We hear a lot about how the war in Iraq is "breaking the Army." But while I have used that metaphor, I've never been comfortable with it. It's not as though one day we will hear a loud snap and find the Army broken in two. We will not get up one morning, flip a switch, and discover that the Army doesn't work any more. We will not have to hire a tow truck to drag it off to war. Whatever goes wrong with the Army, it won't be like that.
For one thing, there is no sharp, discontinuous transition between an "unbroken" Army and a "broken" one: the kind that happens when a plate shatters, a fuse blows, or a motor finally gives out. For another, a "broken" Army will still be able to function, more or less. It's hard to imagine circumstances in which virtually no one could be induced to join the Army, not even by very large recruiting bonuses; and as long as there are people willing to serve, we can expect that they will show up to work, more or less follow orders, and stand ready to fight if asked. So there is no sharp contrast between an "unbroken" Army, which works, and a "broken" Army, which doesn't.
What we are doing to the Army is less like breaking something, and more like slowly degrading its ability to perform its tasks to an unacceptable level. It's a gradual process, one that does not provide us with clear points at which we can look at the Army and say: well, now it is well and truly broken. It's not like breaking a chair or a statue. It's more like this (h/t Kevin Drum):
"Young officers (...) are leaving the Army at nearly their highest rates in decades. This is not a short-term problem, nor is it one that can simply be fixed with money. A private-sector company or another government agency can address a shortage of middle managers by hiring more middle managers. In the Army's rigid hierarchy, all officers start out at the bottom, as second lieutenants. A decline in officer retention, in other words, threatens both the Army's current missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, and its long-term institutional future. And though many senior Pentagon leaders are quite aware of the problem, there's only so much they can do to reverse the decline while the United States maintains large numbers of troops in Iraq.
In the last four years, the exodus of junior officers from the Army has accelerated. In 2003, around 8 percent of junior officers with between four and nine years of experience left for other careers. Last year, the attrition rate leapt to 13 percent. "A five percent change could potentially be a serious problem," said James Hosek, an expert in military retention at the RAND Corporation. Over the long term, this rate of attrition would halve the number of officers who reach their tenth year in uniform and intend to take senior leadership roles.
But the problem isn't one of numbers alone: the Army also appears to be losing its most gifted young officers. In 2005, internal Army memos started to warn of the "disproportionate loss of high-potential, high-performance junior leaders." West Point graduates are leaving at their highest rates since the 1970s (except for a few years in the early 1990s when the Army's goal was to reduce its size). Of the nearly 1,000 cadets from the class of 2002, 58 percent are no longer on active duty.
This means that there is less competition for promotions, and that less-able candidates are rising to the top. For years, Congress required the Army to promote only 70 to 80 percent of eligible officers. Under that law, the rank of major served as a useful funnel by which the Army separated out the bottom quarter of the senior officer corps. On September 14, 2001, President Bush suspended that requirement. Today, more than 98 percent of eligible captains are promoted to major. "If you breathe, you make lieutenant colonel these days," one retired colonel grumbled to me.
The dismay of senior leaders at this situation pierces through even the dry, bureaucratic language of Army memoranda. In an internal document distributed among senior commanders earlier this year, Colonel George Lockwood, the director of officer personnel management for the Army's Human Resources Command, wrote, "The Army is facing significant challenges in officer manning, now and in the immediate future." Lockwood was referring to an anticipated shortfall of about 3,000 captains and majors until at least 2013; he estimated that the Army already has only about half the senior captains that it needs. "Read the last line again, please," Lockwood wrote. "Our inventory of senior captains is only 51 percent of requirement." In response to this deficit, the Army is taking in twenty-two-year-olds as fast as it can. However, these recruits can't be expected to perform the jobs of officers who have six to eight years of experience. "New 2nd Lieutenants," Lockwood observed, "are no substitute for senior captains.""
An organization like the Army, which cannot replace losses from its officer corps by raiding other firms' managers, cannot survive these kinds of problems without paying a very heavy price. Officers who should have been passed over for promotion will instead be given command responsibilities they cannot perform. They may endanger their troops, or lead people under them to quit in frustration, or, at worst, actually lose wars:
"But the greatest concern is how the exodus of the best and brightest will affect the Army's long-term capacity to win wars, counter threats, and keep the peace. Today's lieutenants and captains are the pool from which three- and four-star generals will be chosen twenty years from now. If the sharpest minds aren't in that pool, we could wind up—to put it bluntly—with a senior leadership of dimwits."
People sometimes talk about "doing what it takes in Iraq", or "giving the surge a chance", as though such choices had no actual downside; as though letting George W. Bush have his way on Iraq policy was like letting your child pursue some wildly improbable but ultimately harmless dream. "Why not let him try?", they say, as though he were a teenager hoping to become a movie star, or me trying to make the NBA. This is obviously crazy: nothing about Iraq is harmless. Our soldiers are dying in Iraq; our money is being spent there; our resources are being diverted away from places like Afghanistan, where they might have done a lot more good. And, to top it all off, we are doing damage to our Army that will take decades to undo, and that might prevent us from responding adequately the next time we face a real threat, rather than one that exists only in Bush and Cheney's imaginations.