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.