Senator Reed, Iraq and Troop Strength

In an interview yesterday, Senator Jack Reed managed to offer a backhanded compliment to the Bush Administration while setting up and knocking down a straw man.

Reed called a recent Pentagon pledge of a long-term military presence in Iraq “helpful prudence.” And he deemed it a welcome change from Bush administration skimping on Army troop strength in Iraq and its “disingenuousness” about the cost of the war.

Reed warned against any steps to withdraw or “phase out” the U.S. military force in Iraq and pledged legislative efforts this year to increase the size of the Army by at least 30,000 troops. He spoke in a telephone conference with reporters.

The first paragraph holds the “compliment,” the last is the straw man. In emulation of Senator Reed, let me be the first to warn against legalizing the killing of civilians in Iraq, OK? The point is, I don’t believe that the Bush Administration has signaled that they plan on “phasing out” of Iraq any time soon. This was essentially confirmed by Reed himself.

Reed specifically applauded this week’s renewed expression of the U.S. commitment by Lt. Gen. James J. Lovelace. Lovelace, the director of Army operations, said leaders assume that troop strength in Iraq will hold at the current level of 120,000 for at least two more years.

Thus, Reed has clearly warned against something that he knows isn’t going to happen.

Given that, I do agree with Reed that more troops are needed. As one who believes in the President’s call for the global spread of freedom, I also believe that more ground combat troops will be needed to help secure that freedom. We need more boots added to the pool of troops that can be rotated in and out of Iraq and other hot spots.

He also said the United States expects to continue to rotate active-duty soldiers through yearlong stints in Iraq and to try to tap reserve forces more.

“You’re going to need more soldiers” to maintain that pace, Reed said, particularly since the strain of the Iraq deployment is beginning to show in weaker recruitment and retention rates in the National Guard and Army reserves.

Reed noted that the Army’s wartime “operational tempo” depends on keeping large numbers of Guard and reserve troops on active duty. Because those soldiers tend to be older and more committed to family and career than active-duty Army, they have become the first to decide in significant numbers against reenlisting, he said.

“The heart and the core” of the Guard and reserves — young captains and senior enlisted personnel — are beginning to say, “I can’t be called back again in six months or a year” because of the wear and tear on jobs and families, Reed said.

Largely to relieve the strain on these reserves, Reed and Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., sponsored legislation last year that expanded the Army by 50,000 troops. Reed said they will try this year to add another 30,000 troops to the currently authorized active-duty force of 502,000.

This last is a good move as I believe we need more active duty soldiers to carry the load. The Guard and Reserves have gone above and beyond anything we could have imagined. There is a history of using the National Guard in foreign wars.

In 1903, important national defense legislation increased the role of the National Guard (as the militia was now called) as a Reserve force for the U.S. Army. In World War I, which the U.S. entered in 1917, the National Guard made up 40% of the U.S. combat divisions in France; in World War II, National Guard units were among the first to deploy overseas and the first to fight.

Following World War II, National Guard aviation units, some of them dating back to World War I, became the Air National Guard, the nation’s newest Reserve component. The Guard stood on the frontiers of freedom during the Cold War, sending soldiers and airmen to fight in Korea and to reinforce NATO during the Berlin crisis of 1961-1962. During the Vietnam war, almost 23,000 Army and Air Guardsmen were called up for a year of active duty; some 8,700 were deployed to Vietnam. Over 75,000 Army and Air Guardsmen were called upon to help bring a swift end to Desert Storm in 1991.

What is different now, to my knowledge, is the nature and duration of deployment that the members of the Guard and Reserves are experiencing.

A recent memorandum from Lt. General James Helmy to the US Army Chief of Staff, written on December 20th 2004, regarding US Army Reserve troop readiness has revealed the depths of the problems experienced by the Reserves and National Guard. (PDF) I urge all to read it. It is a sobering assessment, but hopefully it will provide an impetus for reform. Some of the burden of the Reserves and Guard will be alleviated by the expansion of the regular Army by adding 30,000 more troops.

In war, there are always mistakes. The important thing is to learn from them and make the appropriate adjustments in strategy, tactics and policy. Hopefully, the experiences of how the Guard and Reserves have been handled thus far in the Iraq War and the broader War on Terror will lead to a better understanding of what we can expect from, and what we owe to, our citizen soldiers. Yes, these people “signed up” for this and they are obligated to serve. But their superiors, both in the military and in the Administration and Congress, are obligated see to it that our soldiers, marines, and sailors are treated fairly.

In these times of heated partisanship that bleeds over into nearly all policy debates, it is difficult to remove our ideological blinders and try to look objectively at an issue. This is especially true if we may find ourselves agreeing with those with whom we usually disagree. At times, it has appeared to me as if Senator Reed has used problems in the War in Iraq for partisan gain, especially during the recent Presidential campaign. In contrast, General Helmy has consistently exhibited a genuine concern for those under his command and has been championing reform. However, regardless of past perceptions I may have had, in this specific case, I believe both General Helmy and Senator Reed are doing their part to look out for the men and women in our military. For that I commend them.

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