Too Much War, Not Enough Troops

WASHINGTON — Army leaders are expressing increased alarm about the mental health of soldiers who would be sent back to the front again and again under plans that call for troop numbers to be sustained at high levels in Iraq for this year and beyond.

Among combat troops sent to Iraq for the third or fourth time, more than one in four show signs of anxiety, depression or acute stress, according to an official Army survey of soldiers’ mental health.

The stress of long and multiple deployments to Iraq is just one of the concerns being voiced by senior military officers in Washington as Gen. David H. Petraeus, the senior Iraq commander, prepares to tell Congress this week that he is not ready to endorse any drawdowns beyond those already scheduled through July. MORE

The New York Times is shocked to discover that combat is a stressful activity. They miss the real story. Exactly why is it that soldiers are having to serve three and four 12-15 month tours in Iraq? Could it be that we have bitten off more than we can chew?

Assume for a moment that everything Bush, Cheney and the most hawkish neocons tell us is correct. The U.S. faces an "existential threat," and installing a friendly regime in Iraq is critical to our national survival. I don't accept these points, but for the sake of argument let's go with them for a minute.

Why, then, is the United States not in a full wartime mobilization? The sad fact is that it's very easy for most Americans to forget we are at war. Other than longer lines at the airport, our lives are not terribly different. Something is wrong with this picture. If all our lives depend on victory over radical Islam, why is it that we aren't being called to share the burden? Following 9/11, President Bush had the perfect opportunity to rally the nation toward a great common goal. He did not. Instead, he suggested we all go back to watching TV and buying stuff at the mall.

Something is wrong with this picture. If we really face such a great threat, life should be different for everyone. That's how it was in World War II. Every able-bodied male not needed in the farms and factories was in uniform, and the home front lived with rationing and other hardships.

If, during the Cold War, the Soviet Union had every decided to invade Western Europe, I can promise you that life would have changed drastically in the U.S. I know this because I was in the Army back then, and I saw the contingency plans for REFORGER (Return Forces to Germany). Had we ever put the plans into motion, there would have been no lines at the airports - because there would have been no airliners. Every passenger plane was set to be drafted into the Air Force. Large parts of the Interstate Highway System (which was originally a defense project) would have been shut down so equipment could be rushed from inland military bases to seaports. Critical factories and natural resources would have been nationalized. Thanks be to God, we never had to execute these plans beyond small-scale annual exercises. It would have been something no one could miss.

The current war is a minor operation in comparison. Certainly it doesn't seem minor to the soldiers and marines who are under fire every day. Yet it is stretching our forces to the limit. The force structure now is about half the size it was when the Cold War ended. If, as we are told, we now face an equally serious threat, why are we trying to face it with an undersized military? This is why troops are being shipped back to Iraq for the third and fourth time.

It makes no sense, and I have yet to hear a Bush supporter give a coherent answer. You can't blame it on the Democrats - in the months after 9/11, Congress would have given Bush anything he wanted. Nor can you blame the generals - they warned Bush the forces available were insufficient for what he wanted to do in Iraq.

The root of the problem, in my opinion, is that this is a war of ideas, and it's not going to be won with bullets. Had we fought it on that basis, the current force level would be enough. Our "compassionate conservative" Christian president chose a different strategy, and then failed to see that his strategy didn't match the available resources. It is a mistake we will all live with for the rest of our lives.

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