Politics & Policy

Webb of Problems

A dangerous amendment.

Jim Webb, the loquacious freshman senator from Virginia, is again proposing an amendment that would mandate a certain amount of time that soldiers must spend at home between deployments. At first glance, supporting this amendment looks like supporting motherhood and apple pie — Webb’s stated aim is to take care of America’s soldiers at war, and who could possibly object to that? The amendment, furthermore, gives the president the right to waive the requirement “if the President certifies to Congress that the deployment…is necessary to meet an operational emergency posing a threat to vital national security interests of the United States.” So voting for this amendment is really just a way to show that you really care about the troops without actually tying the commanders’ hands, right? Wrong.

The amendment as offered earlier this summer (when it garnered 56 votes in the Senate) would present a nightmare in execution. It specified not only that a particular unit had to spend basically a day at home for every day it spent deployed, but that every member of the armed forces had to receive such “dwell time,” as the period between deployments is called. The problem is that when a unit returns from a deployment, its personnel are often reassigned to other units and other assignments. Brigades don’t stay together forever. So this amendment would actually require the Army and Marine Corps staffs to keep track of how long every individual servicemember had spent in either Iraq or Afghanistan, how long they had been at home, how long the unit that they were now in had spent deployed, and how long it had been home, and somehow find units to deploy that had been home for the specified time and all of whose personnel had also been home for the required period. Since that would be patently absurd, the alternative would be to pull people out of units that were going to deploy if those individuals did not have enough “dwell time,” breaking up leadership and soldier teams the formation of which is the express purpose of the Army and Marine training system. Requiring the president to issue a certification to Congress to waive this requirement for every individual soldier who might be affected is even more absurd.

A larger problem is that this amendment would insert a rigid inflexibility into the military planning process. Commanders make estimates about the forces they will require based on assumptions about current and likely future threats. If the commander of American forces in Iraq or Afghanistan concluded that some event were likely to require the deployment of additional forces to his theater, even for a brief time, this amendment would severely constrain the pool of units and personnel that could be sent. As an example, General George Casey has remarked that he requested and received additional forces some seven times in his tenure both to handle unforeseen emergencies and to help establish security for elections, for example. One could hardly construe the requirement to provide security for elections as an “operational emergency posing a threat to vital national security interests of the United States.” If Webb intends the waiver to be that broad, then this amendment is nothing but political grandstanding that will simply add to the mountains of paper that Congress and the Department of Defense exchange with each other without affecting the real world. But if the waiver is intended to be implemented as written, narrowly construed to address emergencies only, then it might well prevent the deployment of forces to handle foreseeable problems — a foolish thing to legislate.

Senator Webb claims to be concerned for the welfare of the troops, and no doubt he is. But one can also be concerned about the dangers our soldiers face when they do not have the necessary resources and reinforcements available. If American commanders are constrained to have only those “units and members” of the services in theater who have spent the requisite time at home, then a time will almost certainly come when they do not have the forces they need to accomplish their missions. If they can only request additional such forces in response to an operational emergency, then we should consider what that means on the ground. It means that the first thing that happens is that American soldiers may die who did not need to. Then the commanders will rush a request for additional forces up their chain of command. The president will certify to Congress that an emergency exists — and American soldiers and Marines will be fighting without necessary reinforcements as that happens. Then a unit will have to be hastily readied for premature deployment, sent to theater, moved into position, and finally arrive, certainly weeks and possibly months after the initial request. And all the time, American soldiers and Marines will have been fighting and dying. How is that taking care of them?

Lieutenant General Ray Odierno has been pressed repeatedly on the strain that 15-month tours place on his soldiers. He has repeatedly noted that there are two good ways to relieve that strain. First, win the war we’re fighting. Constraining the number of troops that can be sent to war is one way of legislating a “slow bleed” strategy. On the other hand, the sooner we accomplish our objectives, the sooner our forces can come home and stay. And if you believe that the war really is hopelessly lost, then the issue should not be the “dwell time” of soldiers and units, but ending it. Second, we could increase the size of the ground forces. The Bush administration resisted such proposals from Congress and outside analysts for years, just as the Clinton administration had resisted similar calls in the 1990s to expand the ground forces. Finally, grudgingly, the administration has announced an extremely modest program of expansion on a five-year timeline. If the critics of the current strategy who purport to be so concerned about the strain of the forces were serious, they would be pounding their desks and demanding a more aggressive program for expanding the ground forces. The fact that most of them have made no such demands speaks volumes about the real motivations of amendments such as this one.

— Frederick W. Kagan is a military historian and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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