There are the dead and wounded, then there are the damaged. The longer a soldier stays in Iraq, the more combat he or she sees, the greater the stress, the higher the psychological toll. Just over a quarter of the U.S. soldiers and Marines enduring a second tour in Iraq showed signs of mental illness (versus 17 percent of those on their first deployment), according to the latest survey by the Army’s Mental Health Advisory Team (MHAT). The team found, in its survey last fall, a clear linkage between time in combat and alcoholism, marital troubles and suicide. A disturbingly high 10 percent admitted mistreating Iraqi civilians or wantonly damaging their property. Soldiers who screened positive for mental-health problems were twice as likely to admit to abusing Iraqis as those screening clear.
What’s the answer? According to psychologists on the team, more time at home between deployments, what the Army calls “dwell” time. Ideally, recommends the MHAT report, soldiers would deploy for six months, then spend 18 to 36 months at home. But that is impossible. The Army is so undermanned that soldiers are going to Iraq for a year, coming home for a year—and heading right back to combat. “The U.S. military is too small to meet current needs or expected contingencies,” write Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution and Fred Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute. These two respected analysts calculate that a host of potential future crises (Iran, Korea, Pakistan, Kashmir) dictates “at least another 100,000 active duty soldiers and marines.” In 1990, the regular Army numbered 750,000, but it’s shrunk almost 40 percent since then. Congress has recently voted to increase Army strength by 65,000, up to 547,000 troops, but that’s probably not enough. Since 9/11, the Army has been using the Reserve and National Guard to bolster its force. The guard is hardly a bunch of “weekend warriors,” but few guardsmen signed up thinking they would wind up in Iraq for a year. As the slow response to the Kansas tornado showed last week, sending the guard abroad may weaken it at home.
The real problem is money. The Army is spending millions just to maintain its all-volunteer force. Badly needed specialists are paid tens of thousands of dollars in bonuses to re-enlist. The baseline cost of national defense—that is, excluding the cost of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan—has gone up by a third since 1998 and will reach close to 50 percent by 2009. Medical costs are soaring. One reason the Army has been loath to increase its numbers is that it needs money to replace equipment and buy new technology. Just repairing and replacing equipment chewed in Iraq will cost the army $13 billion.
It may be time to bring the Army back to cold war levels, but where will that money come from? Measured as a percentage of GDP, today America spends on its military less than half of what it spent during Vietnam (4.2 percent this year, against 8.9 percent in 1968). President Bush has not hesitated to ask for sacrifice from the soldiers he sends into combat. Now may be the time to ask for some sacrifice from the rest of America.