Cries of shortfall, exhaustion, and overstretch
by Victor Davis Hanson
National Review Magazine
Figures on U.S. military recruitment just released for 2005 show that the Army missed its monthly announced goal, achieving only 75 percent of its anticipated enlistments for this May. The Army National Guard and the Army Reserve also missed their desired monthly targets. Stories in the press followed, claiming that the Pentagon is lowering Army standards to pull in new recruits and address the fallout from the depressing news from Iraq.
Recent dips in Army enlistments also fueled a new conventional wisdom: that the U.S. military is almost dangerously undermanned, exhausted, and overstretched. An unpopular war, domestic opposition, televised casualties, extended service, divorce and social dislocations, an improving economy, and supposed disparity in the sacrifices made by troops of different races and classes have all, it is said, conspired to cut recruitment to the volunteer army and reserves to alarming levels.
In turn, fears of undermanned armed forces have prompted existential questions about who should serve and the nature of U.S. foreign policy. Opponents of the war in Iraq also make the argument — perhaps legitimate in its own right — that our options are limited in dealing with Syria, Iran, and North Korea because we are overextended in Iraq and Afghanistan. Such critics also know that the cover of an exhausted military means they will never be called to spell out their exact position on the future use of force elsewhere.
Behind most critiques, oddly enough, is the promise of the draft. Some critics of the current war profess support for a return to conscription — both to address the purported manpower shortage and to ensure less military action abroad in the future. If a broader cross-section of the population serves in the military, it is argued, won’t we all be more careful how it is used? And isn’t the present system making inordinate demands on minorities, the poor, and the undereducated?
We might ask how accurate is the current picture of military disarray.
First, the Marines have suffered disproportionate fatalities in the war in Iraq. They are about 30 percent of all combat deaths, yet make up only 11 percent of current American forces. But in May the Marines slightly exceeded their recruitment goal. The Air Force and Navy likewise met 100 percent of their requirements. The Army traditionally has had the hardest time meeting its targets, given the reputation — warranted or not — that the other branches offer more specialized training and skills that will better enhance civilian careers without the same level of risk as ground combat.
Second, the year is only half over. The Army may well rebound and meet its full 2005 quota, as nearly all branches of the active services (the Army and Air National Guard were exceptions) did in 2004. Much depends on whether the economy continues to improve and thus competes for high-school graduates, and whether the Iraqi military can take over its envisioned preponderant military role, keeping the insurgency out of the daily headlines.
Third, on demographic grounds, our current troop mobilizations are hardly a drain on the U.S. population base. In a country of about 300 million residents, we have about 1.4 million troops deployed worldwide. Yet in 1974, during the first full year of the all-volunteer army, the United States deployed 1.9 million soldiers, drawing on a population of more than 210 million. In other words, when the population was just 70 percent of our current size, the armed forces sustained troop levels 1.3 times larger than our present military.
Critics harp on the expenses of the War on Terror and suggest that we are unable to sustain such a drain. Yet in the first full year of the volunteer army, military expenditures accounted for 58 percent of discretionary spending, or about 5.5 percent of the gross domestic product. In 2003, when we invaded Iraq with 200,000 troops and conducted reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan, we allotted only 49 percent of discretionary spending to defense, some 3.7 percent of GDP — itself a moderate rise from 1999–2000, when defense expenditure had descended to the historical low of about 3 percent of GDP. This suggests the armed forces were inadequate to meet the security profile of the United States well before September 11.
If it turns out that we need more troops in the military, based on historical precedents and current resources, we surely have the population and national wealth to field larger forces than we presently deploy, and to pay them more than we do now.
But if critics insist that the 140,000 troops in Iraq are nevertheless too costly for the presently constituted U.S. military, and the current armed forces too costly for the United States, then they should examine very carefully our troop allotments elsewhere. We still have around 110,000 soldiers in various places in Europe, and almost another 80,000 in Japan and South Korea. Even if the argument can be made that the rise of China has replaced the threat of the Soviet Union and mandated that we maintain current troop levels in Japan, still thousands of troops in Europe and South Korea could be cut or deployed closer to the Middle East.
The problem most often raised, however, is not so much the cost or size of our military, but rather the disproportionate sacrifice of the underprivileged. Yet statistics of combat fatalities from Iraq are kept current, and the most recent numbers suggest that the continual cries of unfairness are not substantiated by hard data. Indeed, the claim is eerily similar to the past hysteria that blacks and Latinos died in disproportionate numbers in Southeast Asia, when, in fact, statistics confirmed that they did not.
Data on combat deaths in Iraq as of March 2005 surprised critics of the war. Contrary to the perception that citizen soldiers are bearing an inordinate portion of the overall burden, National Guardsmen constitute about 24 percent of all military personnel but accounted for 16 percent of those lost in Iraq. Some 95 percent of the fatalities had high-school diplomas, though only 85 percent of all Americans have finished high school. Blacks and Latinos made up 10.9 and 11.5 percent of the dead, respectively — about their same percentages in the general population, but in the case of blacks less than the 18.6 percent currently serving in the military. Twenty-nine percent of those who died attended high schools in poverty-stricken areas, versus about a 30 percent poverty rate for all high-school graduates. Seventy percent of those lost were white men, although they currently make up only about a third of the U.S. population.
If our current debate about the military transcends proportionate costs and relative sacrifice, perhaps our unhappiness derives from the terrible loss of 1,700 combat dead in Iraq. Yet this discontent arises not from numbers alone. After all, at catastrophic moments in our history far more were killed either in a single day or in a few weeks than all those we have lost since September 11 in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Between five and six thousand Americans were killed on September 17, 1862, at Antietam. D-Day cost around 3,000 Allied dead, and another 6,000 were wounded. During the Battle of the Bulge, some 19,000 Americans died and another 60,000 were wounded, missing, or captured. In the first few minutes of Pearl Harbor, about 2,400 Americans perished. And so far the 1,700 killed in action in Iraq make up about 60 percent of those lost on the first day of this war in the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center.
The problem is not just absolute numbers, then, but the growing perception after two years of Iraqi reconstruction that our dead were not lost in a war of national survival, or that such deaths are incompatible with a contemporary society that no longer believes force is desirable or necessary to maintain its security. In that case, the problem is not a military one per se. Going 7,000 miles across the globe, toppling two fascistic governments and establishing democracies in their places, and doing so at a cost (albeit a painful one) of less than 2,000 soldiers, is, by historical standards, an unprecedented military achievement.
Arguments persist over the proper troop levels in Iraq. But given the nature of the insurgency, more conventional troops do not seem to offer solutions, especially when the more critical task is lowering the American profile and working in the shadows to support and train a new Iraqi military. Rather, the controversy is really a political challenge of explaining the nature of the American sacrifice in Iraq, putting it in a historical context, and convincing the American people that such brave soldiers have both made Americans far safer and given the Middle East a future.
A related issue involves the proper role of the American military in an increasingly complex post–Cold War world. There was enormous pressure to use American troops to stop the Balkan holocaust, which nearby Europeans either could not or would not end — despite the absence of Senate approval, U.N. resolutions, and a clear-cut connection to American national security.
Similar cries arise to deploy to Darfur to curtail the slaughter of innocents. All could agree that a U.S. carrier should speed immediately to Indonesia on news of the tsunami disaster. The message of Robert Kaplan’s recent Imperial Grunts is that there are tens of thousands of American soldiers stationed in unknown places in Africa, Latin America, and Asia engaged in the daily training of forces, civilian development projects, and what we might call old-fashioned foreign aid, all quite distant from any notion of conventional fighting. Such commitments are usually off the radar screen, do not involve many combat losses, and meet the postmodern criteria of nation-building rather than fighting wars. As long as Americans are not dying on television, the American people seem willing to pay for and support such extensive commitments.
Our current debate is not properly a military one, since the American armed forces are performing exceptionally well in Iraq and probably have enough aggregate strength to re-deploy to meet foreseeable crises elsewhere. Given our size, material wealth, and underutilized resources, we could easily expand or contract our military as we see fit. Rather, the rub is one of perception: The real question is whether Americans wish to continue their efforts to establish democratic states to replace deposed Middle East autocracies, and in general whether we wish to use forces abroad at all in wars that may require messy occupations and reconstructions that follow rapid and successful conventional victories.
©2005 Victor Davis Hanson