I’ll admit I was taken aback. This senior officer and mentor—with nearly 28 years of military service—wasn’t one for hyperbole. No, he believed what he was saying to me just then.
“We’re killing these kids, we’re breaking the army!” he exclaimed.
He went on to explain the competing requirements for standard, conventional army units—to say nothing of the overstretched Special Forces—in 2018: balancing Russia in Eastern Europe, deterrence rotations in South Korea, advise and assist missions in Africa. Add to that deployments to the usual hotspots in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. He was genuinely concerned about the physical and emotional toll on the active-duty force, pushed to its limits by 17 years of perpetual combat. After all, with high military suicide rates now labeled the “new normal,” and a recent succession of accidental training deaths, it seems reasonable to wonder whether we are, indeed, “killing [our] kids.”
The overall effects of this rapid operations tempo on morale and readiness are difficult to measure in a disciplined, professional, all-volunteer military such as the one the United States possesses. What we do know is that despite former president Obama’s ongoing promises that “the tide of war is receding” and that America could finally “start nation-building at home,” nothing of the sort occurred then, or is now, under President Trump. Though the U.S. military (thankfully) no longer maintains six-figure troop counts in either Iraq or Afghanistan, American soldiers are still there, as well as serving in 70 percent of the world’s countries in one capacity or another in what has become a “generational war.” America’s troops are still being killed, though in admittedly fewer numbers. Nevertheless, U.S. servicemen continued to die in combat in several countries in 2017, including Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen, and Niger.
After major drawdowns in Iraq (2011) and Afghanistan (2014), many soldiers, myself included, looked forward to longer “dwell time” at home stations and, just maybe, something resembling peace and even normalcy. It was not to be. Aside from deployments to Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, conventional U.S. Army brigades currently support regular overseas rotations to Kuwait, South Korea, and Eastern Europe. To use just one example, the 1st Armored Division webpage currently boasts that the division has soldiers supporting 20 missions on five continents. Of my three former classmates and colleagues in the West Point History Department (2014-2016), two are currently deployed: one in Romania, another to the ubiquitous Mid-East region. That’s just about as busy as we all were back in the bad old days of 2006-2007.
The military—and the Army in particular—brought some of this upon itself. As conventional ground combat elements (of which the Army owns the preponderance) withdrew from Iraq and Afghanistan, and President Obama signaled a strategic pivot to Asia, U.S. Army leaders became understandably concerned. The Asia pivot would, logically, lean more heavily on the Air Force and Navy—especially when new military doctrine took the (exclusive) name “Air-Sea Battle.” As the economy struggled and budgets tightened, the various service chiefs fought to convince Congress and administration kingmakers of their continued “relevance.” If the Army didn’t appear busy—engaged in a countless number of vital missions—well, it’d be hard to justify its current budget.
It should come as no surprise that around this time the Army touted the versatility of its Regionally Aligned Forces (RAF) brigades—units trained and tailored to support an array of missions for specific geographic combatant commanders. Army leaders also emphasized threats from Russia and North Korea and the need for deterrent brigades on the ground in those theaters. And, with Special Operations Command under strain, the Army also provided six new Security Force Assistance Brigades (SFABs) to carry some of the advise-and-assist workload around the globe. This is not to say that Army leaders fabricated threats or invented missions. It’s all far more complex. Rather, brutal budget squabbles on Capitol Hill combined with increasingly politicized foreign policy threat assessments created an atmosphere where demonstrating “relevance” and “busyness” presented the only sure path to funding at the rates to which the various services had become accustomed. Relevance is a double-edged sword—well-justified budgets require a frenzied operational pace and an overwrought Army.
Some troopers, at least, appear fed up with the scope and pace of deployments in year 18 of the conflict formerly known as the “war on terror.” No one is publicly sounding the alarm, but there are signals—if you know where to look. When Vice President Mike Pence made a surprise holiday season visit to Kabul and publicly praised U.S. forces in Afghanistan, one observer described the crowd as “subdued,” and noted “several troops stood with their arms crossed or their hands folded behind their backs and listened, but did not applaud.” Polls also demonstrate that although the current president is slightly more popular among the military than the general public, among officers Trump counts only a 30 percent approval rate. More concerning are the February 2017 polls indicating that military service member satisfaction has dropped 50 percent since 2009, due in part, one assumes, to never-ending deployments and time spent away from families. And, among the ever-strained Special Operations forces, reports indicate that mental distress and suicide are again on the rise.
As it stands, the system just about holds together—no doubt due to the determination of leaders and dutiful sacrifice of soldiers—but one wonders whether the active component force could truly weather even one major regional crisis. Something, it seems, would have to give—a drawdown in other missions, compressed training schedules, or—heaven forbid!—calling up the reserves, something American politicians certainly wish to avoid.
The all-volunteer force was always a devil’s bargain: by cutting out the citizenry in the form of a draft out of the equation, presidents, pols, and military leadership could move soldiers around the chessboard with fewer checks on their authority and the decision-making process.
That’s all well and good, until the system cracks. The president’s modest troop escalations in Afghanistan and Iraq, if combined with a (ever more likely) shooting war in Korea, could be just the thing to “break” the professional, volunteer military.
At that point Americans would have some tough decisions to make: ante up some cash and bodies to keep the U.S. military on top, or, just maybe, do less. Let’s hope it never comes to that. In the meantime, count on Congress and the American people to cover their eyes and let the “war on terror’s” third straight president run its cherished heroes into the ground.
What a way to say “thanks for your service!”