At some level, the situation is simple enough. As retired Lt. Col. Charles A. Krohn, former Army deputy chief of public affairs at the Pentagon and in Baghdad, put it recently in the Washington Post, the Bush administration has “basically committed most of the Army’s active forces (including much of the National Guard), rotating them to the point of exhaustion.” Eric Schmitt and David S Cloud, in a front-page story in the Monday New York Times (Part-Time Forces on Active Duty Decline Steeply) sum up part of the problem this way:
“The Army says it has found ways to handle the dwindling pool of reservists eligible to fill the support jobs [in Iraq], but some members of Congress, senior retired Army officers and federal investigators are less sanguine, warning that barring a reduction in the Pentagon’s requirement to supply 160,000 forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, or a change in its mobilization policy, the Army will exhaust the supply of soldiers in critical specialties.
“‘By next fall, we’ll have expended our ability to use National Guard brigades as one of the principal forces,’ said Gen. Barry McCaffrey, a retired four-star Army commander who was dispatched to Iraq last month to assess the operation. ‘We’re reaching the bottom of the barrel.’”
All of this has come in the course of fighting two small, ugly, colonial-style wars. And just because Iraq in particular is increasingly, in Krohn’s phrase, a “sustained and unpopular war,” refilling the ranks has proved no small problem for the Pentagon, which has recently found itself scraping the bottom of that recruitment barrel in all sorts of ways. This may sooner or later result in what Krohn calls a “hollow army.” Add to this, the near-guaranteed loss of much of what’s left of the none-too-impressive “coalition” in Iraq in the next year — the Italians announced their first withdrawal of forces this week (to begin in September), the Brits are planning a major drawdown relatively soon, the stay of the Japanese troops (already largely locked inside their base in southern Iraq) is in question — and the Bush administration is soon likely to find itself, like the cheese of children’s song, standing very much alone in its mission, with a major domestic and international recruitment crisis on its hands.
In fact, we may be watching a new phenomenon: withdrawal by military overstretch. Now, thanks to one of those documents that seem to leak constantly from crucial file drawers in England these days — a memo written by British Defense Minister John Reid — we know that not just the Brits, but the Pentagon has been seriously considering a major draw-down of forces in Iraq by early 2006, a near halving of American troop strength there. According to the Washington Post, “The [British] paper, which is marked ‘Secret — UK Eyes Only,’ said ‘emerging U.S. plans assume that 14 out of 18 provinces could be handed over to Iraqi control by early 2006,’ allowing a reduction in overall U.S.-led forces in Iraq to 66,000 troops… The undated memo, which was reported in the newspaper The Mail on Sunday, stated that ‘current U.S. political military thinking is still evolving. But there is a strong U.S. military desire for significant force reductions to bring relief to overall U.S. commitment levels.’” Of course, given that it’s Iraq we’re talking about, between planning document and reality there are likely to be many pitfalls.
And the “withdrawal” is conceptual as well. The American imperial mission is visibly buckling under the strain. (The 19th century Brits must be turning over in their graves as American power crumbles under the weight of small wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.) Until recently, the Pentagon, in its congressionally mandated Quadrennial Defense Review, has stuck to a two-war model of global dominance — our military should, in essence, be able to mount a decisive invasion of Iraq and fight a second major campaign elsewhere on the planet almost as decisively at more or less the same moment (while still being capable of defending what is now commonly referred to as “the homeland”). Just last week, however, Thom Shanker and Eric Schmitt of the New York Times reported (Pentagon Weighs Strategy Change to Deter Terror) that the “Pentagon’s most senior planners” were challenging that model in fierce internal debates and were opting instead for being prepared to wage but a single invasion-of-Iraq-style war combined with smaller counterinsurgency operations and a bolstering of domestic anti-terrorism defenses. As Fred Kaplan recently commented in Slate on-line (The Doctrine Gap), this will probably make no actual difference in the size, shape, or staggering cost of our military. But it is significant nonetheless. It represents a downsizing of ambitions, what the ancient Chinese might have called “the rectification of names” — or the bringing of the naming of things back into line with reality.
And inside the Pentagon that reality couldn’t be clearer right now. After all, with the civilian leadership of the Bush administration proving itself almost incapable of finding willing natives out there in the imperium to fight its wars for it, military representatives have been discovering in the last year that the natives at home are restless as well. The services have responded to this situation by trolling desperately for future troops, thinking about a draft, and, as we know from recent news reports, starting to cut endless corners. Recruiters, for instance, preying on the supposed naÃ¯vetÃ© and susceptibility to bullying tactics of adolescents, have been discovered instructing teens in lying to their parents, forging documents, and beating the Army’s drug-test system. When all else failed, jail time seems to have been a threat of choice. Interestingly, some of those teens have fought back, going public with a spate of scandalous revelations that forced a one-day “values stand-down” during which the military’s recruiting standards were to be reviewed.
But, as Dr. Seuss might have said, that is not all… oh no, that is not all. As Nick Turse shows, the military has ramped up its operations not only out there in the real world, but in the ether of the Internet where that handsome, friendly civilian you might just happen to run across may turn out to be none other than your local recruitment officer on the prowl.
[This article first appeared on Tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing and author of The End of Victory Culture and The Last Days of Publishing.]