It has always been the case that failed wars damage armies and sometimes break them. So it is with Iraq, unless remedies intervene soon enough. The Washington Post reported this March that “senior U.S. military and government officials” fear “it will take years for the Army and Marine Corps to recover from what some officials have called a ‘death spiral,’ in which the ever more rapid pace of war-zone rotations has consumed 40 percent of their total gear, wearied troops, and left no time to train to fight anything other than the insurgencies now at hand.” Retired four-star General Barry McCaffrey, otherwise an habitual optimist, has said that “Army and Marine Corps readiness ratings are starting to unravel,” that “ground combat equipment is shot in both the active and reserve components,” and that recruiting has “encountered serious quality and number problems,” with the result that “the U.S. Armed Forces are in a position of strategic peril.” Another retired Army general, Colin Powell, put it more plainly last December, on Face the Nation, saying simply that “the active Army is about broken”—an overstatement of very real problems.
All of this was predictable. It happened after our last failed war as well, though today there are few vivid memories of the state of the U.S. Armed Forces after the Vietnam War. Even at the time, most people were focused on the tragic drama of the Saigon evacuations. Younger Americans recognize that era’s makeshift sleeveless uniforms—a field improvisation that exposed flesh to dangerous insects—as a retro fashion item rather than obvious evidence of a widespread breakdown in discipline. Another breakdown, in maintenance, grounded a significant fraction of the aircraft of all services, while procurement policy had drifted so far from reason that revolutionary innovations—laser-guided bomb kits, night vision—were starved of funds even as millions of dollars were found to purchase hand-built “General Officers Pistols” engraved in brass with the officer’s name and rank. Postwar planners were conspicuously unable to cope with declining funding, especially when accelerating inflation made nonsense of annual budgets.
The Navy and the Air Force were the first to recover. Their operation and maintenance budgets were much too small for the vast number of aircraft and ships in hand, which still included more than two hundred destroyers that dated back to the Second World War. Overhauls kept being delayed, and all too frequently major breakdowns stopped ships dead in the water, even as more and more aircraft were becoming “hangar queens” that could not fly for want of replacement parts. The solution was to decommission entire classes of older warships and send all but the most modern aircraft to take the desert air in the vast parking lot at Davis-Mountain Air Force Base, where the arid climate makes hangars unnecessary. That attacked the problem at both ends. There was more upkeep money per unit in the remaining force, and the oldest equipment that needed the most maintenance work was simply eliminated. The smaller post-Vietnam Navy regained its operational edge and could afford to develop new warships, while the smaller Air Force could likewise afford to develop the precision weapons and stealth technology of today’s aircraft.
Once again, the Navy and Air Force are short of money to both maintain and develop their forces. Post-Iraq, defense budgets will decline just as they did post-Vietnam, and again the only possible remedy will be to reduce the size of the forces. The Navy has already started doing just that, not without provoking howls of protest. The Air Force has been less prompt in seeking economies, but it eventually will, if for no other reason than that it can—even those who fantasize a confrontation with China cannot deny that its modern forces are tiny.
After Vietnam, it was the Army and the Marine ground forces that faced the greatest problems, and it will be the same post-Iraq. This time, at least, the military will not have to expel tens of thousands of enlisted men who wanted to stay but who had accumulated too many disciplinary violations—and that at a time when even habitual drunks were tolerated. Today’s all-volunteer Army, which endures drinkless, sexless, funless tours in the featureless landscapes and remarkably ugly towns of Iraq, has by contrast behaved with saintly restraint and shown a grim devotion to duty. Nor can today’s Army and Marine Corps be reduced in numbers. They are barely large enough to manage their peacetime garrison duties, much less fight two simultaneous wars.
But there is one process that will have to be repeated, and in almost exactly the same manner. The Army and Marine Corps came out of the Vietnam War with thoughtful and well-defined counterinsurgency doctrines and tactics that were actually completely useless. Over the next several years, they were able to move beyond those doctrines and reconstitute themselves as effective fighting forces. They will have to do so again after the Iraq war.
After Vietnam, nearly all of the tactical manuals were scrapped, not just the counterinsurgency nonsense but the pre-Vietnam manuals that assumed the prompt and liberal use of nuclear weapons. The Army turned its attention from Vietnam to the Soviet army in Europe. It developed an entirely new maneuver doctrine to resist the mass of armored forces that was poised against the West German border, with an emphasis on agile operations and high-quality firepower. The best and brightest were wonderfully distracted from the Vietnam shambles as they refocused on the challenge of confronting a growing Soviet army.
There is no such straightforward challenge today, but the task ahead is clear nonetheless. If military occupations are certain losers, what can the military do to stop terrorism? In fact, there are times when detectable terrorist “infrastructures” begin to emerge, as happened in Afghanistan before 2001, when Al Qaeda acquired training bases and supply stores that were identified and that could have been, and should have been, raided and destroyed. Attacking such targets with cruise missiles, as Bill Clinton did in 1998, is very tempting for presidents and military chiefs alike because it eliminates the risk of casualties. But such attacks achieve little. It takes boots on the ground to encircle a terrorist camp, kill or capture its denizens, and thoroughly search buildings and caves to remove or destroy equipment and supplies. These would be swift and agile operations, for in raids the advantage of surprise is invariably worth more than massed strength laboriously assembled and deployed. Some raids might be very small, requiring only a handful of troops and lasting only a few hours. Others might be major expeditions that could last for a week—but still with no lingering aftermath, no occupation that would start the usual cycle of insurgency and repression. That is the proper new focus for the Army and Marine Corps.
This major transformation in strategic vision will require an equally major transformation in force structure. Having shifted to maneuver warfare in the 1980s, the combat formations of the Army and Marine Corps must now evolve one step further to become commando forces writ large. Such a transformation would bring great savings in itself, because today’s excessively costly “Special Operations Forces”—which, though once truly specialized, now amount to an outsized fifth service, with air, naval, and ground elements—could be reabsorbed into the regular service structures. To return to a structure in which the Special Forces really are specialized would release much funding for the new and more agile Army and Marine Corps we will need, once our troops are finally disengaged from their futile role as Mesopotamian constables.