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.
We all hope that there will never again be a need to place American ground forces in harm’s way. But given history and the current state of the world, only a fool would assume that soldiers and marines will not see combat again this decade. And if they do, it is likely to be in some corner of the world that is not even on policymakers’ radar screens at the moment.
In recent years we have not fought an air or naval war, nor are we likely to do so in the future. In the nation’s two dozen military engagements since the advent of the airplane, only one (Kosovo) was decided by air power, and the war in the former Yugoslavia truly ended only when the 1st Armored Division crashed across the Danube River. The locals had little fear of air strikes. What got their attention was notices such as that sent out by one battalion in the 1st Armored Division: “Peace in the Posavina or deal with us!” While the Navy and Air Force provide crucial support, only ground forces win wars. Unfortunately, they also do most of the dying, particularly in the ugly counterinsurgency conflicts typical of the modern age.
A long deployment at sea or being stationed at an airbase in Kandahar is not a picnic. But the hardships involved in such assignments hardly bear comparison with manning a small patrol base in constant close combat with a murderous foe, while being a hundred miles away from any help. The truth of the matter is that Iraq and Afghanistan have been overwhelmingly ground wars. Total Navy and Air Force losses in our current conflicts are approximately 130 killed and another 1,100 wounded, almost all of them on the ground while supporting Army and Marine operations. Together, the Marines and the Army have lost over 3,500 killed and over 30,000 wounded (equal to the full strength of two and a half combat divisions, or 75 percent of the Army’s and Marine Corps’s total infantry strength). Without in any way belittling the sacrifices made by the other services, they remain only 1/30th of what the Army and Marines have endured.
Many years ago, as a junior infantry officer, I attended semi-annual functions where a toast was drunk to fallen comrades. For most of the young infantrymen present, it was a nearly meaningless toast, as none of us knew any fallen comrades. Those ceremonies are still around today, but now the toast has meaning. Every soldier and marine drinking that same toast now falls into a moment of deep reflective thought as he remembers the names and lives of friends lost. Today when a marine or soldier unexpectedly runs into an old friend, the traditional handshake is mostly passed over in favor of a warm embrace, and the greeting of choice is now “brother.”
Ten years of war and sacrifice have bonded soldiers and marines into a brotherhood that is almost beyond comprehension to those who have not shared their experiences. Because there are so few of them, these soldiers and marines have been on an unending treadmill. Units deploy for a year in the combat zone, return to their homes and families for sometimes as little as six months, and then return for another tour of combat. Many of our mid-career enlisted personnel and officers are on their fourth or fifth combat tours.
Moreover, their time at home is rarely spent resting. Almost as soon as they return, soldiers and marines are thrown into a rigorous training cycle, as they prepare themselves to return to the conflict. Such training always entails long hours daily, and more weeks or months away from their families. Unbelievably, much of this training is done on borrowed equipment. As the Army cannot afford to fully equip the soldiers in combat and also provide enough training equipment for the forces preparing for war, large amounts of equipment are rotated from unit to unit as needed.
For the Army and Marines, Iraq and Afghanistan have been wars without let-up. The pressure has been relentless, and staff officers spend countless hours trying to figure out where they can squeeze one more brigade out of the system so that it can be placed into the rotation to beef up the forces in Iraq or Afghanistan. Such squeezing has often meant that thousands of troops stay in combat months longer than expected, or that others return to combat much earlier than they had thought. This is the price soldiers and marines have regularly paid for the nation’s decision to fight our current wars with the smallest Army and Marine Corps it can possibly get away with.
Despite everything, this nation still possesses the finest land fighting forces in the world. Soldiers and marines still go to the sound of the guns, and in any stand-up fight they always walk away the winners. They have suffered and endured much for the past ten years. They have done so willingly. They will continue to do so for as long as our country asks them to.
What Congress needs to remember is that over the next twenty years there are few scenarios imaginable that will not require “boots on the ground” to ensure success. I too want an Air Force and a Navy that are well ahead of whatever any other country may challenge us with, but not at the cost of gutting this nation’s land forces. Over the next decades, if this nation does involve itself in another conflict, we will assuredly ask soldiers and marines to do the fighting and dying for us. They must have a force large enough to do any job they are called on to do, and the equipment that guar antees their success. Failure to provide both will fill a lot of body-bags.
— Jim Lacey is professor of strategic studies at the Marine Corps War College. He is the author of the recently released The First Clashand Keep from All Thoughtful Men. The opinions in this article are entirely his own and do not represent those of the Department of Defense or any of its members.