Troop morale a casualty in Iraq Despite general's can-do attitude, U.S. forces feel stress of repeated tours and degraded gear
BY LAWRENCE KORB AND STEPHEN XENAKIS
Lawrence Korb, left, a former assistant secretary of Defense in Ronald Reagan's administration, is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank in Washington.
February 2, 2007 President George W. Bush has launched his latest plan for success in Iraq and has made major changes in leadership and strategy. Gen. David H. Petraeus - as the Senate has concluded by confirming his appointment this week as Iraq commander - brings to the mission of leading the troops in Iraq an impressive record as a commander and strategist.
But the challenges he faces go far beyond developing the right strategy and tactics. He must recognize that the success of his forces also depends upon their mental readiness.
The state of mind of those foot soldiers may not be strong enough to take on an expanded mission, no matter what their will, training or dedication. Petraeus' can-do attitude may not be able to overwhelm the growing skepticism and deflation that is affecting his troops.
The surge in troop strength is an expansion of the ground forces in Iraq by nearly 20 percent. The troops exist to deploy to the theater for a short term but not to sustain the force over the next year and a half without extending GIs beyond yearlong deployments and putting them at a risk of further morale problems.
Former Secretary of State Colin Powell has said the "active Army is about broken."
It has been overextended, its equipment is degraded, and its morale is fading; there are not enough soldiers and Marines to keep up this pace indefinitely without doing greater damage to their mind-set.
Some active Army soldiers are returning to Iraq for their third and fourth tours,
which imposes undue strain and weakens morale. Support for the war among the troops has fallen. Only a third of the service members approve of the conduct of the war, while 42 percent disapprove, says an Army Times poll.
As further evidence of the mind-set issue, the Army is facing a crisis in recruitment.
The signs have been evident for some time; the Army granted nearly 22,000 waivers allowing new recruits to serve in 2006, up 42 percent from the prewar year of 2000. About 8,000 soldiers received waivers on moral grounds, or for rather serious offenses such as drunken driving or domestic abuse.
This cannot be overlooked in considering the mind-set of troops in Iraq. Those considering the morale issue should think of Pvt. Steven Green, accused of the gruesome murder of an Iraqi girl. He suffered a troubled history as an adolescent, was a school dropout, had three criminal convictions and would not have qualified for enlistment before the invasion of Iraq. He could have been the poster child for retaining the highest possible enlistment standards to foster military self-image. Without that image, morale is bound to suffer. To all in the Army after Vietnam, the value of having high recruitment standards has been validated over and over. Soldiers now are generally better qualified, more effective and can handle more complex missions than many predecessors.
The need for such men and women is especially keen now, when stabilizing Iraqi society - besieged by violence and insecurity - is the highest priority and has eluded our efforts for nearly four years.
But how long can the military sustain a burdensome cycle of deployment?
The Army's own survey has revealed that soldiers serving repeated deployments are 50 percent more likely than those serving one tour to suffer from acute combat stress, which considerably raises their risk of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Other surveys have found that nearly 30 percent of troops deployed to Iraq suffer from depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress while in Iraq or afterward. How fired up are troops about going back to the war zone and "doing it all over again"? Divorce rates are up, suicides are high. Meanwhile, the number of amputees and seriously injured rises daily.
How much more can we ask our men and women to do, and expect that they will do it for several more years?
Our military may not have the tools to accomplish the mission and certainly may not have the soldiers and Marines. It is a fatal flaw of this gambit to presume strategy can trump human nature. Troop morale a casualty in Iraq - Newsday.com