Instant Communication Destroying Battlefield Morale?

Phil Carter, a longtime critic of the Iraq War who has resigned from the Army Reserves after serving an involuntary tour in Iraq, argues that the U.S. Army has been “broken” by the strains of the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Aside from the usual reasons, a factor I haven’t seen mentioned elsewhere:

Today’s Army and Marine Corps is more family-oriented than other forces fielded recently by the United States. My deployment affected my family far more than me. I knew when I was safe and when I was in harm’s way; families can only guess, piecing together what they get from CNN and sporadic e-mails from their loved ones. Extending soldiers’ tours crushes the hopes of their families, who pin so much on a fixed return date. Soldiers have always received “Dear John” letters, but it’s different now, because so many troops have spouses and children—and because today’s troops are getting “Dear John” e-mails and phone calls in real time. Extending these tours creates enormous strain for military families. And shortening these families’ time together between deployments all but guarantees family issues on the next rotation. Problems at home quickly become problems in Iraq or Afghanistan, forcing combat leaders to take time away from their mission to advise soldiers about family matters.

The tide was beginning to turn in 1991, when I was deployed for Desert Storm. Those of us not assigned to the rear area had to go weeks without contact with our families aside from the occasional letter. Those in cushier locales, though, had satellite communications and, theoretically, the ability to send email. (The World Wide Web effectively didn’t exist yet but there were primitive means.) Now, email and VOIP have made near-instant communication the norm.

I had always presumed this was an improvement. Perhaps it isn’t? Maybe we’ve transferred the much-talked-about blurring of the lines between home and office to the battlefield. Rather than bolstering morale, as I would have thought, we’ve made it impossible for soldiers to compartmentalize their lives and just focus on soldiering.

Most of Carter’s essay focuses on the fact that we have “effectively rewrit[ten] the social contract of the reserves,” an issue I’ve written about a lot over the years.

During the 1980s and ’90s, soldiers joined the reserves on the understanding that they would train one weekend per month and deploy for either discrete missions or “the big one.” Over the last three years, the Pentagon has gradually transformed these part-time forces from a “strategic” into an “operational” reserve, meaning they can now expect to deploy one out of every five to six years, or more, depending on the situation.

That’s absolutely right. Short of resumption of a draft (which Carter favors and I do not, as we discussed in the Legal Affairs Debate Club a couple years back) or radically rolling back the number of wars we fight (which I agree with in principle but don’t see happening), the only solution I can think of is a radical restructuring of the active force, mothballing most of our heavy assets into the Reserves. Unfortunately, there are strong political and cultural forces in the way of doing that.

More discussion of the piece at Carter’s blog.

UPDATE: Retired Lt. Gen. Bob Scales agrees with Carter’s assessments and does some math:

If you haven’t heard the news, I’m afraid your Army is broken, a victim of too many missions for too few soldiers for too long. Today we have deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan all of our fighting brigades, both active and reserve. Every brigade save one in Korea has spent time in combat.

Twenty have two tours there, nine have three and two have four. Some of these brigades’ one-year deployments were extended by several months. To demonstrate the gravity of the problem, let’s do the math. After the surge the nation will need to keep 33 brigades, each consisting of about 3,000 soldiers, in the field. Past experience tells us that three brigades are needed to keep one continuously in the fight (one recovering and one training up to support each deployed brigade). The Army could in theory maintain itself in combat indefinitely using such a scheme.

From a human perspective, a three-for-one schedule would allow each soldier two years back for every year in combat. That is tough but sustainable. So, that means we need a total of 99 brigades to support 33 in the fight. Sorry to say, we only have about half that number available to the Army and Marine Corps.

The Surge is supposed to be short-lived. Scales is right, though, that we couldn’t effectively sustain that level of deployment indefinitely.

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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.


  1. Dave Schuler says:

    One thing I’ve been wondering about is whether milblogging has a positive or negative effect on morale. Do you suppose the DoD has studied it?

  2. just me says:

    I had always presumed this was an improvement.

    Me too.

    My husband was in the Navy during the early to mid 90’s. Towards the end of his service, air craft carriers and some of the other larger ships were just starting to get email capable. When he would deploy on his ship, mail was generally 2-4 weeks behind, and a lot of mail I sent to him or he sent to me would arrive after he had gotten home.

    I do think he has a point about the strain on families, and how todays service members is more likely to be married and with children than in many previous wars. One of the reasons we had already decided my husband wasn’t going to re enlist for another 4 year hitch, was because of the strain the deployments put on our family, and that was during peace time.

    I am not sure there is a lot you can do for this, other than make sure units rotate in and out of theater on schedule, and providing more support to families left behind.

    I think restructuring the military’s reserve and active duty units is probably in order and has been since the 1990’s when the nature of how we fight wars changed.

  3. My grandmother received three telegrams in a bit over a month during WW II. All three were for the same son who was wounded three times fighting in Italy. He was the only one of the five kids who went to war to receive a serious injury (40% disability for life). My father served 22 months straight in the Pacific flying of carriers and islands, until he was rotated back to be an instructor.

    Maybe the issue is that one of the legacies of Vietnam was the concept of a ‘tour of duty’, as opposed to staying until the job is done.

  4. Triumph says:

    Lets get real: instant communication and blogging, extended tours and shorter periods home are NOT negatively affecting battlefield morale.

    The real culprits are the liberals like Nancy Pelosi who have done everything in their power to weaken the military and help the evildoers.

    If it weren’t for liberals, this whole situation would be fine.

  5. Hal says:

    If it weren’t for liberals, this whole situation would be fine.

    yea, you tell ’em Triumph

  6. Anderson says:

    I take Carter’s points seriously, but I doubt that arbitrarily restricting access to e-mail etc. would help much.

    The result would be that certain privileged rear-area folks would still get to e-mail, whereas the unwashed frontliners wouldn’t. That would also be bad for morale.

    The broader point about the Reserves is one I’ve been echoing for ages. It’s monstrous that we are conducting a couple of occupations on the backs of the Reserves.

    If we *want* to be an imperial, occupying power, then we need to recruit an army to suit — raising pay & incentives as much as needed for an all-volunteer force, or else (less preferably) drafting the necessary troops.

    As it is, we’ve betrayed the contract with our reservists — they’d be there for “the big one,” and we’d call them up for same. Instead, they’ve been called up for a political war in Iraq, which a cowardly President insists on fighting without spreading its human costs amongst the population at large.

  7. carpeicthus says:

    I think the bigger point has been missed. It’s not the IMs; it’s the extended tours.

  8. John Burgess says:

    I think there’s a categorical difference in the content of e-mail and postal mail.

    When one actually writes a letter, it takes time, it takes reflection. You face limitations of space and/or cost (though those are not rigid, unless one uses air letters). You also face limitations of time and place as letter-writing isn’t usually done on the hop, but in a fixed place at a quiet time. (Again, this isn’t rigid, just the norm.)

    E-mail now can be sent anytime, any place, from your cell phone or a wi-fi enabled laptop. There are no structural limits on the sending.

    E-mail also tends to include far more of the banal than do written letters. They are quick, off-the-cuff, open to every passing bitch and moan. And, of course, e-mail suffers from the same lack of context that causes flame wars through lack of context.

    VoIP, likewise, is utterly different from the cassette tapes that were widely used during Vietnam and later wars. Again, they can bring the immediate, though trivial, right to the ear of a soldier who has other things on his/her mind.

    I don’t see restricting soldiers’ ability to receive either e-mail or phone calls as do-able. Instead, the military needs to do a bit more work with families to help them understand the full consequences of modern conveniences. The message should be along the lines of ‘If it’s not urgent, don’t bother your soldier with it; S/he’s got more important things to bother with, like staying alive.’

  9. James Joyner says:

    I think the bigger point has been missed. It’s not the IMs; it’s the extended tours.

    Phil hasn’t missed that point, nor have I. Indeed, the emphasis on the personal comms issue is mine.

    Still, it’s an interesting complicating factor. YAJ is right:

    Maybe the issue is that one of the legacies of Vietnam was the concept of a ‘tour of duty’, as opposed to staying until the job is done.

    I’ve made that point before as well.

    That’s not to say that the opstempo isn’t ridiculously high, by any means. I’ve been arguing since the early 1990s that it is.

    Anderson is right, too:

    As it is, we’ve betrayed the contract with our reservists — they’d be there for “the big one,” and we’d call them up for same.

    That, too, is a point I’ve made repeatedly over the years. I’d argue the GWOT or Long War or whatever is closer to that than the Clinton adventures but Iraq COIN is not. (I think Iraq buttresses the GWOT but isn’t the GWOT.)

  10. Jim Henley says:

    I think there’s probably something to the “instant communication destroys morale” thing. I just think it’s swamped by other factors. And I do wonder, The Other Side have pretty near realtime communication too, don’t they? If you’re a native-Iraqi insurgent you’re not just e-mailing the family, you’re going home to sleep with them every night.

  11. James Joyner says:

    If you’re a native-Iraqi insurgent you’re not just e-mailing the family, you’re going home to sleep with them every night.

    Sure. But blowing up some people every now and again is probably a lot less of an emotional drain than risking getting blown up on a daily basis. The guerrillas always have the easier job.

  12. James,

    Yes and no about the easier job. If the guerrillas have the easier job it is likely that means they have the initiative (picking when and where to fight). If the counter insurgency force is doing the job right, the the insurgency will feel always hunted and never able to catch its breath with out the counter insurgency breathing down its throat.

  13. Jim Henley says:

    It’s not like guerrillas never get killed, wounded or captured. At least according to the official reports, the insurgency has suffered an order of magnitude more casualties than the coalition. It sees like there’s a certain amount of emotional drain involved in that process.

  14. I don’t think it is the instantaneous access to the information as much as how we are conditioned to react to it, at whatever speed it comes in. Compare Pericles’ Funeral Oration or Winston Churchill’s “Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat” to anything said by the leaders of either party these days regarding the cost and sacrifice required to achieve our goals. I realize that we can, and do, disagree with what those goals may be, but that is beside the point here.

    Of course, people seem to want to be lied to these days when it comes to the real cost of almost anything, whether it be health care, social security, or killed or maimed young men and women. Free lunches are still just an imaginery metaphor, though our “leaders” never stop serving them up and the populace as a whole keeps pretending they are both nutritous and filling.

    If you accept that there is a price to be paid in men and materiel to achieve your goals, does it matter whether the butcher’s bill comes in minutes or days? Or weeks? Similarly, does it matter how quickly the information is distributed if you have a zero tolerance level for bloody casualties?

  15. just me says:

    I think the bigger point has been missed. It’s not the IMs; it’s the extended tours.

    I would agree, tour extensions aren’t new-they happened to my husband and other family members in the service, but they do create a stress on the family.

    I think the military at the very least should make a commitment of moving men and women in and out of the war zone on time. There may be a few times when extensions are neccessary, but they should be the exception and not the rule.