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The War Will Go on for a Battered Army
Published on Thursday, December 18, 2003 by the Seattle Times
The War Will Go on for a Battered Army
by Erin Solaro and Philip Gold

Sun Tzu, the great Chinese philosopher of war, once warned that if you wish to be victorious, you must know your enemy and know yourself. Which means: You must be willing to know the unpleasant and the infuriating as well as the self-congratulatory and the optimistic.

Saddam Hussein is history. Trouble is, he has been history for some time now to the jihadi, the foreign adventurers, the remnant Baathist sociopaths and the rest of the anti-American resistance. They're fighting for their own reasons now. They do not need him. The war will go on.

And this war, if it continues at anywhere near its current intensity, may well cripple the United States Army.

For months now, media chatter and Pentagon whispers have predicted an imminent mass exodus from the Army and National Guard. So far, the evidence is mostly anecdotal. But the plural of "anecdote" is "data," and the anecdotes are cumulating.

It will take another year or so to know whether tens of thousands of officers and noncommissioned officers are indeed punching out in disgust. Service contracts take time to expire and the Army has "stop-loss" orders — a legal gizmo for keeping people in uniform beyond their obligated service — in effect, and available. So the voluntary exodus of experience and skill is not quite

But people are leaving as casualties. In mid-November, a U.S. Army surgeon general's report put the number of soldiers medically evacuated (medevac'd) from Iraq between March 19 and Oct. 30 at over 9,200.

This number includes those killed in action and wounded in action, as well as those suffering non-battle injuries and deaths, such as from vehicle accidents and suicide, and medical problems induced or aggravated by the harsh living conditions and stress. Soldiers treated within Iraq, and soldiers developing problems after their return, are excluded.

The tally has gone up since then, probably by at least several hundred. And while 10,000 may not seem like much out of a total Army and Guard of roughly 1.2 million, small changes can have large effects.

The problem is that these people cannot be replaced in any efficient manner. And the situation is going to get far worse as the Army begins to rotate large units in and out of Southwest Asia.

The dilemma is not caused by 450 or so soldiers killed in action, a number that is tragic but still mercifully small. The problem begins with the wounded.

In previous wars, those wounded in action often returned to their units, providing a veteran core to guide the newcomers, or they were assigned to training commands. The widespread use of body armor in Iraq, plus changes in enemy tactics, have created a situation in which soldiers are wounded less by gunshot and more by improvised explosive devices, such as roadside bombs, and by rocket-propelled grenades. The results are often catastrophic.

How many non-battle medevacs may eventually return to duty is unknown.

But in Iraq, the "million-dollar wound" — the one that gets you out of combat but lets you recover fully — is scarce, indeed.

Obviously, no army in deadly combat can function without a steady stream of replacements. It's possible, for a while, to generate replacements by stripping other units of qualified people. But in the long run, this weakens the total deployable force and destroys the very structure by which new soldiers are trained.

Training takes time. By law, no service member can deploy overseas without at least six months' training. Six months don't get you a fully qualified infantryman, let alone a helicopter mechanic, communications specialist, or Arabic linguist. And while the Army does not release statistics on the military occupational specialties of those medically evacuated, it is likely that, in all those downed helicopters and ambushed convoys, a lot of critical skills and experience were lost.

And then there's the perennial problem of individual versus unit replacements. Traditionally, the Army has replaced casualties by individual, in units already deployed. But the Army has not planned to do this on a large and continuing scale — our wars are supposed to be short and easy. And since over half the current force is National Guard, it is politically impossible to keep those outfits there forever.

So the Army plans a major rotation of large units (battalion and above) next year. This degrades institutional memory, intelligence networks and operational continuity.

It gets worse.

The Army plans to code the four divisions it will be rotating out of Iraq and Afghanistan as C-4 — not combat ready — for six months, perhaps more. Do the math. The Army has a total of 10 active divisions (many of which require extensive National Guard reinforcement). Replacing four divisions with four tallies eight — leaving only two divisions (plus an increasingly exhausted National Guard) for everything else. And this says nothing about overtaxing the supporting structure.

So, yes, Saddam's in the cage he so richly deserves. We'll be getting to know him rather well at his trial. But he's no longer the enemy. And this venture has weakened us far more, and for far longer, than we care to admit.

Erin Solaro a former Army officer, is executive director of Aretéa, a Seattle-based public and cultural-affairs center (E-mail: Philip Gold a former Marine officer, is Aretéa president.

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company


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