need to have a strong army to keep us out of war, to act as a deterrent."
"We are highly restricted by the lack of resources," says one colonel. "The Russians have been going full bore with their military buildup since the Cuban missile crisis, but we haven't. We have either let our military stand still, or we have cut it back.
"We need more tanks. We need more guns. We need more men. We need more ammunition. We need more fuel. We just can't train this division to be as effective as it should be working under the sorts of restrictions we have to. Because there are fewer men, those men that we do have must work longer hours to accomplish the same job. Working 100 hours a week is not uncommon, and people end up doing a lot of things they should not have to do."
Because of the high cost of fuel and ammunition, the Troops at Fort Carson seldom go out on training maneuvers to practice driving real tanks and firing live ammunition -- it all costs too much. Instead, they usually practice on simulation ranges. Training in miniature they call it. For example, instead of practicing with a real anti-tank gun, a soldier spends time in an indoor range, firing .22 caliber rounds at a miniature tank that runs around on something resembling a model railway.
"It works, but only up to a point," says Lt. Col. Calvin Waller, director of planning and operations for the base. "We do everything we can to reduce the money we spend. That means a lot of simulation training. Instead of firing a 105-mm tank round that costs a few hundred dollars, we fire a .22 caliber round. The training is good, but there is nothing like the real thing -- there is nothing like the recoil of an M-60 tank after it fires. When you go to simulation training, you are not training the whole crew."
The impression that emerges: Simulation training is like firing a BB gun to learn how to hunt. It can make recruits feel complacent about their abilities, when they might not feel so comfortable if they were training with full-scale weapons.
Colonel Waller feels training isn't what it should be now. If budget cutting continues, training may become totally inadequate, he feels. The base should fire between $14 million and $15 million worth of ammunition per year, he says. This year Ft. Carson is spending only about $10 million on ammo. The projected 1981 budget allows for $12 million.
In addition to being undersoldiered an d underfunded, the army is underdeveloped, using weapons that are outdated and far less powerful than those used by the Soviets. This is the view of Lt. Gen. Donald R. Keith, deputy chief of the army's office of research, development, and acquisition at the Pentagon.
"Our army, basically, is using weapons that were developed in the 1960s, that they improved instead of replaced as they became obsolete. The Soviet Union, on the other hand, deploys a whole new generation of weapons."
He refers specifically to modern, sophisticated tanks and armored personnel carriers, both of which the Soviet army has had for several years and which the US army won't have for several more.
General Keith points out that America is developing an array of "smart" weapons: laser-guided rockets and the like. "They will completely change the character of the battlefield," he says, but their deployment is still some distance down the road.
Critics of the all-volunteer army, however, charge many soldiers won't be able to work such sophisticated technology. They say the need for new recruits is so desperate that aptitude standards for enlistees have been lowered.
"We get some really dumb guys through here, and I mean really dumb," comments one officer at Ft. Carson.
"I think it's true that we get fewer of the very intelligent recruits that we took in with the draft," says General Menetrey, "but we also get fewer of those with the lower aptitudes. Most of our soldiers fall into the middle categories.
"Naturally, I would like to have a soldier with a college degree, but we have to work with what we get."
Officers keep coming back to the idea that the stiffest challenge facing the volunteer army is not so much the quality of people as the lack of them. Right now, says Lt. Col. Jeffrey Cook of the Department of the Army, the armed forces must recruit one out of every four of America's 10.5 million males, aged 18-21. By 1987, that manpower pool will have shrunk to 8.7 million, and by 1990 the military will have to recruit 1 out of every 2 eligible young men to maintain its congressionally mandated strength of 2.1 million.
In 1979 for the first time, all four services -- army, navy, marine corps, and air force -- fell short of their recruiting goals, the army by 16,000 people. It is behind again this year; 2,300 short, so far, of its goal of 48, 500 for the first quarter. Drastic shortages in the Individual Ready Reserve (IRR) present an even greater problem. IRR troops are described as those who would be called in to take the place of early casualties during combat to help hold the field until full mobilization.
The IRR, however, is several hundred thousand short of its necessary size. "We can't say just how large the Ready Reserve is supposed to be," says A Pentagon spokesman, "because that is classified information. The current size is 209,000." One estimate puts the desired IRR size at 825,000. Congress is considering proposals which would draft young men to serve for 5 to 15 months, long enough to train them and then include their names on IRR call-up lists.
The army puts its current troop size at 759,000. This total together with the marine corps figure gives the US just under 1 million ground troops, compared to 1.8 million ground forces (all of them men) in the Soviet Union, according to Pentagon reports. Since the mid-'60s the Soviets have steadily increased their land and air forces, from 1.4 million to just over 2 million now.
The army hopes to increase its ranks with more women. About 60,000 women now serve in the army, comprising 8 percent of the total force, says Colonel Cook, and the Pentagon plans to expand their numbers to 12 percent by 1985.
How do women recruits feel about the army?
Pfc. Petra Lynch, a married recruit who signed up in January 1979, has mixed feelings. She says the army has treated her well, and the promises made to her before enlistment have been fulfilled so far. "I signed up for the schooling and the travel," she explains. She had never traveled far from her native Salt Lake City, and the future holds a hitch with her husband in Germany. The problem is: she never sees her husband.
"We've been married seven months and been together three months," she says. She doubts that she would sign up if she had it do over again.
Private Kelly Sorenson, who is single, harbors no such qualms. She does not mind the 12-hour days she puts in cruising the base at the wheel of her military police (MP) jeep. "I like it," she shouts over the din of the engine, gently coaxing the reluctant lever into third gear. "I like it a lot. I signed up on the spur of the moment because I guess I had no real plans for after school. It gives me kind of a good feeling. . . .
"Basic training was really great. All the girls pulled together. If one of us couldn't quite make it, the rest would come and help her out and encourage her to keep going. That sort of thing is still there but at the company level. You know, if you have a problem, your company relief pulls for you. . . .
"I guess there is some discrimination," she adds. "You run into some older army guys who say, 'you can't make it, and you shouldn't be in the army because you're a girl. . . .' Sometimes guys will yell stuff like, 'Hey babe, your place or mine?' I usually ignore it. Sometimes I'll say something like, 'My place, with my .38.'"
Pfc. Jennifer Lapan, who works in intelligence, complains of minor discrimination, what she terms "rumor control. If you won't go out with a guy the word spreads real fast." Otherwise, Priate Lapan says she likes army life and would sign up again if given the chance.
Fort Carson has put 1,100 women to work at jobs ranging from helicopter pilot to tank mechanic, utilizing a total of 260 skills out of 300 differnt positions on the base. Women are prohibited by law from serving in combat positions, but they work everywhere else.
"It is not inconceivable," says Colonel Burley, "that in case of war, the men now serving at desk jobs would pick up their rifles and head out to the front lines, while women filled in most of the desk and combat support positions."
On the whole, women in the army score better on their aptitude tests than men. They are generally older and better educated than their male counterparts, primarily because the army, until recently, set stricter enlistment standards for women. They also drink less, go AWOL less frequently, are less apt to abuse drugs, follow the rules more closely, and readily pick up technical skills. It may well be that in the army of the future, men will provide the brawn and women the brains.
Making today's army work is up to people like Lt. Col. Robert "No. Slack" Stack. It's officers like him who say "nuts" to offers of surrender when surrounded by the enemy. His nickname comes from the tight discipline he requires.
"I tell my soldiers that I want their boots clean, but I don't make them spit and polish them. . .," he says with a mild Alabama twang. "If I think maybe a man's hair is too long, I aks him if it might get in the way of his job." A helicopter pilot during Vietnam, Colonel Stack loves the army. He eats, breathes, and sleeps (when he sleeps) the army. His day starts at 4:30 a.m. and frequently goes until 11 p.m. When his 700 troops go out for their 3-to-4-mile run ("We run every day if the temperature is above-10 degrees"), he leads the field.
Asked about the quality of today's soldiers, he says, "I don't know about the rest of the army, but this battalion has the best darn soldiers in this division. They are ready [Right now] to go and fight for oil. I had 700 guys run 12 miles in full combat gear the other day, and only 6 of them -- who hadn't been in the army more than 3 months -- couldn't make it. You have to set a standard and then insist that people conform to it. If they don't, then they stay here until late at night until they do. That's the way it is with my officers."
How does Colonel Stack think the volunteer army stacks up against the draft?
"I'm one of those guys who likes to salute the flag, and I think everybody owes their country some time -- maybe not in the military, but I think everybody should serve their country. And they should be paid $100 a month to do it. That would solve the dependent problem," he adds, referring to a kind of "final solution": such low pay would make it impossible for service men and women to afford dependents.
The problem of dependents is considerable. More than ever before, enlistees are starting families during their hitches, only to find they cannot support them on the army's pay scale. Of Colonel Stack's 700 troops, 200 are married, and out of Fort Carson's 20,000 soldiers more than 50 percent are married. Some 1,400 married enlisted men collect food stamps to help pay the grocery bills.
"And that is only the men who have applied," says General Menetrey. "I'm sure there are plenty of others simply too proud to apply for them."
As for the women who are starting families, pregnancy brought an automatic discharge until 1975. Today pregnancy can provide a way out of the army for women who, want to leave, though discharge is not mandatory. The army provides sick leave for pregnancy, and though bases don't offer day care, some recruits arrange for it on their own and stay in the service.
Former Secretary of Defense Laird, in a recent report for the American Enterprise Institute, pins the lion's share of the volunteer army's problems on low pay and benefits. Despite the attention given to enlistment bonuses, he maintains, the Defense Department has fallen far short of adequate compensation for all military services. While the consumer price index has increased by 76 percent since 1972, military pay for enlisted personnel has gone up only 51 percent.
In dollars and cents, says the report, this means that the average enlisted person's yearly pay and allowances come out to only $9,900, even though the Bureau of Labor Statistics says a family of four needs $11,546 for a "lower" standard of living or $20,000 for a "moderate" standard.
Nationally, military commissaries take in $10 million a year in food stamps. An enlisted man who joined the army at the end of the draft in 1973, earned about $6,200 a year. Today, Mr. Laird says, assuming normal advancement, his income has increased by only 3 percent. In addition, although moving plays a significant role in military life, the military pays only $644 for moving expenses, while the average cost of moving a family of four is $3,835. The report puts the total out-of-pocket cost to military people at $1 billion a year.
The original concept of the volunteer army, says Mr. Laird, was to attract recruits and career soldiers by offering salaries comparable to those of private industry. As it is, industry lures army-trained technicians away from the army with much better pay.
"Today, we have reneged on this commitment and are failing to provide this decent standard of living for personnel in the Armed Forces, especially at lower enlisted levels," sys Mr. Laird. "The United States must provide these individuals and their families with a quality of life commensurate with the sacrifices we demand from them. . . ."
Providing that quality of life, however, would cost billions of dollars, and critics of the volunteer force already charge that too much of the defense budget goes for personnel costs. By some estimates, 60 cent s out of every defense dollar goes for salaries, allowances, and the $2,500 cash benefit used to lure the Private Wadfords of the country into the army. (The Soviets are estimated to spend only 13 cents of every defense dollar on personnel costs.)
The army spends less on personnel than the other services. In 1979 and 1980, roughly 34 percent of the army's total budgets ($31.13 billion and $33.2 billion respectively) went to personnel costs. The projected 1981 budget shows a cut in such costs, from $11.3 billion in 1980 to $10.8 billion (out of a $29.9 billion total) for 1981. Projected budgets, though, have a way of underestimating needs.
The Carter Administration is straddling the fence in the debate about the volunteer army. Secretary of Defense Harold Brown remains firmly committed to the concept, says a spokesman. But President Carter wants to begin registering men and women for possible draft. The President has been under mounting pressure from conservative members of Congress and the Pentagon to beef up the armed forces. And the fervor against the Soviet move into Afghanistan has paved the way for public acceptance of such action. Some people are demanding it.
"The Russian invasion has done for us what hourse of lobbying could not," says one army official.
Facing a threat or not, Americans are traditionally wary of maintaining an army in peacetime. Both Thomas Jefferson and George Washington warned against keeping large standing armies in order to avoid transferring political power from civilian hands to the military. The larger the military, they reasoned, the more political power it wants and gets. In addition, popular sentiment seems to run counter to militarism, if for no other reason than that a peacetime army serves as a constant reminder of the possibility of war.
Those who favor a large war machine at a constant state of readiness point out that the United States entered both World Wars with very little in the way of military might at the outset. They believe Hitler might not have been so eager to gobble up Europe if he had faced a strong deterrant force. By the same token, they say, the Soviet Union might have hesitated before sending its troops into Afghanistan, or might now be reluctant to enter some other Mideastern country or Yugoslavia, if the US and NATO bristled with armies equal to or larger than their own.
Proponents of a small volunteer army worry that a large military establishment might be too anxious to test its fighting prowess. "When you have power, it's very difficult not to want to be powerful," says one congressional source.
And supporters of the volunteer army of every feather from hawk to dove admit there are problems, one of the greatest being the disproportionately large number of minority enlistees.
Officers point out that the army's benefits and salaries (an army recruit starts earning about $450 a month) appeal most to young men and women from low income groups. Just over one-third of the troops at Forth Carson are minority.
Over half of Colonel Stack's battalion is minority. "They are the best soldiers I've ever seen, just like every other soldier in my batallion," he says , echoing the comment of other Fort Carson officers. Nonetheless, the possibility of white officers commanding predominately minority soldiers seems increasingly likely.
Just about everyone at Fort Carson seems to favor a draft, because it would produce a wider cross section of soldiers and because they believe an individual has an obligation to serve his country. "If you live in this great country of ours, then you ought to serve it, no matter who you are," says Colonel Waller. "The army should represent a cross section of society."
One proposal that has been kicked around in Washington for several years is universal conscription. Every young woman and man would have to serve in a civilian or military service of some kind. A draftee would receive extra money for choosing the military and still more money by opting for a combat position.
The President's proposal for draft registration, not a draft, has, of course, triggered opposition on college campuses, but it is too early to tell if the movement represents a majority. If it does, the call for registration could become a major political liability for President Carter in this election year and a real bonus for either Jerry Brown or Ted Kennedy, both of whom oppose registration.
Before the afghanistan invasion, the Carter administration had denied the need for registration, and the administration faces some tough opposition on Capitol Hill for its change of heart. The Senate Appropriations Subcommittee, which will decide whether to recommend appropriation of money to revive the Selective Service, is chaired by William Proxmire (D) of Wisconsin. Senator Proxmire is one of Washington's staunchest supporters of the volunteer army.
"Right now I oppose registration," he says in an interview. "I don't think the Carter people have made a convincing case for changing their minds on the subject. . . . I have an open mind and will listen to what they have to say when they appear before any subcommittee . . . , but I don't see what has changed.
"I think the volunteer army is by far the best army. Morale is better. Retention rates are better. It is by far the best system in a free society. There is nothing more repressive and unfair than a system that forces a young person to give up a career or schooling to serve in the military," he says, adding that this is particularly true when the military does not need every individual.
He agrees that too much of the defense budget goes to personnel costs, but thinks that a draft would not solve the problem. Greater efficiency would, he believes. A cutback on the one million civilians now working for the military offers substantial payroll savings, he says. "Also, I think, just general efficiency would help considerably. We have 10 people working in a supply office, where the Soviets have three." He calls for streamlining the military's classic passion for red tape.
Senator Proxmire also sees more benefit than harm in the large proportion of blacks in the military. (Blacks now comprise between 25 and 30 percent of the army, while the percentage is lower in other services; 13 percent of the United States' teen-age population is black.) "I don't think that is too much," he says , speaking of the percentages. "The military offers young blacks an opportunity to get training and earn money, an opportunity they might not otherwise have."
Concerning the declining manpower pool, he thinks the military should expand its use of women, many of whom have been turned away because of the stricter enlistment standards that were applied to them. He also supports the use of women in combat positions. "We are just beginning to tap women as a resource. Nine out of 10 jobs in the military are noncombat, and women can even do many of the combat jobs as well as men. They can pilot a helicopter as well, drive a tank as well, and fire a missile as well."
David Cortright, director of the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy in Washington, D.C., feels estimates of Soviet troop strength are misleading. "One-third to one-half of the Soviet troops are permanently stationed along the Chinese border, and those figures also include the reserve units which constantly rotate in and out of active duty. It also includes millions who work for the army. Unlike here, they are uniformed, so they get counted in.
He cites two recent studies by the Department of Defense and the Rand Corporation which conclude that the volunteer army works, that it has enough people, in terms of quality and numbers. "It is definitely not suitable if we want to expand our military commitment," he says, "but is that what we really want to do? The Soviets may be more powerful militarily, but I don't think Afghanistan was part of the pattern. The hawks in Washington have made Afghanistan fit into a simplified analysis [which indicates] that the Soviets are trying to take over the world, or that they are poised and ready to move into the Persian Gulf. . . .
"The Russians have always had a very lrge military. Even before Hitler invaded Russia, they had a large army."
Mr. Cortright adds that the issue of the size of the Individual Ready Reserve is a false one. "If the reserves were called up, it would be the Selective Reserves, the weekend warrior guys. The IRR is a pool of names. The Selective Reserves are guys that periodically go out and train with active units. During Vietnam, it was not the IRR that got called it, it was the Selective Reserves. There are about 800,000 of them.