Tuesday, November 11, 2003

This week it was announced that of the 4.7 million American veterans of World War I, only 44 are still alive. For many of us, there is deep poignancy in that statistical realization that we are losing direct human contact with that great event and those fine men. The cycle is reaching its completion; history is replacing memory. It is one more reminder that inevitably,our breathing lives must pass away, but what we do while here may live on for the benefit (or detriment) of our future countrymen.

Years may pass when our decisions and actions may seem not to matter to history — and then, suddenly, something big and terrible happens, such as September 11, and honest people are forced to admit that we are making our decisions and taking our actions, not just for our petty selves, but for millions of others and for the fate of mankind itself.

Just as the country that sent those 4.7 million young men off to the Great War disrupted or ended those young lives for a larger purpose, today, the country that is America must decide whether it is prepared to disrupt or end young lives for another, greater, purpose. (As the father of two healthy teen-age sons, I think about such matters on a personal as well as theoretical basis.) But it is becoming ever more obvious that we do not have sufficient armed forces to face and master the many perils that are assembling against us.

The challenges of Iraq, alone, are clearly pressing our government into military deployment decisions that distort sound judgment. Under the new deployment, almost 40 percent of in-country American troops will be Reserve and Guard forces (with little or no time for further training). The stalwart 3rd Infantry Division from Fort Stewart, which took Baghdad and only recently returned home, is slated to return to duty.

Likewise, 20,000 leathernecks from Camp Pendleton’s 1st Marine Division, barely back from heavy fighting duties, are to be returned to the combat zone. Rotating in for the long-serving 82nd Airborne is the Hawaiian-based 25th Light Infantry Division. While a fine fighting unit, because they lack helicopters, they are not a perfect replacement for the 82nd. Of coursethesesoldiersand Marines will do their duty — and do it well. But if there were a larger military force available for deployment, these are not the sort of decisions that would be forced on our military commanders.

Meanwhile, we continue to rightly complain that Syria and Iran are not stopping terrorists from crossing over into Iraq. But neither are we stopping them from our Iraqi side. It is hard to believe that more American troops on those semi-hostile borders could not be put to good use by our commanders in the field. Likewise, the new, heightened tempo of American anti-terrorist/guerrilla operations in the Sunni Triangle are requiring greater numbers of troops. Would not even more of the right kind of troops help even more? Our so far ineffective diplomatic efforts to gain Syrian and Iranian cooperation might be more successful if the leaders of those countries saw three or four extra heavy armored divisions assembling impatiently a few kilometers from their borders.

Even the current levels in Iraq are only possible because the Pentagon has “doubled up” short tours of active duty and rotated in the Guard and Reserve. By quickening the deployment tempo we risk too many of the vital trained sergeants and company-level officers just quitting the services. And with about 73 percent of active-duty troops currently unavailable for new overseas assignments, how would we deal with possible new demands for anti-terrorist military action in such places as Sudan, Yemen, Syria, Libya, Somalia, Iran or North Korea? Until recently, our government held out some hope that the addition of “allied” troops, new Iraqi troops and the reduction of Ba’athist and terrorist activity would solve these troop problems. Those hopes are no longer realistic.

Finally, then — as it always does — it comes down to moral, not mathematical decisions. Unless the terrorists voluntarily go back into their hole (which seems unlikely), the president will soon have to ask the American people to accept our obligation to effectively fight the terrorist scourge by substantially increasing the size of our military. Whether by draft or by voluntary means, it will cost huge sums. Many of those new troops will fight — and some will die — so that millions of American civilians will not be killed by terrorists.

Several decades from now, when our children’s generation is all dust, save 44 old men, will their grandchildren think as kindly on us as we do on those surviving 44 Doughboys (and their millions of comrades) who left us a richer clay from which to be born?

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