Retired Army Maj. Gen. Bob Scales has a thoughtful op-ed in the Washington Post today suggesting that incidents such as the one in which a staff sergeant killed 16 civilians in southern Afghanistan are related to the stress of nonstop combat deployments. A Vietnam veteran, Scales points out that there is only so much that soldiers can take and that today’s generation of infantrymen has had to endure more combat rotations than his generation did. “[T]he real institutional culprit is the decade-long exploitation and cynical overuse of one of our most precious and irreplaceable national assets: our close combat soldiers and Marines,” he writes.
He makes a good point, and it’s worth focusing on just why we have had to lean so heavily on so few troopers. It’s because the army, after having been downsized by 30%, was too small to fight wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq–conflicts that nobody anticipated in the post-Cold War euphoria. Now, with the war in Iraq over and the one in Afghanistan winding down, we are entering another “peace dividend” period with the army getting slashed by 90,000 soldiers—and that’s not even counting the possible impact of sequestration next year. If the nation orders troops into harm’s way in the future—and the odds are very great that we will, sooner or later–then today’s shrinking force will face even greater stress in the future
That is deeply unfair and unwise. Policymakers should heed Scales’s warnings and keep the army large enough to handle future emergencies rather than shrinking the force and once again making a small group of dedicated war-fighters pay a heavy price for our lack of readiness.