Thursday, April 22, 2010

Optimistic about our all-volunteer force

On Monday April 19, 2010, member of the Patterson School visited Fort Knox. During lunch, I had the opportunity to ask two servicemen about their experiences and their views on the Army and military service. Both spoke very favorably about the Army; we discussed training, base life, benefits, and a few other issues. Each told me previous tours in Iraq were worthwhile and productive and the men were extremely enthusiastic to go on another tour, preferably in Afghanistan. Each man was in his late 20s and had reenlisted several times and stated his intention to do so in the future. One spoke about how he tried to get his brother to enlist years back. His attempts were unsuccessful and now his brother is a “bum who sits on the couch all day” with his parents, and presumably does not work. The other man told me he tried some civilian jobs after finishing his stint with the Navy. When that didn’t interest him, he enlisted with the Army.

Overall, I was (pleasantly) surprised by how positive everyone seemed to be about their service. I got a sense that soldiers feel few are willing to sacrifice they way they do, but that they view the Army as a calling and truly love the military lifestyle. This contradicts the view put out by many news articles, foreign affairs essays, and novels that paint our campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan as wasteful endeavors with no end in sight. At least from the point of view of a couple soldiers who have seen Iraqi combat operations, this is not entirely the case.

It’s necessary to have such enthusiasm among our military personnel when we continue to employ an all-volunteer force. Currently there are approximately 1.3 million men and women on active duty. Assuming this number remains relatively static, our military must receive adequate support so that the vast majority remain as dedicated and view their service with the same level of positivity as those men we met at Fort Knox. Thankfully, the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review makes this a priority.

The 2010 QDR lists “Preserve and Enhance the All-Volunteer Force” as part of the overall “Defense Strategy.” This appears on pages vi-vii of the Executive Summary and pages 15-16 of the main document. In these sections, it states that the prolonged wartime period since 2001 has elevated the importance of preserving our force and transitioning to sustainable rotation rates. The QDR asserts:
“Although a strong sense of purpose and demonstrated operational excellence are shared across all Services and ranks, indicators of strain on the force – from retention levels in key commissioned and noncommissioned officer ranks, to increased rates of combat stress and substance abuse, and to even more tragic outcomes such as increased levels of suicide and divorce – are cause for concern.”

Our servicemen are experiencing higher than ideal deployment rates and briefer dwell periods. Thus, given the need for substantial and sustained deployments in conflict zones, the Defense Department emphasizes that our military personnel must receive extensive physical and psychological care. Additionally, the 2010 QDR revised the military’s long-held two-war policy under which it seeks to retain the capacity to maintain two conventional wars simultaneously. The shift from the two-war policy and the emphasis on preserving the strength of the voluntary force reflects a realistic assessment of American military capabilities after nearly a decade of war. It’s a welcome change from Bush-era military policies that seemingly saw no limit to military power or sustainability.

Obama’s late November/early December 2009 plan to escalate the Afghanistan campaign by 30,000 troops required a drawdown in Iraq. If all goes as planned, there will be only 50,000 U.S. troops in Iraq by the end of August 2010. At that point, forces in Afghanistan will number well over 100,000. It is at least somewhat comforting to personally find out we have servicemen eager to meet this need and to know that the Defense Department is prioritizing their well-being.

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