As I write this, 150,000 American ground troops continue to wage violent counterinsurgency campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. After ten years of war, our country’s land forces are tired, much of their equipment is worn down, and they fear they are fighting for a cause America no longer concerns itself with. But here is the remarkable thing: If their country asked them to continue the fight for another ten years, they would salute and do their duty. For, when someone on Capitol Hill asks, “Why are the U.S. Army and Marine Corps in Afghanistan?” soldiers and marines have a simple answer: “You sent us.”
Even as American soldiers and marines remain locked in mortal combat, debates rage over how deeply to cut the military. Cuts ranging from $400 billion to $1 trillion over five to ten years are on the table. As none of these discussions appear grounded in any determination of what our strategic needs might be in an uncertain future, I may be wasting my words in pointing out that this appears to be a particularly bad time to think about reducing our military capabilities. Rather, I wish to rail against the one thing that almost always happens when the country undertakes an ill-thought-out reduction of its military might: the senseless elimination of land forces.
After the Soviet Union’s demise, the U.S. Army’s 18 combat divisions were cut to ten. And before 9/11 Secretary Rumsfeld was proposing to cut that force to eight. Let’s put that in perspective. The combat troops within a division (infantry, artillery, armor) are only a fraction of the division’s total strength; the rest serve in crucial logistics and other support roles. If one took all the “trigger pullers” in the nation’s ten Army and two Marine divisions, there would be barely enough to fill half a college football stadium. This lack of manpower was so detrimental to our war efforts that during the peak of the fighting in Iraq serious consideration was given to adding two more combat divisions to the Army. It never happened. And now that our commitment in Iraq is winding down, the Army is once again bracing itself for the possibility of losing two of its ten divisions.
When it comes to budget battles, the Army and Marines are almost always on the losing end. In peacetime, infantry platoon training in the heat, rain, mud, and ice cannot compare with the allure and majesty of a carrier battle group on the high seas. When a congressman visits an aircraft carrier, he is getting an up-close and personal manifestation of America’s awesome power. Just one carrier group (we have nearly a dozen) possesses enough combat power to bring all the navies of World War II to their knees. On the other hand, a congressman visiting an infantry unit in the middle of training will find nothing but dirty, tired soldiers or marines, living in conditions far removed from what one would normally consider civilized.
No one denies that the U.S. Navy and its carrier groups are essential to defending American interests. When there is trouble in the world, the president’s first question is often, “Where is the nearest carrier?” Likewise, what compares to a flight of F-16s, glimmering and deadly as they pass overhead? Besides, the use of airpower looks so simple and clean. Americans have become accustomed to viewing video of cross-hairs sitting on top of targets that disappear in a flash of light and fire, whereupon the pilot returns safely to base for a meal and a nap.
Infantry combat fails by comparison. Films of filthy, exhausted soldiers going street by street and door by door to root out an elusive enemy have none of the glamour of airpower or the magnificence of a warship at sea. Much worse, from the Army and Marine perspective, few of their weapons constitute the backbone of entire industries (shipbuilding and aviation), or are subcontracted out in hundreds of congressional districts. When it comes to defense cuts, there are few voices saying, “We need to protect the poor bloody infantry.”
Now, I am not about to denigrate any service. We need a powerful Navy and an Air Force second to none. No one, not even the Army, disputes that. In fact, in my experience the Army has nothing but love for the other services. As one armor officer told me, “Show me an A-10 pilot [the guys who fly close air support for the ground forces] and I will kiss his butt in the middle of the town square, and give you ten minutes to gather a crowd.” When budgets are being cut, all the Army really hopes for is that the infantrymen are not thrown out with the bathwater.
Former Army chief of staff Gen. Eric Shinseki was greatly praised for being one of the very few people to tell Congress that stabilizing Iraq after Saddam was deposed would take 250,000 soldiers. What is rarely mentioned is that meeting that number would take all ten Army and both Marine divisions. There would literally be no troops left over to meet any other emergency. Secretary Gates has said, “Any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined,’ as General MacArthur so delicately put it.” What Gates forgot to mention was that our enemies get a vote on that. If we ever again do find ourselves needing to fight a war on foreign soil, America should not be placed in a position where it is scraping the bottom of the barrel to find enough troops to get the job done.