During the recent discussion on Iraq and Afghanistan, we are being confronted again with a hard, cold reality-- that we simply do not have enough ground troops to fully cover the manpower needs of both wars (and you can forget about the idea that our military, at least in terms of being able to invade and occupy yet another country, is an effective deterrent anymore to Iran or anyone else who wishes to pull our tail.
Republicans often love to point out that the military was downsized after the end of the Cold War during the early 1990's and blame Democrats. That is at best an oversimplification however and at worst an outright revision of history. Following the end of the Cold War, the idea of a 'peace dividend' in which less would be spent on the military in the absence of the Soviet threat was widely bandied about Washington by politicians on both the left and the right. In hindsight, it may have been naive to suppose that there would not be other threats, and to fail to anticipate the threat from Islamic extremism, but it is certainly not anything that our friends on the right warned us about back then any more than anyone on the left assumed this would be a problem moving forward. And further, the military of the 1990's was plenty big enough to handle minor crises and wars in places like Haiti and the Balkans.
Since 2003, when we put Afghanistan on the back burner and invaded Iraq though we've had a consistent manpower shortage. The army has struggled to meet recruiting goals, tours have been extended, we've sent national guard units to fight in frontline combat operations in much higher numbers than we ever had before, we've 'stop-lossed' thousands of soldiers who were due to leave the army and some people are back in Iraq on their third and fourth tours. And recently it has become even clearer, as the administration has all but admitted that we don't have enough troops for Afghanistan because of how many are tied up in Iraq.
There was also a mini-scandal of sorts that came out this week in that it turns out the number of new recruits who have 'waivers' allowing them to join the army despite juvenile convictions or other issues has jumped from about 5% of all new recruits in 2004-2005 to a rate so far this year running at around 13%. For the record, that doesn't bother me at all since I believe that many young people make mistakes when they are younger and I don't believe that getting busted for underage drinking, drug use or some other petty crime in high school should disqualify someone who wants to turn his or her life around from doing so in the military.
We can still bomb the heck out of anyone who gets in our way but in the kinds of guerilla wars we find ourselves fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, overwhelming air superiority is at best only a minor benefit. In fact, this points out one of the basic problems we've had. We still spend as much as twenty times as much on our military as any other country in the world. So funding isn't the issue. But we've bought far too much expensive military hardware that has little use in today's wars, while neglecting the most basic of resources-- the 'boots on the ground.' We still have thousands of nuclear warheads, including those in storage, but not enough feet with boots on them. Some of this has to do with the structure of Washington itself-- makers of expensive planes and other high-tech equipment have a whole lot more lobbying muscle in Washington than does anyone whose priority is simply to make sure that we have a military tuned to the demands of the present and foreseeable future.
It is also true that during the 2004 campaign John Kerry promised that if elected he would authorize and expansion of the army to include the creation of two new combat divisions. George Bush was asked about it once during the campaign and said he'd 'consider it.' Unfortunately Bush won that election, and whether for reasons of pride (because the idea originated with his opponent) or because he is too dumb to realize the urgent need for a larger ground army, he never followed up on the proposal. Of course it takes time to authorize, pay for, recruit, train and equip a larger army (not that much time though-- in WWII we trained, equipped, won the war and had them back home in less than four years.) But had the President borrowed a good idea from his opponent and asked for the two divisions back when he began his second term they would be well on the way towards being usable and giving us the capability to fight two ground-intensive wars that we now lack.
I don't believe that we have to spend any more money to get a larger military either. I believe that instead of spending over a billion dollars on a single bomber, we should maybe look at reprioritizing our military budget and prioritize towards having more ground troops available and fully trained and equipped.