These Aren’t Reagan’s Ground Forces

Lawrence J. Korb responds to a recent op-ed in the Washington Times that gives a misleading portrayal of the quality of our ground forces.

SOURCE: Center for American Progress

Lawrence J. Korb is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.

*This was printed in the Washington Times on May 16.

As the person charged with saving the All-Volunteer Force under President Ronald Reagan, I find Michael O’Hanlon’s recent op-ed in The Washington Times, which compares the quality of today’s ground forces with the quality of the force in the 1970s, the early Reagan years, or even 1985, misleading.

President Reagan inherited in 1981 what the Army Chief of Staff called a “hollow Army” and a military force in disarray. With President Reagan’s rhetorical skills (he did a recruiting commercial) and the leadership efforts of Secretaries of Defense Weinberger and Carlucci, we began to turn things around. But it took a decade to do that, and it was only by the end of the Reagan administration in fiscal year 1989 that we had the Army back to where it should have been. Even O’Hanlon admits that today’s Army does not meet those standards.

O’Hanlon also distorts the picture by lumping the general education diploma with a high school diploma. The military wants to recruit people who remain in high school until graduation because they are more likely to complete their enlistments and adapt to the military culture. Someone getting a GED is a high school dropout.

O’Hanlon’s data about West Point’s graduates is also misleading. Fifty-four percent of the class of 2000 left the service in 2006 and 46 percent of the class of 2001 left by January 2007. It is true that as of June 2007, only 32 percent of the class of 2002 had left. But many could not leave because of the Army’s stop-loss policy, which prevents soldiers from leaving until three months after their unit returns from Iraq or Afghanistan. And others reenlisted because they knew if they got out after five years they would probably have been called back over the next three years by the Individual Ready Reserve. Major General Robert Scales, the former Commandant of the Army War College, has pointed out that eight years has become the new five-year obligation for West Point graduates. Let’s see how many of the class of 2002 are in by 2010.

O’Hanlon’s data on the quality of recruits coming in is also deceptive. He says that the aggregate total of 860 waivers for convicted felons is minor. Really? How many convicted felons were drafted by the NFL? Moreover, he ignores the fact that 13 percent of the Army’s 2008 recruits—more than 10,000—received so-called “moral waivers,” which let people enlist who have been convicted of serious misdemeanors.

But what is most troubling about O’Hanlon’s article is the way he glosses over the problems of those deploying to Iraq. He says that 15,000 have faced post-traumatic stress disorder after a third or fourth tour. The total number of troops with PTSD according to the RAND Corporation is actually closer to 230,000. He says we must do everything to help those individuals. But what should we do, exactly? Keep sending them back to Iraq and Afghanistan without sufficient time at home?

In looking at problems faced by soldiers, O’Hanlon compares suicides and divorces first to the general population—and only then to where it was in the ground forces before we invaded Iraq. But in saying our soldiers’ serious problems are no greater than the rest of the population, he ignores the fact that the military has higher standards. Moreover, even he admits that the number of suicides in the Army has doubled since 2001.

These problems would never have occurred in a Reagan administration. The 40th president accepted the social compact with the troops that said for every day in a combat zone, the military person would spend at least two days at home. And because Reagan recognized that the All-Volunteer Force was not meant to fight a long war, he kept draft registration.

Those who support this mindless, needless, and senseless war in Iraq should have the courage of their convictions and bring back the draft. Only then will we give real relief to the troops who have sacrificed so much for us. If we do not, the quality of the ground troops will continue to deteriorate and “soldiers’ problems” will continue to mount.

By now, Reagan would most likely have redeployed our forces from Iraq as he did from Lebanon. But if he stayed, he would have implemented a draft.

Lawrence Korb, Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and senior advisor at the Center for Defense Information, served as Assistant Secretary of Defense in the Reagan administration.

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.


Lawrence J. Korb

Senior Fellow