View from England: US Army plagued by desertion and plunging morale

Times Online (United Kingdom)

US Army plagued by desertion and plunging morale

While insurgents draw on deep wells of fury to expand their ranks in Iraq, the US military is fighting desertion, recruitment shortfalls and legal challenges from its own troops.

The irritation among the rank and file became all too clear this week when a soldier stood up in a televised session with Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defence Secretary, to ask why the world’s richest army was having to hunt for scrap metal to protect its vehicles.

The same night, interviews with three soldiers who are seeking refugee status in Canada, where they have become minor celebrities, dominated prime time television. They are among more the than 5,000 troops that CBS’s 60 Minutes reported on Wednesday had deserted since the war began.

Many experts say that America’s 1.4 million active-duty troops and 865,000 part-timers are stretched to the point where President Bush may see other foreign policy goals blunted.

The bleed from the US military is heaviest among parttimers, who have been dragged en masse out of civilian life to serve their country with unprecedented sacrifice. For the first time in a decade, the Army National Guard missed its recruitment target this year. Instead of signing up 56,000 people, it found 51,000.

“This is something that the President and the country should be worried about,” said Lawrence Korb, an assistant secretary of defence under Ronald Reagan and now a military analyst who opposes the war.

A further sign of strain can be seen in the Army’s decision this year to mobilise 5,600 members of a pool of former soldiers that can be mobilised only in a national emergency.

More than 183,000 National Guard and reserve troops are on active duty, compared with 79,000 before the invasion of Iraq. Forty per cent of the 138,000 troops in Iraq are part-timers who never expected to be sent to the front line.

Instead, as a woman soldier pointedly reminded Mr Rumsfeld on Wednesday, they face “stop loss” orders that delay their return to civilian life.

Another soldier lost his court battle this week to stop the Army extending his one-year contract by at least two years. At least eight soldiers have turned to the courts, accusing the military of tricking them into enlisting for a fixed term without warning them that they could be forced to stay longer. Once they get out, soldiers are increasingly resisting hefty bonuses to re-enlist, an incentive that had helped to meet recruitment targets in the past.

The crisis may be even deeper than the statistics suggest. Active-duty Army recruiters exceeded their target of 77,000 by 587 this year only by dipping into a pool of recruits who had not planned to report until next year, and by dropping educational standards, Mr Korb said.

At 10 per cent, the death rate among war casualties is the lowest in history. But maimed men and women are flocking home with horror stories about the war, which is claiming more and more casualties. Between June, when the Iraqi interim Government took over, and September, the average monthly casualty rate among US forces was 747 a month, compared with 482 during the invasion and 415 before the coalition government was disbanded. With elections looming next month, the toll is expected to mount.

Most soldiers keep their anger under wraps, partly out of patriotism but also out of loyalty to their units. “There’s a thin green line that you don’t cross,” said a veteran with the 4th Infantry, who deployed to Iraq last year to help to plan counterinsurgency operations and train Iraqi forces.

But at his home base in Fort Carson, Colorado, he has resisted a $10,000 re-enlistment incentive and plans to get out as soon as he can.

He illustrates the long-term problem the Army faces. He served for five years, first in Korea, then in Iraq, where he was a combat soldier for almost a year. The Americans received little training for the counterinsurgency they face. “Every day you wake up alive, is a gift from above,” the soldier said.

Few experts are surprised to hear that a recent army survey discovered that half the soldiers were not planning to re-enlist.

Experts are divided over how stretched America’s military really is. But they agree that another conflict would put the military in overdrive. Another war would require a shift to a “no-kidding wartime posture in which everybody who could shoot was given a rifle and sent to the front,” according to John Pike, of

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