According to an AP story in today’s paper, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen told Congress on Tuesday that victory in Afghanistan will require more troops. I don’t doubt that is true. We have only 65,000 troops there now. Over half a million U.S. troops couldn’t control Vietnam, and according to my trusty atlas, Afghanistan is twice as large as Vietnam (251,825 square miles compared to 127,258). The question is, where are these extra troops supposed to come from?
It’s no secret, of course, that America’s All-Volunteer Force has been stretched to the breaking point. Almost from the beginning of the so-called Global War on Terror, the troops have endured involuntary extensions—of their enlistments as well as their tours of duty in Iraq or Afghanistan. In 2007, when Bush embarked upon the “surge” in Iraq, some soldiers and Marines were facing their third or even their fourth tour of duty in one of the combat zones. The operational tempo had been stepped up to less than a one-to-one ratio, meaning that the troops were not even guaranteed as much time back in the States as they spend on deployment before they have to deploy again.
The irony is that, for all the lip service about supporting our “heroes” in uniform, the troops got precious little real consideration from the people who got them into this mess. The way in which former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld once dismissed criticism of his decision to extend the Alaskan Stryker Brigade’s tour in Iraq, for instance, seems fairly typical of his administration’s attitude: “These people are all volunteers. . . They all are there doing what they’re doing because they want to do it.”
The fact of the matter is that America never has had, or ever will have, professional soldiers in the devil-may-care mold of the fabled French Foreign Legionnaires of old. The great majority of our soldiers aren’t just looking for a good war. The typical volunteer today is carrying family ties and a set of decidedly mixed motives in his or her Alice Pack. I hope President Obama keeps this in mind.
If our Vietnam debacle taught us nothing else, it should have taught us that Americans support wars that are short, decisive, and clearly tied to our national interest. (Pardon me, but I forget which military historian first made and documented this observation.) I hope Obama keeps this in mind as well.
We used to refer to Vietnam as a quagmire. The metaphor was appropriate, Vietnam being a wet, tropical country. What metaphor should we employ now—“quick sand”? Part of Afghanistan is desert. But, judging from the television coverage, the toughest fighting has taken place in rocky, mountainous terrain. It’s a cliché, I realize, but we seem to be stuck between a “rock and a hard place.” We don’t have the troops or the public support to prevail.