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Failing the Troops

Korb tells the Senate Armed Services Committee that while the military is overstretched and vulnerable, lowering standards is not the answer.

Center for American Progress Senior Fellow Larry Korb testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday alongside a panel that included both retired generals and academics discussing the current and future state of the military.

“Not since the aftermath of the Vietnam War has the U.S. Army been so depleted,” said Korb in his testimony. “The simple fact is that the United States currently does not have enough troops who are ready and available for potential contingency missions in Iran, North Korea, or anywhere else.”

There was a remarkable unity among the senators and experts over the dangerous predicament our military and country are in. “I’m offended when I hear the Army is in trouble. It’s not the Army. It’s the American people,” said General Barry R. McCaffrey. “We wrecked the Army coming out of Vietnam; it took 10 years to recover. We are not going to get 10 years with this war.”

“Today’s ground operations in Iraq are progressively straining our ground forces in ways that were predictable and predicted,” said Senator Jim Webb (D-VA). Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) concurred, saying, “The Army and Marines are clearly overstretched and we must act promptly to fix these problems.”

Even Joe Lieberman (I-CT), the renowned Iraq war supporter, agreed that the current situation is untenable, saying that we need to “come to the aid of the U.S. Army,” and that the state of the military is an “indictment of the people and policies” of those responsible.

“Congress has been missing-in-action during the past several years while undebated and misguided strategies were implemented by former Secretary Rumsfeld and his team of arrogant and inexperienced civilian associates in the Pentagon,” said McCaffrey in his testimony. “We are failing our troops in that we are stretching them too thin and asking them to do more with much less.”

“We also have a moral responsibility to the young men and women that we take into the service, that before we put them in harm’s way, they are ready,” Korb emphasized. “We should not be taking those risks.”

The panel discussed both the moral and military elements involved in sending so many troops rated “not combat ready” into battle. “Learning to fight by fighting is the most wasteful way to train soldiers,” said Major General Robert H. Scales. “It’s not purely a numbers game. It is a quality game,” agreed Andrew F. Krepinevich, President of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

The panel also discussed the detrimental effects of the military only—and barely—reaching its recruitment goals by lowering its standards. Such policies include raising the maximum age of soldiers from 35 to 42 in 2005, doubling the amount of non-high school graduates allowed since last year, raising the number of criminal offenders by 65 percent since 2003, and doubling the number of felons allowed from 2003.

Korb said that such policies have allowed an autistic man to be signed up to be a cavalry scout, as well as Private Steven Green, the soldier arrested for his alleged role in the rape of an Iraqi girl and the murder of her family. Green was allowed to enlist despite having legal, educational, and psychological problems.

“I urge you, do not lower the standards,” Korb said. “People, not hardware, need to be the highest priority if this is going to work.”

“I couldn’t agree with Dr. Korb more. Lowering the standards is the last thing we should do,” McCaffrey said. “Our recruiting is starting to unravel.”

Various senators expressed their concern about the military no longer demanding the best and the brightest. Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) warned, “The automatic promotion that is going on right now lends itself to the sort of problems we saw at Walter Reed.” McCaffrey agreed and said, “The skill of the officer corps is in jeopardy.”

 “Because of our rotation schedule today, our Army and Marine corps have become simply too busy to learn,” said Scales. “[We need to] reform our human capital. You can’t throw money at this.”

The readiness and personnel crisis is so severe due to operations in Iraq and Afghanistan that the committee seriously discussed the prospect of whether a draft would be necessary if another conflict arises. “We must, at all costs, consider the all-volunteer force. I can’t see any measure where we should return to a draft at this time,” Sen. John Warner (R-VA) said.

“If you had a draft right now, you would no longer be in Iraq. The American people would say no,” Korb warned. “If the people are not willing to send their sons and daughters, we have to think very carefully about what we’re doing.”

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