The recent flare-up in fighting in southern Iraq between the U.S.- backed Iraqi Security Forces and Muqtada al-Sadr's Shiite militia, which spread to other areas of the country, suggests the likelihood of maintaining a large presence of U.S. Army combat troops in Iraq for a long time.
But I have to ask my country as a soldier and a citizen how the American Army will carry on in what has been referred to as a "long war." At the current rate of deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, many U.S. soldiers can expect 15 months of combat duty in either of these two places and then a year or a little more back at home in the States before heading back again.
Political leaders, Army leaders and civilian experts calmly treat the grinding effects of the "long war" on the Army as a clinical problem when considering the increase of violence in Iraq and its portent for the future.
Retired Army Gen. Jack Keane, one of the Iraq "surge" architects, recently noted that U.S. forces may have to be sent into southern Iraq to assist the Iraqi Security Forces. Presumptive Republican presidential candidate John McCain offers the presence of American soldiers in Iraq for "100 years" if necessary. Scholar Anthony Cordesman notes that if heightened levels of violence persist, America's military role will be broadened. The American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, recently developed a recommendation for increasing the number of American troops in Afghanistan.
Yet such calm, dispassionate assessments and recommendations gloss over the real effect the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are having on the Army and especially its soldiers and their families.
As the presidential campaign proceeds, America needs to consider and debate seriously the state of the Army and the effects of six years of war on it. The debate should focus on policies and plans of action that bring into line the size and makeup of the Army with its deployment to foreign lands.
Consider the case of an infantryman currently serving an extended tour in Iraq or Afghanistan. Imagine he is either a junior noncommissioned officer or commissioned officer about 28 years old. He very probably is married with two young children. He is on his third deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan over the last five years with this current one lasting 15 months. On each of these deployments he conducts patrolling and operations "outside of the wire" in the face of hostile fire. He, and more important his family back home, lives with constant mortal fear. When he returns home his commander tells him the likelihood of returning to Iraq in as little as 12 months. This combat soldier and his family are exhausted. They are an example of the Army writ large.
If the Army is not broken, it is getting very close to that point.
History has shown what happens when armies are stretched to the limit. In World War I, against the German army in the trenches of the western front, the French army in 1917 saw a few of its front-line units mutiny against senior military authorities and refuse to fight after a series of disastrous offensives.
The American Army will not mutiny. Indeed the American Army's professionalism and commitment to duty will cause it to continue to persevere as long as it is ordered in Iraq and Afghanistan. But through its perseverance it will be ground down to a shell of the American Army that existed before 2001.
Armies in a democracy like the United States do not exist as an end in themselves. They exist to serve the Constitution. If the American people and their political leaders see the causes of Iraq and Afghanistan worth the risk of breaking the American Army, then so be it. As a serving Army officer of more than 20 years' active service (to include two combat tours in Iraq), I accept that fate. But the American people and their leaders should know that the Army is getting dangerously close to the point of breaking.
Six years of counterinsurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have atrophied the Army's ability to fight conventional battles like the first Gulf War against Iraq.
Recent analyses of the Israeli army's performance in southern Lebanon in 2006 show that its skill at conventional fighting atrophied because of many years of conducting counterinsurgency operations in the Palestinian territories. In southern Lebanon the Israeli army suffered a significant battlefield defeat at the hands of Hezbollah militants who fought them tenaciously using tactics reminiscent of the way the World War II German army fought the Americans in the hedgerows of Normandy in 1944. When Hezbollah fighters attacked Israeli armored and infantry columns, the Israeli army had severe difficulties at simple command and control and coordination between tanks and infantry.
The American Army is in a similar condition today, and the American people and their political leaders should be worried.
Gian P. Gentile is an active-duty Army lieutenant colonel; he commanded a combat battalion in Baghdad in 2006.