Last month, Gen. Raymond Odierno, outgoing Army chief of staff, and Gen. Mark Milley, his successor, testified to the difficulties faced by the Army. I’d like to make the same points by telling a story.
When I was a boy, tonsillitis was a dangerous illness. In 1952, it kept me in Tokyo General Hospital for weeks. I shared a cramped ward with dozens of soldiers horribly maimed in Korea. The hospital had only one movie theater. I remember watching a Western sandwiched between bandage- and plaster-wrapped bodies. I remember the antiseptic smells, the cloud of cigarette smoke and the whispers of young men still traumatized by the horrors of the war they had just left.
My dad came from Korea to visit me, and I recall our conversations vividly. At the time he was operations officer for the 2nd Engineer Battalion. He told me how poorly his men were prepared for war. Many had been killed or captured by the North Koreans. During the retreat from the Yalu River, some of his soldiers were in such bad physical shape that they dropped exhausted along the road to wait to be taken captive.
“We have no sergeants, son,” he told me, shaking his head, “and without them we are no longer an Army.”
In the early 1970s, I was the same age as my Korean-era dad. I had just left Vietnam only to face another broken Army. My barracks were at war. I carried a pistol to protect myself from my own soldiers. Many of the soldiers were on hard drugs. The barracks were racial battlegrounds pitting black against white. Again, the Army had broken because the sergeants were gone. By 1971, most were either dead, wounded or had voted with their feet to get away from such a devastated institution.
I visited Baghdad in 2007 as a guest of Gen. David Petraeus. Before the trip I had written a column forecasting another broken Army, but it was clear from what Petraeus showed me that the Army was holding on and fighting well in the dangerous streets of Baghdad. Such a small and overcommitted force should have broken after so many serial deployments to that hateful place. But Petraeus said that his Army was different. It held together because junior leaders were still dedicated to the fight. To this day, I don’t know how they did it.
Sadly, the Army that stayed cohesive in Iraq and Afghanistan even after losing 5,000 dead is now being broken again by an ungrateful, ahistorical and strategically tone-deaf leadership in Washington.
The Obama administration just announced a 40,000 reduction in the Army’s ranks. But the numbers don’t begin to tell the tale. Soldiers stay in the Army because they love to go into the field and train; Defense Secretary Ashton Carter recently said that the Army will not have enough money for most soldiers to train above the squad level this year. Soldiers need to fight with new weapons; in the past four years, the Army has canceled 20 major programs, postponed 125 and restructured 124. The Army will not replace its Reagan-era tanks, infantry carriers, artillery and aircraft for at least a generation. Soldiers stay in the ranks because they serve in a unit ready for combat; fewer than a third of the Army’s combat brigades are combat-ready. And this initial 40,000 soldier reduction is just a start. Most estimates from Congress anticipate that without lifting the budget sequestration that is driving this across-the-board decline, another 40,000 troops will be gone in about two years.
But it’s soldiers who tell the story. After 13 years of war, young leaders are voting with their feet again. As sergeants and young officers depart, the institution is breaking for a third time in my lifetime. The personal tragedies that attended the collapse of a soldier’s spirit in past wars are with us again. Suicide, family abuse, and alcohol and drug abuse are becoming increasingly more common.
To be sure, the nation always reduces its military as wars wind down. Other services suffer reductions and shortages. But only the Army breaks. Someone please tell those of us who served why the service that does virtually all of the dying and killing in war is the one least rewarded.
My grandson is a great kid. He’s about the same age I was when I was recovering at Tokyo General. Both of his parents served as Army officers, so it’s no wonder that in school he draws pictures of tanks and planes, while his second-grade classmates draw pictures of flowers and animals. The other day he drew a tank just for me and labeled it proudly: “Abrams Tank!”
Well, sadly, if he follows in our footsteps, one day he may be fighting in an Abrams tank. His tank will be 60 years old by then.
At the moment I’d rather he go to law school.
Robert H. Scales, a retired Army major general, is a former commandant of the U.S. Army War College. He wrote this article for the Washington Post.