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.

FILED UNDER: Iraq War, Military Affairs, , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. DC Loser says:

    The flip side to the argument for shorter tours is that 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.

  2. mike says:

    I agree that expanding the Army is one solution but there is no political will to do so and equip/sustain it long term. The problem is that we are already taking entirely too many new recruits w/ criminal waivers and other issues – I am not even sure the 30,000 expansion has been met yet. Is quantity better than quality? They can’t give away ROTC scholarships and company grade officers are getting out at record levels. Expansion is a good idea but probably not feasible.

  3. Alex Knapp says:

    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.

    Which is yet another reason why we should try to avoid such operations whenever possible.

  4. James Joyner says:

    Which is yet another reason why we should try to avoid such operations whenever possible.

    I hear ya…

  5. sam says:

    Before Vietnam…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.

    Just an historical note. Luftwaffe pilots flew combat missions until they died or the war was over (which is why many of them had confirmed kills in the hundreds).

  6. DC Loser says:

    Just an historical note. Luftwaffe pilots flew combat missions until they died or the war was over (which is why many of them had confirmed kills in the hundreds).

    And US policy was to pull fighter pilots back to be instructor pilots after about a year in a combat unit, to pass along lessons learned to the new pilots. Bomber crews had to survive 25 missions to be done with combat (not that was an easy thing). The Japanese kept their pilots in combat until they were all killed, and only the inexperienced new pilots were left.

  7. legion says:

    Well, the Air Force currently deploys people for typically 120-180 days, but certain ‘key positions’, like many unit commanders and ops officers, are 1-year tours for continuity.

    Also, I’ll go ahead and bring up the topic everyone seems to be dancing around…

    Before Vietnam…it was common for troops deployed into combat to be their for the duration of hostilities.

    Yeah – because they were _drafted_. Often for the ‘duration of the hostilities’. If this ‘war’ were actually being treated like a War, we would have a draft – and the manpower to maintain significantly shorter combat rotations. But for all the tough talk about defending the country by invading places that had nothing to do with attacking the US, the draft is one option that has never been considered viable. Until it is, you’re _never_ going to reduce tour length, and frankly, I don’t even see the math behind being able to cut it back down to 12 months.

  8. yetanotherjohn says:

    Legion,

    My father served in the pacific from late 1942 to early 1945 on carriers and islands (he completed government sponsored flight training in December of 1941 and found out the same month why the government was providing free tuition towards those classes, in 1945 he was pulled out to train pilots in Pensacola). He was not drafted, but volunteered. After Pearl Harbor he asked around and determined that navy pilots were the best of the best, so that was what he volunteered for (my apologies to any air corps pilots, but you know how it is). Three of my uncles served similar tours (starting around 1943 to 1945) in Europe. Again, all volunteers. While a unit might be rotated out of the front lines, it didn’t get shipped home. Replacements were added from the states.

    In the current war, three of my five military age nephews are serving. I have lost track of the number of cousins serving. My church has about 5% of the congregates serving. Re-enlistment quotas are being exceeded and enlistment quotas are generally being met. All this despite an endless whining from the left and the press (but I repeat myself) that the war is lost and futile. I agree that it is difficult to expand the volunteer military. What motivates most of those who volunteer is not the paycheck, but ‘Duty, Honor, Country’. The left mocks and derides those concepts so it is not surprising that only a few respond. From those who I know who serve, they wouldn’t want to serve there with the Kos kids and the like that a draft would dredge up. It would endanger their lives and the mission.

  9. Wayne says:

    As for tour lengths, the ideal length really varies for different units but for moral purposes should remain pretty much standard. I think a year in theater is about right with an extended RR or two during that time period. 6 months is just too short for most. You end up spending too much of it getting acquainted and preparing to leave.

    As for Mikes “recruits w/ criminal waivers”, most of the waivers are for minor offenses that in my opinion shouldn’t need waivers in the first place. There are some troops that come back shot off some steam, get drunk and do something stupid that still get booted out service. I understand the military wants to maintain discipline but they could lighten up some too. Humans will behave like humans sometimes.

  10. mike says:

    Wayne – I agree on many of the criminal waivers being okay for petty stuff and one time lapses in judgment – I am more concerned with lack of even a GED, low ASVAB scores and overall low scores, PT failures etc… which are all coming through the system and into line units. My overall point though is that if we are taking in folks like this now with just a 30,000 soldier expansion, imagine what things would look like with 100-200,000 soldier expansion – again I don’t see this happening b/c of the cost and political feasibility – just easier to burn out the current force.

  11. legion says:

    yaj,
    Your points about WWII are well taken. But they also show the contrast between that war and this – the only “rear area” I’ve heard about soldiers getting time in are places like Qatar – anyone staying in Iraq is basically _always_ on the front lines.

    But I do take issue with your comment on the “whining of the left and the press”. “The Left”, as you put it, very strongly does _not_ mock the “duty, honor, country” sentiment of those serving over there. I can quite definitively state that many – certainly as big a percentage as those on “the right” – do love this county. And I’ll point out to you that Kos himself _did_ serve in uniform for several years.

    You appear to have bought into the GOP brainwashing that being against the President, and this particular war, is synonymous with being against America – and that is flatly untrue. The President is the elected leader of this country and not – even in time of war – its ruler. If he makes poor decisions, it is very definitely _not_ disloyalty to point them out, loudly even. But the days of heaping scorn and insult on those who serve are, I’m glad to say, a disgusting remnant of the Vietnam era, and not supported by anyone who can even see the mainstream from where they stand. (Berkely doesn’t count – they’ve _always_ been like that)

  12. I’ve quoted you and linked to you here.