Combat Tours Still Too Long
Phil Carter argues that, while reducing tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan to 12 months from 15, it’s still too long. Far preferable would be the 7-month tours employed by the Marine Corps or the 6-month rotations the Army used for Bosnia and other deployments in the 1990s.
This is an extremely long deployment, particularly for troops engaged in dangerous work outside the wire and away from the comforts of large U.S. bases. The combat-stress literature suggests there is a finite limit to the quantity of combat an individual can experience before he/she breaks down and becomes “combat ineffective.” For sustained major combat operations, like Guadalcanal or the Hurtgen Forest, that figure is 60 days or so. We don’t know exactly what the figure is for sustained counterinsurgency operations of the sort practiced in Baghdad or Baqubah. But there is a limit. And the most recent mental health survey statistics from the Pentagon indicate that we are rapidly pushing our soldiers and Marines toward it — and beyond — in order to sustain the force in Iraq.
As Phil goes on to note, though, we simply don’t have the manpower to go to such short rotations.
Before Vietnam, when we rotated troops out on an annual basis (and typically moved officers from the front lines to the rear areas after only six months) it was common for troops deployed into combat to be their for the duration of hostilities. During WWII, there were soldiers who fought in Northern Africa, slogged their way through Europe, and then deployed to the Pacific Theater after V-E Day.
While increasing the size of the Army is the ultimate solution to this problem (presuming we’re simply going to continue to have regular large scale interventions abroad) we’re not likely going to be able to sustain the political will to keep it at Cold War levels indefinitely. A return to a draft would solve that problem, but it’s not a realistic option.
More likely, then, is a compromise solution where troops continue to have 12- or 15- or even 18-month tours that are broken up with frequent, short rotations into the rear area or nearby safe zones for R & R. Even during Desert Storm, which was relatively short, we had cruise ships where some units (not mine, alas) rotated for a few days. One wouldn’t think it would be that hard to establish that kind of thing for OEF/OIF forces.
UPDATE: DC Loser makes the other major point that I’d intended to make but then forgot about while composing the post: “6 or 7 months is simply not enough time to develop relationships with the Iraqi sheikhs or whomever we need to deal with on a daily basis to make sure nothing bad happens. Units rotating in and out take months just to get up to full capability and learning their new neighborhood.”
Individual rotation, versus unit rotation, would alleviate this problem to some degree. But, yes, the nature of COIN and stability ops is that short tours make it harder to gain the trust of locals or, goodness, figuring out who the “good guys” and “bad guys” are. I’m not suggesting that Phil, who’s been to Iraq leading a civil affairs team, doesn’t know that. But it’s something that needs to be factored into the equation.