WASHINGTON Now and then predictions of a pending U.S. invasion of Iran still raise their ugly head on the Internet no matter how illogical or unsustainable. That secret plan scenario is most assuredly going to follow President Bush and his fellow plotters right out the door of the White House nine months from now.
The simple question to those propounding that and other allegations of planned U.S. aggression outside of Iraq and Afghanistan is: "Invade with what?"
The brutal truth is that both the Army and the Marine Corps have been so strained by the current campaigns they would have trouble engaging the security forces of Monaco. In fact, leaders of both services told a congressional subcommittee this week that readiness to meet demands outside the present conflicts is at the lowest level since the abandonment of the draft. Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Richard Cody said the stress level inflicted by the current deployment threatens the viability of all-volunteer military.
When the 30,000-troop surge in Iraq and Afghanistan began, Cody told the Senate Armed Services Committee readiness panel, it "took all the strokes out of the shock absorbers for the United States Army." He added that even if the five brigades were pulled out of Iraq by July it would take some time before the Army could return to 12-month deployments for its troops a not very encouraging assessment for all those alleged secret plotters of more military adventures operating in Pentagon backrooms and allied think tanks around the Beltway.
If the Army can't do it, send in the Marines! Right, except that they aren't in much better shape. According to Gen. Robert Magnus, assistant commandant of the Marine Corps, the service's ability to train for other conflicts has been significantly damaged ("degraded" is the way he put it), mainly because of an increased presence in Afghanistan. He said that although his forces involved in the surge already have pulled out, some 3,200 of them are on their way to Afghanistan, keeping the pressure on viability high. The pace of operations is "unsustainable," he said, noting that the corps has limited ability to command and supply a divided force.
These bleak reports are hardly surprising given the reliance on reservists and National Guard personnel in both Iraq and Afghanistan. They come at a time when Gen. David Petraeus, the top commander in Iraq, is expected to testify to Congress that it will be necessary to temporarily halt troop withdrawals. This pause would likely bring howls of protest not only from Democrats and their presidential candidates but put even more stress on forces that have become increasingly resentful of extended and repeated tours.
Further complicating matters has been growing unrest in military families about extension of service beyond the enlistment contracts. Those who joined for specific terms have found their enlistments prolonged because of the war zone needs, a not uncommon practice during major conflicts. A new movie about this problem, "Stop Loss," is likely to stir more resentment and, some believe, hurt recruiting at a time the Army and Marines are trying to boost their active-duty rosters to 547,000 and 220,000, respectively.
It is doubtful that the abolition of the draft and the switch to all volunteers in the military following the long debacle in Vietnam anticipated fighting wars on two fronts while trying to maintain obligations in Europe and Asia. Moving from the huge draft-fed machine to the smaller, ostensibly more elite volunteer force was supposed to discourage military adventurism. Yet the requirements of occupying both Iraq and Afghanistan and fighting off insurgents have severely strained that concept. Both wars, if that is the proper term, have been going on longer than American involvement in World War II.
Does this support the argument for reinstating the draft? At this time, it would be politically unfeasible. But, as the experts told Congress this week, anything beyond the current level would require some major rethinking.Meanwhile, all those Internet predictions of further military expeditions should be considered in the context of feasibility or the lack thereof. This coupled with a new report about the huge cost overruns in spending by the Pentagon on weapons of questionable effectiveness has put the Defense department and its military charges under more pressure than at any time since the fall of Saigon. It isn't a great picture, but it could change dramatically given the outcome of the November election.
Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service