Long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and, lately, longer tours of duty, have "unquestionably stressed and stretched" American soldiers, said US Army Chief of Staff George Casey last week. Get used to it, he seemed to say. Beyond these wars, the US will likely face "persistent conflict" overseas.
Strains on the volunteer Army are a sign of a military "out of balance," as General Casey put it, with the need for the United States to prepare for new types of military action – and not your grandfather's shorter, conventional wars.
The stress, as heard in complaints among GIs serving in battle zones, is showing up especially during the surge in Iraq (an extra 30,000 troops), in higher suicide rates, broken families of soldiers, shorter military training and recuperation time, lower standards for recruitment, and more officers exiting the ranks.
Troop morale is difficult to maintain when rumors fly of tour lengths possibly being extended to 18 months after going from 12 to 15 months just this past spring. "The demand for our forces exceeds the sustainable supply," Casey admits.
Is this a case of the US conducting war on the cheap? Of Roman-style imperial overreach?
Or will the US gear up to deal with what Casey calls "a period of protracted confrontation among state, nonstate, and individual actors who will increasingly use violence as a means of achieving their political and ideological objectives"?
Just how the US gets through the surge into next year, and leaves Iraq with some stability, will be a telling indicator of whether the military can be transformed for a new era.
Casey wants to use the current war experience to prepare the Army for long-term threats. These threats include the ease of exporting terror from failing, poor, or overpopulated countries; the competition among nations for dwindling oil supplies; global-warming disasters; and the spread of nuclear weapons. He says there are more than 1,200 terrorist groups in the world.
With help from Congress, the Army has raced to make up for past shortfalls. It's delivering more armor for soldiers. Their families are getting more assistance, and injured soldiers are receiving better treatment. Those who sign up for Army reserves are told their service may be long, not short. And while training is less for many soldiers, it better reflects anti-insurgent warfare with no front lines. Such steps, Casey says, are "necessary to reverse the cumulative effects of sustained high-operation tempo."
One of those effects, sadly, is a disturbing rise of suicides in combat zones, despite the Pentagon's recent attempts to confront the problem. The number of suicides is at its highest level since the 1991 Gulf War, when the US had far more troops deployed.
The London Observer recently described conditions for soldiers in Iraq: "A whole army is exhausted and worn out. You see the young soldiers washed up like driftwood at Baghdad's international airport, waiting to go on leave or returning to their units, sleeping on their body armor on floors and in the dust."
Casey says the war is winnable. Perhaps what he really means is that the Army can't afford to lose by not rising to the challenges of a war that portends future types of warfare. Retreat is not on his lips. But maybe a cry for more help is.