A close look at photos of American service personnel killed in Iraq and Afghanistan reinforces the painful truism that soldiers and Marines are doing virtually all of the fighting and dying. This isn’t a new phenomenon. From Korea to Iraq, four out of five of those who died at the hands of the enemy were infantrymen. Not just soldiers and Marines, but infantrymen, a force that today comprises less than 6 percent of those in uniform.
With the exception of Kosovo, the success of American arms in every conflict after World War II was threatened by a shortage of ground soldiers. In Korea and Vietnam, the shortage was addressed by rushing young men into deadly combat before they wereadequatelyprepared.The deadlyarithmeticinIraq continues true toform,with close-combat soldierscomprising at least three-quarters of our dead. Yet if all Army and Marineinfantrymen were collected together in one placethey would not fill FedEx Stadium.
The pressures of war and the parsimony of past administrations have broken the Army twice in the past 40 years. In Vietnam, the pressures of fighting a war with too limited a force caused Army noncommissioned officers, the human glue that holds our Army together, to leave en masse. The result was chaos. In the early ‘70 conditions became so bad that the American Army virtually ceased to exist as a fighting force. Again in the late seventies the Carter administration tried to accomplish too many missions with too few soldiers. Again the Army voted with its feet, creating a “hollow Army” that embarrassed the nation with its incompetence during Desert One, the failed hostage rescue effort in Iran.
The lessons are clear: a good army takes generations to build and only a few short years to break.
Last month I addressed 1,200 students at the Army’s Command and General Staff College, a place where middle-grade officers learn about the art of war. I asked by a show of hands how many of them were either coming from Iraq or returning there after graduation. Virtually every hand went up immediately. The scene dramatically reinforced to me the concern that again we are seeing an Army and Marine Corps stretched to the limit. Again, this precious fragment of our military is being asked to accomplish too many missions with too few troops. The shortage of soldiers and Marines is being addressed by converting soldiers in noncombat specialties to fight as infantry and by rotating combat units back into Iraq with very little time between deployments. All but one of the Army’s regular divisions are either in combat or preparing to go. Yet, incredibly, today our military has more first-rate fighter aircraft in active servicethaninfantry squads.
This nation needs to increase its ground forces by at least 150,000 over the next four years. This number would allow the combat elements of the Army to increase from the present 33 brigades to more than 50 with large increases in soldiers who perform skills critical to fighting radical Islam such as engineers, military police and, most importantly, infantry. The Marines would be increased in proportion adding about two Marine Expeditionary Brigades.
A particularly heavy burden falls on our special forces. Only these exceptional men can accomplish many of the unique and extremely hazardous missions demanded in this new era of counterinsurgency warfare. As a minimum we should create at least one additional special forces group supported with a substantial addition of psychological operations and civil affairs units.
A growing consensus for increasing the numbersof ground troops is emerging. Many are loyal supporters of this president,including people suchasBillKristol,Fred Kaganand membersof Congress. These civiliansare backed by a legion of retired officers, most of whom have experienced a brokenArmy first hand, and have joinedintochantthe same mantra:Ifyou believethat what’s happening in Iraq and Afghanistan are one-offexercises soon to end, then let’s stick with the military we have. But if you believe as I and many others do that these wars are harbingers of the future, that we will be fighting against radical Islamists for generations, then we must accept the fact that we need many more of those who we trust to do virtually all of the fighting and dying.
Retired Maj. Gen. Robert H. Scales is the former commandant of the Army War College.