The Hollow Army

The U.S. military is stretched to the breaking point—and one more crisis could break it
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The United States spends more on armed forces than do all other countries combined; the resulting arsenal is more than a match for any opposing power and for nearly any conceivable coalition of foes. No one disputes that American military supremacy is an international reality. But our military has become vulnerable in a way that is obvious to everyone associated with it yet rarely acknowledged by politicians and probably not appreciated by much of the public. The military's people, its equipment, its supplies and spare parts, its logistics systems, and all its other assets are under pressure they cannot sustain. Everything has been operating on an emergency basis for more than two years, with no end to the emergency in sight. The situation was serious before the invasion of Iraq; now it is acute.

A dozen years ago, when the Soviet Union collapsed, the United States was freed from the threat that had driven its military planning throughout the preceding decades. In the 1990s scores of bases were closed, and hundreds of thousands of soldiers were demobilized. When the first President Bush launched the Gulf War against Iraq, two million Americans were on active military duty. When the second President Bush launched Operation Iraqi Freedom, the active-duty "end strength," or head count, was only 1.4 million. Total military spending also fell, though much less dramatically, at the end of the first Bush Administration and during Bill Clinton's first term.

During Clinton's second term America's foreign military obligations began to expand, mainly through the commitment in the Balkans, but also with missions in Latin America and Central Asia. As George W. Bush took office, the Army's leadership was already complaining that a smaller force could not indefinitely play a larger role. In the late 1990s Army units were being mobilized for "contingency deployments" fifteen times as frequently as a decade before.

Obviously, everything changed after 9/11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It's a slight exaggeration to say that the entire U.S. military is either in Iraq, returning from Iraq, or getting ready to go. But only slight.

The basic problem is that an ever leaner, numerically smaller military is being asked to patrol an ever larger part of the world.

"Unanticipated U.S. ground force requirements in postwar Iraq," a report for the Army War College noted late last year, "have stressed the U.S. Army to the breaking point," with more than a third of the Army's total "end strength" committed in and around Iraq. "Operation Iraqi Freedom and its aftermath argue strongly," the report said, "for an across-the-board reassessment"—that is, for an increase of U.S. force levels.

Meanwhile, barely noticed, the United States still has some 75,000 soldiers in Germany, 41,000 in Japan, 41,000 in Korea, 13,000 in Italy, 12,000 in the United Kingdom, and so on, down through a list of more than a hundred countries—plus some 26,000 sailors and Marines deployed afloat. The new jobs keep coming, and the old ones don't go away. Several times I have heard officers on Army bases refer mordantly to the current recruiting slogan: "An Army of One." The usual punch line is, "That's how many soldiers are left for new assignments now."

Three things are wrong with the current situation. The most immediate and obvious is what it does to the troops. In the flush of patriotism after 9/11, those in uniform were asked to make extraordinary sacrifices, and they did. For much of the time since then the Army has imposed "stop loss" policies, which prevent members of the military from retiring or resigning, and amount to a form of forced labor for those who have already chosen to serve. Members of the Reserves and the National Guard, many of whom signed up with the understanding that they would be "weekend warriors," have been mobilized for one-year stints since 9/11. Just before Thanksgiving, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld announced that another 15,000 Reserve and Guard members would be called up this spring for as much as a year's service in Iraq, in addition to some 43,000 already mobilized. This year nearly 40 percent of the U.S. presence in Iraq will be from the Guard and the Reserves. The family and business disruptions caused by these unexpected mobilizations are incalculable.

Some reservists and active-duty soldiers no doubt thrive on unexpected assignments. But for the military as a whole, the stepped-up "ops tempo," or pace of operations, is hard to sustain with a volunteer force. Since the elimination of the draft, in 1973, the military has had to compete with the rest of the U.S. economy for manpower. It has done so in material ways, by increasing pay and benefits, and with its traditional appeal to those seeking challenge, service, and personal growth. But it has also offered volunteers a certain amount of control over their destiny, because they could always resign if they chose. And although recruiters would never put it this way, the enlistees of the 1990s could reasonably assume that the greatest physical danger they would face would come during training exercises, not from roadside bombs in a place like Baghdad or Fallujah. Guard and Reserve members could, within certain limits, assume that their lives would remain normal.

Last fall, two years into the emergency, numerous indicators suggested that Americans were beginning to vote with their feet. Guard units across the country fell short of their recruiting targets, and the Army Reserves reported a shortfall in re-enlistments. An un-scientific poll of U.S. troops in Iraq conducted by the military newspaper Stars and Stripes in October found that nearly half planned not to re-enlist. "We are expending the force and doing little to ensure its viability in the years to come, years we have been assured it will take to win the war on terrorism," retired Army General Frederick Kroesen wrote in a military journal on hearing that reservists would be mobilized for a second year. "It might be prudent now to ask the managers who decreed the current second-year Reservists' extensions what they plan for the third year."

An overworked military can function very well for a while, as ours has—but not indefinitely if it relies on volunteers. "We are in serious danger of breaking the human-capital equation of the Army," Thomas White, a retired general and a former Secretary of the Army, told me last year. "Once you break it, it takes a long time to put it back together. It took us over twenty years after Vietnam."

The second problem is that America has so many troops tied down in so many places that, for all its power, it is strangely hamstrung. Despite our level of spending and our apparent status as the world's mono-power, the United States has few unused reserves of military strength. Sending troops in a hurry to the Korean DMZ—or to Iran, or the Taiwan Strait—would mean removing them in a hurry from some other place where, according to U.S. policy, they are also needed.

The military press has been abuzz with the news that four divisions, representing nearly half the Army's active-duty strength, are now officially in the two lowest readiness categories, because of their service in Iraq. These divisions—the well-known 82nd Airborne, 101st Airborne, 1st Armored, and 4th Infantry—will spend six months this year repairing machines, restocking supplies, and resting soldiers before returning to fully ready status. During the 2000 presidential campaign George W. Bush said, "The next President will inherit a military in decline"—in part because under the Clinton Administration two Army divisions were classified as unready because of their service in the Balkans. In a pinch all these units could of course fight and win. But throughout America's era as a world power, governments under both parties have wanted the country to seem overprepared—extra-formidable—so that our adversaries will know the United States has the means to do almost anything it chooses. Now America is over-extended. The limits on U.S. power are more apparent than they were before we committed troops in Iraq.

The third problem involves national strategy. Our stated ambitions are wholly out of sync with the resources America can bring to bear. Even now, despite solemn promises, we do not have enough soldiers to occupy and democratize Iraq while also fulfilling previous commitments in many other places around the globe. Soon even fewer U.S. troops will be available to enter any other necessary engagement.

As its currency sinks and its alliances fray, the United States relies more on "hard" military power for its influence than on the variety of cultural, intellectual, diplomatic, and technological assets that the political scientist Joseph Nye, of Harvard, has called "soft power." Yet even as the reach of U.S. hard power expands, the country avoids both the financial and the human costs of maintaining a military establishment. Roughly one American in 200 is on active military duty—the lowest proportion in a century.

While increasing America's worldwide obligations, the Bush Administration has been reluctant either to shore up traditional soft-power assets, especially alliances, or to take the steps necessary for maintaining hard power. In particular the Administration is dead set against increasing the military's end strength. This is partly because it would be expensive: each soldier adds $50,000 to $100,000 to the annual Pentagon budget. But mostly it is because Rumsfeld believes so strongly and argues so forcefully, inside and outside the Administration, that the military must become smaller, as part of a "transformation" to a radically leaner and more agile force, before anyone can think about making it larger again. Rumsfeld's determination to reform the military is his most admirable trait. But as he showed by insisting on a disastrously small force for Operation Iraqi Freedom, when gripped by theory Rumsfeld can be blind to practical realities. The military—particularly the Army—is hidebound and inefficient. But right now, for the jobs it has been assigned, it is also too small.

Logically speaking, it's easy to see a solution to the military's problems. But politically, it's hard, because the solution necessarily involves one or more of the following: The United States can cut back on its promises and commitments. Or it can spend significantly more money to attract enough soldiers to a volunteer force. Or it can find ways other than voluntary enlistment to bring them in.

Some advantages and disadvantages of each approach are obvious; others will emerge only with debate. But the next President will have to take some or all of these steps. Let's hear from the candidates about what the plan will be.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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