Army Morale Dropping Fast

Friday's Wall Street Journal reported on the furious debates underway within the U.S. Army about Iraq. Click here (subscription may be required, sorry).

Last December, Lt. Col. Paul Yingling attended a Purple Heart ceremony for soldiers injured in Iraq. As he watched the wounded troops collect their medals, the 41-year-old officer reflected on his two combat tours in Iraq.

He was frustrated at how slowly the Army had adjusted to the demands of guerrilla war, and ashamed he hadn't done more to push for change. By the end of the ceremony, he says, he could barely look the wounded troops in the eyes. Col. Yingling just had been chosen to lead a 540-soldier battalion. "I can't command like this," he recalls thinking.

He poured his thoughts into a blistering critique of the Army brass, "A Failure in Generalship," published last month in Armed Forces Journal, a nongovernment publication. "America's generals have been checked by a form of war that they did not prepare for and do not understand," his piece argued. (Read the article.)

I hope LTC Yingling is already eligible for retirement, because his military career is about to screech to a halt. It's too bad, because we need more leaders like him.

In his controversial essay, Col. Yingling pinned much of the Army's failings in Iraq on generals who he says didn't prepare for guerrilla fights in the decade prior to the war, and then didn't adjust as quickly as front-line troops. Young officers had to adapt to survive, he wrote. The generals, products of a system that encouraged conformity and discouraged risk takers, were often a step behind the enemy, he said. "It is unreasonable to expect that an officer who spends 25 years conforming to institutional expectations will emerge as an innovator," he wrote. The solution, he said, is to change the way the Army selects and promotes generals, taking into account reviews by subordinates.

Unfortunately, the generals do not appear inclined to listen to this message:

At Fort Hood, Maj. Gen. Jeff Hammond, the top general at the sprawling base, summoned all of the captains to hear his response to Col. Yingling's critique. About 200 officers in their mid- to late-20s, most of them Iraq veterans, filled the pews and lined the walls of the base chapel. "I believe in our generals. They are dedicated, selfless servants," Gen. Hammond recalls saying. The 51-year-old officer told the young captains that Col. Yingling wasn't competent to judge generals because he had never been one. "He has never worn the shoes of a general," Gen. Hammond recalls saying.

The captains' reactions highlighted the growing gap between some junior officers and the generals. "If we are not qualified to judge, who is?" says one Iraq veteran who was at the meeting. Another officer in attendance says that he and his colleagues didn't want to hear a defense of the Army's senior officers. "We want someone at higher levels to take accountability for what went wrong in Iraq," he says.

The WSJ also mentions a report about the growing difficulty the Army is having retaining junior officers. If you can get past the acronyms, it is a devastating critique. The problem is that captains are, after repeated deployments and little time with their families, leaving the service at an alarming rate. The army's only solution is to offer them $20,000 bonuses to stay, which is actually far less than many enlisted soldiers get.

Meanwhile I read here that morale in Iraq is of concern to General David Petraeus, especially when rumors spread that combat tours would be extended beyond the current 15 months. If morale is so bad that the CG has to personally intervene to stop rumors, it must be far worse than we think.

The blame for all this goes straight up to the White House. Bush stuck with Rumsfeld way too long. Despite the fact we have not one, but two ground wars in progress along with all the other normal contingencies, Rummy dug in his heels against any and all attempts to expand the Army and Marines. Gates is now leading an effort to do so but it will take years to train new troops. Meanwhile, as shown above, we are having a hard time holding on to current forces, and the generals can think of nothing more than to shove more money at the problem.

Slowly but surely, the Iraq fiasco is destroying the finest military force on the planet. And for what? No one is quite sure. Our president can't seem to articulate the reasons anyone should sacrifice anything. I go back to the days after 9/11 when he could have mobilized the country to a real war footing. Instead, he told us all to go about our business. If FDR had taken that approach in December 1941, we'd all be speaking Japanese and German now.

At this point I'm not sure there is a good way out. All the options are bad. Now would be an excellent time for some real leadershipin Washington. Sadly, I don't think we're going to get it.

No comments: