January 1, 2007
Breaking Private Ryan?By By Michael Lopez-Calderon
President George W. Bush included in his Christmas 2006 wish list a larger Army and Marine Corps. While it is admirable that the Commander in Chief longs for a larger military, many are concerned that the current one will soon reach the breaking point. In the fictional though very believable WW II film, Saving Private Ryan, a small squad tries to rescue a 101st Airborne paratrooper whose brothers are dead or missing. In the very real war in Iraq, we may well be reaching the breaking point of the all-volunteer Army and Marine Corps. Equipment, morale, and durability are at stake. The Iraq War may well be breaking Private Ryan.
The Brookings Institution's Michael O'Hanlon, recently interviewed on a local D.C. radio program, suggested the Army and Marine Corps are nearing their "breaking point," though he cautioned against pessimistic certainty. Mr. O'Hanlon said that the all-volunteer Army and Marine Corps have held up thus far, a surprise for many considering the ongoing burdens of Afghanistan, Iraq, and the global war on terror. However, a breaking point is nearing though when that will happen no one can tell for certain, argued Mr. O'Hanlon. It is an argument he and others made earlier in January 2006; nearly twelve months later, we are discussing this issue, again.
Back in January, a 136-page report written for the Pentagon by retired Army officer Andrew Krepinevich stated that the Army was overextended and "concluded that the Army cannot sustain the pace of troop deployments to Iraq long enough to break the back of the insurgency." While excessive pessimism always is counter-productive, it is important to note that the past three months, October through December 2006 have produced some of the highest U.S. casualties since the Iraq War began in March 2003. If the Army and Marine Corps were nearing a breaking point back in January 2006, in what condition will they be by mid-2007? The prospects look grim.
While the Left fights to save all the Private Ryans by withdrawing from Iraq immediately, the Right appears oblivious to the daily grind that may soon break Private Ryan's military even if the casualties are comparatively low when matched up with other conflicts. And here lies the key: the American public may endure the low casualty figures (3,000 deaths and 25,000 wounded after three years and ten months of conflict) but unbeknownst to all but specialists and the military, the wear and tear on equipment and drain on morale are taking their pernicious toll despite low battlefield casualties.
In fact, the low casualty figures are themselves deceptive. Improved combat emergency medical training, evacuation procedures, readily accessible, upgraded medical facilities, modern surgical diagnostic technology and techniques, and such have saved the lives of thousands that in other recent conflicts, e.g., Korea, Vietnam, even Gulf War I, would have perished. In the Iraq War, the average combat fatality rate after a wounding is about ten percent, the lowes t in U.S. military history.
There are three things at stake for the Army and Marine Corps: Equipment breakdown, war-fighting strategy, and morale. The latter two are going through severe testing; the military has competently adjusted with new, evolving strategies. High morale continues as witnessed by recent recruiting successes. It is the expensive, high-tech-and-maintenance aspect of the Army and Marine Corps that is in danger of hitting the breaking point first.
Before the twin wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Army spent on average between $2.5 and $3 billion annually on repairs to armored and support vehicles, helicopters, artillery pieces and such. According to a recent piece in the Washington Post, the Army now spends upwards of $19 billion annually to cover the costs of wear and tear on equipment.
The grinding duration of a war in which the enemy deploys low-cost, homemade improvised explosive devices (IEDS) that frequently take out men (70 percent of U.S. fatalities in Iraq) and expensive equipment has placed the Army closer to a breaking point now than two years ago:
What is most disturbing about this grinding down of expensive, sophisticated military hardware that was intended for conventional conflicts, i.e., warfare fought with aggressive, offensive maneuverability, delineated lines, against conventional armies, and ending with clearly defined outcomes of victory, stalemate, or defeat (WW II, Korea, Gulf War I) is that the insurgents' cost effective guerrilla tactics have intensified. There now are more attacks than ever, not fewer. A recent Pentagon report cast gloom into this Holiday season:
There is no sign that the insurgency is breaking, but rather an indication as witnessed by the recent November elections that American will (and military hardware) is breaking down. An even more disturbing scenario creeps up: Can this current military handle a conventional war against North Korea or Iran? How about both simultaneously? The answer is clearly obvious.
Look at what the military currently plans to spend repairing equipment and then imagine what a conventional war on the Korean Peninsula would do to this same military:
We could have avoided this situation had appropriate forces been deployed in Iraq for a decisive, crushing defeat of the Sunni triangle followed up with a brutal smashing of Al-Sadr's ragtag army. A force of 375,000 to 550,000 U.S. troops, (add to this figure 50,000 British troops), deployed in Iraq for no more than six months - March 19 to mid-September 2003 would have done the job. One great mistake was to fight the Iraq War on the cheap.
Other mistakes stand out: Baathist regular army soldiers and officers without innocent blood on their hands -- a majority incidentally -- never should have been disbanded and rendered unemployed. We have L. Paul Bremer to thank for that horrendous blunder. A sizeable Army Engineer and Civil Affairs force could have addressed infrastructural problems quickly, giving Iraqis confidence in the American capacity to repair their broken-down country. Of course contracts should have been open to competitive bidding with German, French, and Russian companies invited to bid alongside American ones. A greater force could have guarded Iraq's arms depots and denied insurgents materials of death and mayhem. Borders could have been secured and both Iran and Syria served notice that any support for cross-border insurgent attacks would be met immediately by air and missile strikes on vital military and economic assets.
By early 2004, ground forces could have been reduced to about 250,000 unless we had entered into a greater regional conflict with Syria and Iran, the latter scenario requiring war mobilization in the U.S. and perhaps even a draft. But that would have also required a more serious approach to the War on Islamo-Fascism and its secular Arab-Fascist elements (Baathist Syria and Iraq). Instead, we have a President, who sixteen days after 9/11 called on Americans to make sacrifices by ... flying, shopping, and living their lives as if nothing had happened. We have a President who failed to identify the real enemy, often invoking and praising as our "allies" the twin hotbeds of radical, Jihadist Islamism - Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. And now we have a President who may go down in history for the twin debacles of Iraq and the creation of a Greater Iran in the Persian Gulf region.
President Bush's rosy, neo-Wilsonian agenda for the Middle East has been a miserable failure. In Lebanon, the forces of darkness advance unopposed; Iran gives the U.S. and the international community the middle finger as it proceeds with its nuclear bomb project; and the Saudis openly declare their loyalty to the Sunni-Iraqi insurgency while continuing to provide the vast majority of foreign fighters in Iraq.
We are not serious about truly understanding the enemy we face, and as such, an even better remedy for preventing the possible breakdown of the Army and Marine Corps would have been to avoid invading Iraq in the first place. It is of course too late now, but a graceful exit is an option whose time has come. It is high time to regroup and rethink exactly how we are going to defeat radical Islam. As for Iraq, the last thing we should be contemplating is a "surge" that will only compound the ill-advised manner in which we plodded into Iraq. A surge now is a bridge too far. We cannot undo the initial mistakes. Yet President Bush appears stuck between handing an insurgency a victory and remaining in a place where the Iraqi people have rejected the gift of freedom purchased with precious American lives and treasure. And so we remain, running in place and going nowhere.
Instead, with little to no understanding of Iraq's history, culture, family clan and kinship, and language - five years into the War on (Islamist) Terror, a dearth of Arabic, Farsi, and Pashtu-speakers plagues our intelligence and military services - we slog on with no discernible, satisfactory results now or in the foreseeable future.
We may not lose that many Private Ryans (small consolation for those that have lost their sons and daughters), but they could be coming home atop a heap of broken down military hardware.