In the wake of the Cold War, the US military was cut dramatically. We went from a 750,000 man Army to one of about 475,000 today. The Navy and Air Force undertook similar cuts. We went from spending about 5.5% of GDP on the military to 3%. One consequence has been that the “all volunteer force” is stretched thin, has had to make due with relaxed recruiting standards, and there is a great deal of grumbling from senior commanders that the Iraq War and the repeated, lengthy deployments are killing recruiting and retention.
A larger military, both now and in the future, likely would be easier to recruit for and retain manpower, even during a time of war, than the present system. There is a reason for this paradox: such a military would allow greater time between deployments, greater flexibility when a surge of any kind is needed (including for contingencies in other theaters), and it would ease the strain on the battlefield through more overwhelming force whenever a large number of forces may be concentrated. Since one of the missions our troops will likely be called upon in the future is counterinsurgency, large numbers of skilled, trained, and well-rested infantry will be needed. The basic dynamics of this type of war are less technology and more manpower intensive than their counterparts. The U.S. had over 500,000 troops in Vietnam and the French had more than 400,000 in Algeria. We have now approximately 160,000 troops in Iraq. Since our goals in the wake of 9/11 have been so ambitious–indeed, overly ambitious and utopian in my opinion–Rumsfeld and Bush’s continuation of the “peace dividend” military and their failure to demand a larger military (particularly when support would have been high right after 9/11) has proven foolish indeed.
This is not just a matter of 20/20 hindsight. Their decision-making was truly warped. Who looks at the Soviet problems in Afghanistan and blames them on troop levels rather than on the Soviet penchant for “scorched earth” tactics and the inherent unpalatability of its ideology to the religious Afghan people? Who looks at a looming occupation and thinks gratitude will grease the wheels when governance and power are necessary? Who looks at a country the size of Iraq and thinks troop levels that are a fraction of the number of (per capita) police in the peaceful United States will get the job done? The combination of incompetence and ideological blindness is the root of the Bush administration’s failures in Iraq. Some hard-headedness, including about the size of the military, will be needed in the next administration. We should not, because present-day recruiting problems avoid planning for the next conflict in a way that is sustainable, avoids a draft, and allows the military to accomplish the mission.