Tuesday, April 08, 2008

The size of the army

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.


Anonymous said...

Well all of the major candidates - Hillary, Barama, and McScary - support increasing the number of ground troops. I think that's a mistake though. What the hell do we need a larger military for? We have something like 70,000 troops in Germany, but Germany is one of the most advanced countries militarily in the world. We have, I think, another 40,000 in Korea, but again...why? Not to mention hundreds of other bases all over the world.

The United States doesn't need a larger military. I think we need to cut spending. Like you mention, Eli, we want to spend a BILLION dollars on a bomber (that we don't need), while ignoring the safety and wellbeing of our troops. I say cut the unnecessary spending drastically, stop tromping around the world trying to prove a point, and decrease the size of the military overall. I firmly believe that America will be safer and more prosperous as a result.

Just think if we were to cut military spending by 50%. That would put our military expenditures at about $275 billion per year - still many times larger than the next largest nation. That extra almost $300 billion alone would be enough to wipe out the budget deficit that Bush has created. And if nationalized health care is in our future, we're going to have to cut BIG time somewhere. I think this would be the best place to do that.

Eli Blake said...


The problem we see now though is that given the idiocy that we are stuck in, in Iraq, we don't have enough troops to actually go after the people who attacked us in Afghanistan.

I would agree that we could stand to move some troops out of Germany, though I would disagree about Korea (unfortunately there is still an unpredictable and possibly dangerous rogue state on the Korean peninsula so I don't think it would be wise to leave Korea.)

Eisenhower warned us to beware of the military-industrial complex and we can see that today. Companies that make virtually their entire profit from fat military contracts are well entrenched in Washington and have a ton of lobbyists to make sure that we continue to spend billions of dollars on expensive hardware that we don't need. The ones who really suffer are the troops on the ground, who are generally at the end of the line when getting equipment that they really do need (and I won't even mention here how crappy their pay is, or about the lack of support for veterans.)

shrimplate said...

Greed is never fully satisfied, even after its victims have been bled dry.

Interesting; the word verification below is "okupie."

Eli Blake said...

Just imagine if daycare had all the money they needed and the Pentagon had to have bake sales to buy weapons.

Anonymous said...


I have spoken with veterans from Afghanistan and according to them we're not really all that interested in finding bin Laden or his cohorts. Now we're spending most of our time destroying the opium trade (which creates even more hurt for the poor there, but in the longterm apparently we're hoping it will cut off the flow of money to the terrorist groups).

I think you have a good point about the situation in Korea (although I do insist that if we stopped giving the idiot dictator billions in bribe money then we might see his power weaken over time. Also, The North Korean's military is laughable - I'm pretty sure their wealthy neighbors to the west and south can take care of themselves. At the very least, I think we could easily downgrade our troop levels without sparking WW3)

I, too, am worried about the military-industrial complex. What ever happened to the Republican party in the years between Eisenhower and Bush?

Anyway, good points. I enjoy your blog.