Too Few Troops?

by Victor Davis Hanson

The American Enterprise Online

When Saddam’s statue fell in April 2003, 70 percent of the American people, along with both Houses of Congress that authorized the war, were quite happy with President Bush’s decision to depose the Baathist regime. Three years and a messy reconstruction later, less than half the public says it was a wise idea.

Democratic senators and Beltway pundits scrambled to square their initial support with later about-faces. The easiest tactic: “The Administration sent too few troops, and so botched the victory that I foresaw and endorsed.”

Recent statements by General Zinni (The Battle for Peace) and Michael Wood and General Bernard Trainor (Cobra II) offer the most comprehensive critique. They damn Donald Rumsfeld for shortchanging the armed forces, since he supposedly wanted to save money while transforming the military into a lighter, more technologically reliant, “less is more” force. As we saw in Afghanistan, in lieu of manpower, fewer soldiers would rely on sophisticated computer-guided munitions and indigenous forces — without a heavy footprint or burdensome logistics.

But thinking that Panama, the Balkans, or Afghanistan was the new blanket model, the critique continues, was foolish. Generals like Richard Myers and Tommy Franks ostensibly caved in to their civilian superiors’ armchair strategizing. Seasoned field commanders in Iraq were left with a conventional force barely sufficient to win the war — and insufficient to secure the peace. Now, principled men like Zinni and Trainor are stepping forward in best-selling books and op-eds to disclose the “real” story of how their unsung brothers in the military were left vulnerable by ideologically-driven bureaucrats and compliant, opportunistic top brass.

There are several surprising things about this criticism — besides the premature disclosure in the New York Times by Wood and Trainor of a classified post-bellum study, enlistment of journalists to co-write their best-selling books, appearances on the talk shows to hype our supposedly fatal miscalculations in the midst of a war, and the favorable portrayal of officers and civil servants who chose to talk to the authors (with less favorable treatment of those who refused).

First, the claim that we’ve deployed too few troops can apply only since the fall of Baghdad in April 2003. Whatever the difficulties of the three-week war, it took out the worst regime in the Middle East in record time. How could half a million troops have done significantly better?

Second, it isn’t always how many troops, but their use, that determines their efficacy. In 1991, a huge American force watched as Saddam murdered Shiites and Kurds; their omnipresence meant nothing when they couldn’t use lethal force to stop the slaughter or remove Saddam.

Third, much of the criticism is geopolitical rather than tactical — and better grounded back in the 1990s, when the military was slashed in the end-of-history, post-Cold War era of utopian hopes. If we were still committed to stay in Europe, Japan, Okinawa, and Korea, then tying down a huge force in Iraq might have invited hostile adventurism elsewhere. The current strains on the military were not just predicated on Iraq, but involved the entire American presence overseas, where present means were insufficient to meet the envisioned global ends.

Fourth, since Iraq was seen as a captive rather than a belligerent nation, we tried to preserve infrastructure and adopt restrictive rules of engagement to win hearts and minds. Part of that strategy meant rapidly training Iraqi security forces, keeping a low profile in a touchy Islamic nation, and turning autonomy quickly over to a new government. Again, a huge American force in such a war, circa Vietnam 1965, would only have presented more targets, caused more resentment, and created more Iraqi dependency on Americans.

Fifth, there is a no-win flavor to this debate. Many are now calling for deadlines to get our “smaller” forces home right away, even as others decry the continued lack of sufficient troops to secure the country. And if our precision weapons yield far greater lethality per combatant, should we deploy the same, more, or fewer soldiers to employ them?

No one knows the optimum number of American soldiers that should now be, or should have been, in Iraq. But I suspect that, had we deployed far more Americans, the present cries to bring them home, and the accusations of imperial hubris, would have been even shriller.

©2006 Victor Davis Hanson

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