- - Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced that budget cuts will reduce the size of the U.S. Army to 440,000 soldiers — its lowest number since 1940. However dangerous and unwise, Mr. Hagel’s cuts are only the latest steps in the steady alienation of American society from those who defend us.

My 2006 book, “Warheads,” began, “Despite living in a nation at war, we Americans are as likely to know a resident of North Dakota — our 48th smallest state — as a soldier serving on active duty in the United States Army.” I wrote those words back when George Bush was our president, Donald Rumsfeld was defense secretary and most of our soldiers were on their first or second combat tours.

Although we were then losing the war in Iraq, soldier suicide was a problem you didn’t hear about very much. A nation long accustomed to fighting its wars by using “other people’s kids” — a term used throughout “Warheads” — had deluded itself with the cozy assumption that there were no important consequences if our military was too small for its missions. If Gen. David Petraeus needed a surge to win the Iraq war, then our professional Army could just ask its soldiers to endure one more deployment to the combat zone. No problem — weren’t Gen. Petraeus and his soldiers all volunteers?

A subsequent president, contemplating disaster in yet another hellhole, simultaneously announced a new surge to save Afghanistan but also the date on which those soldiers would be withdrawn. Three fundamental assumptions informed President Obama’s war policy: our enemies are too stupid to wait us out; our soldiers would be able to suck it up for yet another combat tour; and the Law of Averages has somehow been repealed. It must have come as a shock when suicides began killing more of our soldiers than the Taliban, when brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder emerged as the signature wounds inflicted during the Long Wars of September 11.


News flash: When our soldiers and Marines are sent back into combat time after time, it increases their chances of becoming a casualty, of losing their lives, their limbs or maybe their sanity. Those are only the nastiest probabilities. How about the absolute certainties — the strain endured by our troops and their families, immediate as well as extended?

In his new book, “Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War,” former Defense Secretary Robert Gates writes about the challenges of managing the combat force. His tenure began with an overdue but temporary increase of more than 100,000 soldiers and Marines. Even so, there were endless tradeoffs whenever combat tours had to be extended, including the “dwell-time” at home between repeated combat tours. Soldiers and their families instinctively grasped that increasing tour lengths to 15 months inevitably triggered the “law of twos” — soldiers would now potentially miss two Christmases, two anniversaries, two birthdays. Even so, those harsh realities represented the best that could be expected. If one of those soldiers was your loved one, try not to imagine the worst.

The many memoirs written by those who shaped the defense policies of the last two administrations contain a notable omission. Republican or Democrat, hawk or dove, none of these luminaries ever seem to have questioned the manpower policies by which the United States prosecuted its war against terror. None seem to have remembered “The Federalist Papers,” which considered military service a responsibility of citizenship, not a spectator sport. Nor did they ponder the lessons learned since then about how a free people might equitably share the burdens of wartime sacrifice. Instead of adapting conscription for the 21st century, we effectively drafted the reserves. They were now more likely to be deployed to far-off Kandahar rather than fighting floods back home. So should we worry about the long-term implications? What does it mean when fewer congressmen or their staffs can recall their own military service? Are they more or less able to shape the policies on which war and peace may depend — or has politics become just another of those spectator sports?

I live in San Antonio, known as Military City USA, where support for the troops and cultural Christianity are traditional landscape features. But the mega-church I attend rarely questions the morality of living in a society so addicted to self-interest that only 1 percent of our citizens ever serve in uniform. When they’re candid, church leaders will also admit that religious beliefs are not always matched by a corresponding commitment to personal service. It’s odd how that kind of thing can be catching, since only 6 percent of our local electorate even bothered to vote in the last municipal elections. I sometimes wonder if Americans should start asking: Do we still deserve our freedom? And if so, then why?

Col. Ken Allard, retired from the Army, is a military analyst and author on national security issues.