David Frum

12.08.12

America's Exhausted Army

My National Post column examines the heavy toll post-9/11 wars have taken on the American military.

Has the U.S. military been pushed too far?

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have taken a heavy toll on the U.S. armed forces.

About 6,650 Americans have died in those two wars, as have 1,390 allied personnel, Canadians prominent among them.

That’s tragically a big number. The roster of the slain would have stretched even longer, but for the amazing advances in military armour and military medicine over the past generation.

More than 50,000 Americans have been wounded in battle since 9/11 — 16,000 of them so seriously that they would certainly have died had they suffered an equivalent wound in any prior conflict.

Because the post-9/11 wars have lasted so long, soldiers have been exposed to the risks of combat again and again and again. Troops are rotated into combat zones, out of them and then back in again. One authoritative study found that the accumulating strain had inflicted post-traumatic stress disorder on as many as one-fifth of all U.S. troops who had served in the Afghanistan and Iraq theatres.

In the current issue of National Journal, senior correspondent James Kitfield tallies the off-battlefield echoes of war fatigue:

  • A U.S. military suicide rate that has reached one death per day.
  • A rise in military divorces, up 38% over the past decade.
  • Prescription drug and alcohol abuse rates much higher than the civilian population.
  • One in five female personnel reporting sexual abuse during their service.

Kitfield argues that prolonged war-fighting has also nurtured a culture of arrogance and impunity in the U.S. military’s higher ranks.

“Why did Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair, a married former deputy commander of the 82nd Airborne Division in Afghanistan, become involved with five women (he is under investigation after being accused of adultery, sexual misconduct, and forcible sodomy)? Did colleagues of Col. James H. Johnson III, former commander of the 173rd Airborne Brigade in Iraq, know that he was involved in a bigamous relationship with an Iraqi woman, and that he was attempting to steer government contracts to her father? Why did Gen. William (Kip) Ward, the four-star head of Africa Command, deem it acceptable to take his wife and a large entourage on lavish government-paid trips before he was stripped of a star and ordered to repay $82,000 to the Treasury?

“For that matter, what does it say about the evaluation and promotion system for senior leaders that the Navy has been forced to relieve 60 senior officers from command in the past three years (a 40% rise over the previous three-year period), including Rear Adm. Charles Gaouette, who was dismissed from his command of the Stennis aircraft carrier group for ‘inappropriate leadership judgment’ while it was deployed to the Middle East?”

If you were wondering, “Why did David Petraeus do it?” maybe part of the answer is that so many of his peers were doing worse.

Read the entire column at the National Post.