Tuesday, July 06, 2004

Ill-Serving Those Who Serve


July 6, 2004
Ill-Serving Those Who Serve

The Pentagon's decision to press 5,600 honorably discharged soldiers back into service, mainly in Iraq and Afghanistan, is the latest example of President Bush's refusal to face the true costs of pre-emptive war. As with other stopgap measures to paper over the poor planning of the invasion and occupation of Iraq, this one demands more from those who have already given the most: volunteer soldiers and their families. And because this call-up comes uncomfortably close to conscription, it highlights more than other emergency deployments the callousness of the administration's failure to budget for an adequate number of ground troops.

Last week's mobilization decision involved the Army's Individual Ready Reserve, a pool of 117,000 former officers and soldiers who have completed their active or reserve duty, but still have time left on the eight-year contracts they signed when they enlisted. Given the urgency of the need for more troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, we can see why tapping that ready reserve was so tempting. But that urgency is of the administration's own making.

Although it has long been obvious that American ground forces would be overstretched by commitments in Iraq, Afghanistan, Korea and elsewhere, the administration has resisted Congressional efforts to enlarge the Army permanently to cover projected needs -- by most estimates, that means 20,000 to 40,000 more people. Such an expansion would cost as much as $10 billion and would need to be accounted for in the more than $400 billion military budget. To date, most of the cost of the Iraq war has not been paid from the military budget, but from nearly $100 billion in so-called supplemental funds. An additional "supplemental" of at least $25 billion is expected for fiscal year 2005. This type of accounting ensures that politicians' pet weapons projects do not have to compete for funds with the cost of more soldiers. Just slowing down the deployment of the Rube Goldberg ballistic-missile defense system would pay for a lot of soldiers.

In the meantime, overworked soldiers get orders for extended and multiple tours, even as new evidence shows that one in six soldiers who returned home from earlier tours in Iraq is showing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder or other severe emotional difficulties. If the Army persists in these extended tours and rapid-fire redeployments, the cost could be a drop in morale and in recruitment and re-enlistment rates. In general, Americans are made more vulnerable as soldiers are pulled out of the nuclear-armed Korean peninsula to serve in Iraq and are diverted from a real war against terrorism in Afghanistan.

The military argues that while the need for more soldiers is immediate, staffing and equipping new permanent divisions would take nearly two years -- and that by then, they might not be needed. That is the same type of hope-for-the-best planning that caused this disaster.