Why the current US military tour of duty system doesn’t work
We don’t know that the U.S. Army staff sergeant who massacred 16 civilians recently in an increasingly unstable Afghanistan conflict did so because he’d been “in country” too long. Very few details have been released about him, although what is known is troubling in context — trained as a sniper, suffered minor brain damage in Iraq, had marital troubles at home. But if this is going to be a teachable moment, as they say, about the proper way to conduct a war, we might want to look back at the changing history of America’s treatment of its combat troops.
Historian Stephen Ambrose, who taught at my alma mater for years, once said it was conventional military wisdom that a young man who entered combat considered himself near-invulnerable; but after a certain amount of time being surrounded by death and destruction, it was a given that he would start to think of himself as mortally expendable. This is something young men almost never feel otherwise. Given enough time in country, furthermore, it was well-known that most men would begin to be sure that they would die, that all hope was lost, that it was only a matter of time, that one couldn’t be surrounded by death for so long and not feel it was coming for him.
Troops in WWII, both the European and Japanese theaters, stayed in for the duration — there was a “points system” in place, but it only applied after combat was over. Most of those who’d been at Normandy, for example, had accumulated enough points to go home by the time Germany surrendered; the others were, believe it or not, being prepped to invade the Japanese mainland when the bomb was dropped on 6 August 1945, eventually ending the war entirely. The roughly 135,000 casualties sustained in the European theater meant that new soldiers were sent in as replacements from replacement depots known in the vernacular as “repple depples.” This was, as Ambrose and other historians have noted, a terrible system, because it weakened unit cohesion — men are more likely to risk their lives to save someone they’ve been through hell with than some green kid who’s just shown up. As a result, the new guys felt isolated, and combat suffered. This process was repeated in Korea, but with an altered point system; soldiers were typically sent home after about a year to avoid “combat fatigue.”
In Vietnam, the conflict which most closely resembles Iraq and Afghanistan, the thinking changed. Although it was more expensive and time-consuming to do so, the US military began rotating whole units in and out of battle, thus maintaining camaraderie and keeping the specter of death out of individual soldiers’ minds. However, these troops didn’t go home, they merely came off the front line. A typical combat tour of duty in Vietnam lasted six months, and while life off the front line could be just as dangerous, within a year they were typically deposited back on the streets of their hometown. The disconnect between the horrors of war and a civilian life the government had ill-prepared them for left a number of veterans with PTSD; it also meant that the Vietnamese, who’d been learning more and more how to combat an armed force with insurgency, stayed on “the job” while their enemy renewed itself.
This, like everything else, changed after 9/11. Because of the all-volunteer Army, as well as improvements in armor and gear, a typical Iraq or Afghanistan combat mission was extended to a year, then 15 months, sometimes longer. Bush Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld justified the extension this way: “These people are all volunteers. They all signed up. They all are there doing what they’re doing because they want to do it… I’d love to be Santa Claus. I’m not… our first choice obviously would be to have them be someone other than the people we just extended. But I’m not going to get into the promises business. That isn’t my style.”
The military thus began sending reserve troops home for a few months after a long tour, then right back into combat, over and over again. This is also a new idea, conceived in part by the military-industrial RAND Corporation think tank as a way to fight a major war with a peacetime volunteer force. Active duty members, on the other hand, fell victim to a “stop-loss” program instituted after Vietnam, one which basically allowed the Army keep them at war as long as necessary. It’s the worst of both worlds: keep the career soldiers there and make them fight the whole Vietnam war; send the part-timers back and forth and disorient them like Vietnam vets literally living the same nightmares over and over again.
This is gambling with sanity. RAND military retention specialist James Hosek admits this: “It’s an open question as to how much we can ask of them.” “The Army is under terrible strain,” said Cindy Williams, a defense analyst with the security studies program at MIT, back in 2005. “If they could cut (troop levels) back to 60,000, it could be sustained. But this level cannot.” For the next three years, Iraq troop levels actually increased slightly; meanwhile, Afghan War US troop levels increased from 5,000 to 60,000 troops, and stayed there.
The longtime tradition of offering bonuses to cash-strapped combat soldiers to keep rolling the dice continues, but even the Marines, even in this economy, have failed to meet quotas. Clearly, our soldiers are past the breaking point. Yet the Obama administration is doubling down on its declaration to keep troops in Afghanistan for another two years. Indeed, Obama Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s attitude is as callous as Rummy’s was: “War is hell. These kinds of events and incidents are going to take place. But we cannot allow these events to undermine our strategy or mission.”
And in a brutal election year, shockingly, most of Obama’s political rivals are right there with him. GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney believes that “the actions of a deranged person are not going to shape America’s foreign policy.” “I understand the anger and the sorrow,” John McCain declared on Fox News Sunday. “I also understand (that) the attacks on the United States of America on 9/11 originated in Afghanistan.” Senator Lindsay Graham, on ABC News’ This Week: “We can win this thing. We can get it right.”
The mind of the average soldier’s been pushed well past the breaking point in these two wars, and while most combat vets go on to lead normal lives, the mental and emotional consequences of such a back-and-forth have yet to be determined. The unnamed serviceman who committed this horrible atrocity served three tours in Iraq before this one in Afghanistan, add to that the images of his comrades in arms urinating on insurgent corpses and burning the Koran, and its hard to imagine that he didn’t feel death was inevitably coming for him.
We don’t have to condone any of these acts, and shouldn’t. But as with the 9/11 attacks, it can only help to understand what could drive a human mind to commit such an atrocity — especially since occupying these two countries has gained us next to nothing over the past decade but a number of shattered and demoralized (and underpaid) citizen warriors. In this particular instance, when it comes to how badly we treat those whom we ask to kill in our name, the question might well be: why don’t we hate America?