The U.S. Military Is in
Bad Good Bad Shape
By Captain John Byron, U.S. Navy (Retired)
Proceedings, July 2004
Not long ago, the U.S. military was in terrible shape. How do we know? Because people now in high places said so.
During the 2000 presidential campaign, George W. Bush said we had a "hollow military." He stood behind Republican claims that the Clinton administration had allowed military readiness to decline to all-time lows.
Vice presidential candidate Dick Cheney agreed: "Military readiness has reached its lowest level in modern times." Condoleezza Rice attacked nearly every aspect of Bill Clinton’s stewardship of the military ("extraordinary neglect . . . witless," etc). Colin Powell accused Clinton of "reducing spending so much that troops are underpaid, equipment is aging, and the U.S. can no longer support multiple missions around the world." So there it is: the armed forces that the new President’s team took over in 2001 were in deep trouble.
Mere weeks or months are nowhere near enough time to rebuild a military, of course. To upgrade the hardware, an administration new to power needs a long time to shape plans, revamp spending, convince Congress, and start up new programs. The military services and field commanders need time also—they cannot instantly shift strategies and deployments, nor does new doctrine flow rapidly. Slowest to alter course are the people—the service cultures, leaders, and morale. No, the new Bush administration would need time—years to get the military squared away from the sad condition it was left in by the previous presidency.
But as we know, President Bush and his military did not get that time. Less than eight months after he took office, the tragedy of September 11th
put our military on war footing as it geared up for a series of come-as-you-are battles, first to dig out the Taliban in Afghanistan
and then to unseat Saddam
And guess what? That derided, much-maligned military performed magnificently! America’s men and women in uniform brought mobility, flexibility, and offensive power to the enemy, meeting every test and performing their combat missions brilliantly. And the hardware worked wonderfully.
So we see that the military—said to be in such bad shape—is quite solid after all, right? Wrong. Though proven to be at full readiness to execute offensive operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, our great U.S. military is now in decline serious enough to place our nation in danger:
The war in Iraq is wrecking the Army and the Marine Corps. Troop rotations are in shambles and the all-volunteer force is starting to crumble as we extend combat tours and struggle to get enough boots on the ground. The prisoner abuse scandal reveals an Army leadership overwhelmed in its postcombat role and shunning moral responsibility.
We have broken our social contract with the members of the National Guard and the reserve forces, misusing them as substitutes for active forces in an open-ended operation in Iraq that is well short of national emergency. These backup forces are demoralized and headed for the door. Rebuilding the reserves may take a generation.
The combat strength of our ground forces will be badly bogged down in the Middle East for years to come. Policing a broken nation and skirmishing with irregulars, they are anchored in Iraq; we have little left for the rest of the world. Terrorism? North Korea? Iran? More force in Afghanistan? We have only the Navy and the Air Force to send, but they alone cannot take and hold ground, root out terrorists, or alter a bad regime.
We have few resources left to fix things. Instead of investing in new military capabilities, we divert defense funds to refilling ammunition bins and paying for peacekeeping. The military improvements needed for the future are lost in the dusty sands of Iraq.
Our American military is in trouble. Is there a fix? We should share the burden, spreading to the rest of our society the sacrifice now made solely by our fine people in uniform. How? With realistic funding to pay the true costs and a return of the draft. Pending that, it will be up to the military to struggle through the current mess and protect us as best it can until we can get ourselves back to battery.
Captain Byron is a frequent contributor to Proceedings.