When Army Morale Takes a Hit

The demands on America's overstretched armed forces are starting to take a toll on troop morale. That has consequences beyond soldiers' mental outlook (which is of itself no minor issue).

Concerned about its ability to retain and recruit soldiers, the Army is considering reducing its 12-month combat tour in Iraq and Afghanistan to between six and nine months (the Marine tour is only seven months).

The tour was lengthened last year because the insurgency in Iraq required maintaining a large military presence there. But feedback from the front line is that a year is too much of a hardship.

That complaint goes especially for the National Guard's "weekend soldiers" who never expected to be away from their families and regular jobs for a year.

Signs of recruitment troubles are beginning to surface in the Guard and Reserves, the Army's backup. For the first time in 10 years, the National Guard expects to fall short of its recruitment target - by about 5,000, or 9 percent. And more than a third of the 1,662 former soldiers being reactivated from the Individual Ready Reserve had failed to report for duty in Fort Jackson, S.C., by last week's deadline.

The interplay between morale and recruitment is now hitting home. Overextending forces threatens morale. Yet morale needs to be improved in order to maintain and build troop numbers in an all-volunteer military.

And let no doubt linger that the Army needs to increase its size.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's lean-and-mean vision for the military may have sufficed for attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq, but that hasn't held true for the nation-building missions that came later.

Mr. Rumsfeld, however, still seems wedded to his vision, as he's granted permission to only temporarily enlarge the Army by 30,000 troops.

A recent report by a Pentagon-appointed panel, the respected Defense Science Board, says the US military faces several choices: add "substantial" forces to its numbers of troops, scale back missions, or depend more on other nations.

Perhaps Rumsfeld is counting on the last two options to support his temporary fix. Yet the training of Iraqi forces is going slowly, and the Army plans to maintain current US troop levels in Iraq at least through 2007.

What will motivate recruits and boost morale is confidence that the Pentagon will increase force numbers and rotation.

Given the troops' outstanding service in what has turned into a guerrilla war, they deserve it.

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