The Next Fort Hood

As the Texas Army base mourns its massacre victims and Americans remembers the fallen on Veterans Day, retired Army Col. Ken Allard calls for relief for the country’s exhausted armed forces.

11.10.09 11:27 PM ET

“How could this tragedy have happened?” wailed the anchors as they broadcast the first reports of the horror at Fort Hood. “Did the Army brass miss some signals here?” harrumphed the pundits as the Islamist leanings of the shooter came to light. Congressional leaders were no less swift in calling for extensive investigations into the personal demons or religious rants that had overcome the murderer’s double oaths of calling and loyalty to country. But it fell to President Barack Obama, as commander in chief, to put the tragedy in context during Tuesday’s memorial service at Fort Hood, reminding a grieving Army and nation about heroism, self-sacrifice and the need to seek unity in grief.

After eight continuous years of war, rebuilding that badly over-used Army is becoming an urgent national problem. It is important to tackle that problem somewhat more effectively than, say, the reconstruction of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

This president is a gifted communicator whose words brought welcome comfort. But before the pain fades and the nation inevitably turns its attention elsewhere: Are we missing some larger and infinitely more important lessons in the headlong rush toward the next news cycle? Those memorial services, occurring on the eve of Veterans Day, provide a twin incentive to ask more troubling questions: How long can you over-stress and over-use the best Army we have ever put in the field—but one that is thoroughly exhausted after eight continuous years at war? And exactly how long before lots of little things begin to go terribly wrong and those chickens start coming home to roost?

Graeme Wood: Hasan's Yemen ConnectionThe Chinese strategist Sun Tzu famously said that there is no record of a long war prospering any kingdom—an ancient truth that needs no update. But you quickly jump from Marginal Strategy to Just Plain Stupid when you fight with a force far too small for whack-a-mole combat half a world away—and then do so indefinitely.

The not-so-hard-to-foresee result: Today’s soldiers average three or four combat tours with no end in sight. They leave for a year, come home for a year and then begin the cycle all over again. Their superiors are under constant pressure to retrain marginal performers rather than to discharge them. Compromises are inevitably made, a context that still doesn’t explain the psychology of a murderer recruited as a first line of defense against combat stress. But it is beyond any question that the Army’s stress levels are increasing, manifested by divorce, alcohol abuse, and even suicides, including the murder-cum-police-assisted suicide attempted last week at Fort Hood. Like unwanted heirs, those problems are the second-order effects of basic public-policy choices.

Don’t jump to the conclusion that this is just another disguised rant against surging the force deployed to Afghanistan. Whatever its merits, that debate has largely ignored the possible effects on an Army that is a profoundly human institution. Also ignored has been the issue of how we might cope with worsening security threats much closer than the Afghan-Pakistan border. Another border—barely 75 miles from where I write these words—begins in Laredo, which is already experiencing spillover effects from the Mexican drug wars. The Army’s ingenuity at counterinsurgency and drug operations is likely to be tested defending the American heartland—and possibly sooner rather than later.

Whether you care more about the Middle East, the Near East, or the Slightly Nearer Southwest, defending anything is more difficult without a world-class Army. That basic rule of thumb applies equally well to Democrats or Republicans, interventionists or isolationists, one-world federalists or rock-ribbed nationalists. After eight continuous years of war, rebuilding that badly over-used Army is becoming an urgent national problem. It is important to tackle that problem somewhat more effectively than, say, the reconstruction of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. (The Army unit which restored order there was the 82nd Airborne Division, catnapping at home between deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq.)

In these United States, disasters are frequent, recoveries less so. But the common defense is usually a bipartisan affair. So it was when Richard Nixon and a Democratic Congress united to end the draft in 1973. They spawned the superbly professional force that endures to this day but inexorably widened the social cleavages between the nation and its now-volunteer military. After the Cold War, the peace-dividend consensus required a downsized Army. Its too-easy assumption: The Reserves would be a cadre against uncertainty, temporarily filling the ranks in any future emergency. On 9/11, George Bush neglected to commit the American people, calling us to the malls rather than to national service and effectively drafting the Reserves. Finally, in 2008, we changed everything, except those comforting and enduring assumptions that someone else’s sons and daughters would defend us with their lives—and would sometimes pay the ultimate price.

So, you ask on this Veterans Day, how could the tragedy at Fort Hood befall us? Indeed, how could it not?

Colonel Ken Allard (US Army, Ret.) is a draftee who eventually served on the West Point faculty, as dean of the National War College and as a NATO peacekeeper in Bosnia. His most recent book, Warheads: Cable News and the Fog of War, is a memoir of his 10 years as an on-air military analyst with NBC News.