Friday, May 16, 2008

As the person charged with saving the all-volunteer force (AVF) under President Reagan, I find Michael O’Hanlon’s May 4 Commentary comparing the quality of today’s ground forces with that of the quality of the force of the 1970s, the early Reagan years, or even 1985, to be misleading.

In 1981, Mr. Reagan inherited what the Army chief of staff called a “hollow Army” and a military force in disarray. With Mr. Reagan’s rhetorical skills (he did a recruiting commercial) and the leadership efforts of Defense Secretaries Caspar Weinberger and Frank Carlucci, we began to turn things around. But it took a decade to do that and it was only by the end of the Reagan administration in fiscal 1989 that we had the Army back to where it should be. Even Mr. O’Hanlon admits that today’s Army does not meet those standards.

Mr. O’Hanlon also distorts the picture by lumping the GED with a high school diploma. The military wants to recruit people who remain in high school until graduation because they are more likely to complete their enlistments and adapt to the military culture. Someone getting a general education diploma is a high school dropout.

Mr. O’Hanlon’s data about West Point’s graduates is also misleading. By January 2008, 54 percent of the class of 2000 had left the service and 46 percent of the class of 2001 had left. It is true that as of June 2007, only 32 percent of the class of 2002 had left.

But many could not leave because of the Army’s stop-loss policy, which prevents soldiers from leaving until three months after their unit returns from Iraq or Afghanistan. And others re-enlisted because they knew if they got out after five years, they most probably would have been called back over the next three years from the Individual Ready Reserve (IRR).

Maj. Gen. Robert Scales, the former commandant of the Army War College, has pointed out that for West Point graduates, eight has become the new five-year obligation. Let’s see how many of the class of 2002 are in by 2010.

Mr. O’Hanlon’s data on the quality of recruits is also misleading. He says that the aggregate total of 860 waivers for convicted felons is minor. Really. How many convicted felons were drafted by the NFL? Moreover, he ignores the fact that 13 percent of the Army’s new recruits (or more than 10,000) received so-called “moral waivers” in 2008.

What is more troubling about the article is the way Mr. O’Hanlon glosses over the problems of those deploying to Iraq. He says that 15,000 have faced post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after a third or fourth tour. But the total number of troops with PTSD, according to the RAND Corp., is about 230,000.

He says we must do everything to help those individuals. What, exactly? Do we keep sending them back to Iraq and Afghanistan without sufficient time at home?

Moreover, in looking at problems faced by soldiers, he compares suicides and divorces first to the general population and only then to levels in the ground forces before we invaded Iraq. But in saying our soldiers’ serious problems are no more than the rest of the population, he ignores the fact that the military has higher standards. Moreover, even he admits that the number of suicides in the Army has doubled since 2001.

These problems would never have occurred in a Reagan administration. The 40th president accepted the social compact with the troops that said for every day in a combat zone, the military person would spend at least two days at home. Moreover, because he recognized that the all-volunteer force was not meant to fight a long war, he kept draft registration.

Those who support this mindless, needless and senseless war in Iraq should have the courage of their convictions and bring back the draft. Only then will we give real relief to the troops who have sacrificed so much for us. If we do not, the quality of the ground troops will continue to deteriorate and “soldiers’ problems” will continue to mount.

By now, Mr. Reagan would most likely have redeployed our forces from Iraq as he did from Lebanon. But if he stayed, he would have implemented a draft.

Lawrence Korb, who served as assistant defense secretary during the Reagan administration, is senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and senior adviser at the Center for Defense Information.

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