Is seeking to "win" hazardous to the Army's long-term health?
Significant policy shifts in the U.S. commitment to Iraq have been kicked down the road a year or so in the wake of Gen. David Petraeus' lionization during the briefings he gave Congress in mid-September. The upbeat assessment he delivered of the military surge's effects gave cover, given his greater credibility, to President Bush's demand for more time at war.
Petraeus was received as a kind of military oracle by most members of Congress despite the unpopularity of the war, restiveness among senior Republicans and news reports that his views are not shared by other senior military leaders.
Making a show of independence from Bush, Petraeus on Sept. 11 told Congress that "I wrote this testimony myself. It has not been cleared nor shared with anyone in the Pentagon, the White House or the Congress." But Petraeus is now Bush's man and Bush is now Petraeus' patron. For the moment, they have the upper hand, and others must fall into rank.
Important in the supporting cast is Petraeus' predecessor as commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, Gen. George W. Casey Jr., now Army chief of staff. Casey had been leery of augmenting U.S. forces in Iraq. As Bush and Petraeus demand the resources to "win," Casey labors on the supply side to stretch an Army that he concedes is too small and too stressed to continue for long at the present pace of operations.
I had the privilege of interviewing Casey in early September. He said he and his wife, Sheila, had returned from visits to many Army installations worried about the stress that repeated deployments were placing on soldiers and their families. He said he asked the question: "Isn't the decision of the soldier to stay with the all-volunteer force so dependent on the family's happiness that we should treat families as a readiness issue?" And everybody always said, "Yeah, what took you so long?" Readiness issues demand immediate attention, Casey noted, and indeed, he's shaken free an extra $100 million to support the families he has called "the most brittle part of the force."
The new policy of 15 months on deployment followed by just 12 months at home aggravates the strains, and has put the Army "out of balance," in Casey's view. He mentioned the repeated deployments when I asked him about the challenge of retaining captains and majors, key leaders in the Army who are currently in short supply. "That's why putting ourselves back in balance is so important to the long-term health of the force," he said, "because people are making decisions based on what their future looks like."
Retention numbers are OK so far, Casey said, but still he's worried. Senior Army leaders of the post- Vietnam era have told him: "Look, there's kind of an invisible red line out there, and even though you'll track indicators, you won't know it until you cross it, and once you cross it, it's too late." Casey, one senses, is worried that the Army he has served for 37 years is nearing that tipping point.