Sitting comfortably in his living room in Arlington, Virginia, some two years ago, Gen. Edward C. Meyer reflected on the American military and the transformations it has undergone in the last two decades. “This isn’t the American military of World War II, or even Tet,” he said. “This is a totally different military than we’ve ever had before. For one thing, it’s a married military, a family military. It’s a much more complex unit, with much greater demands. We just don’t know how it will do in conflict.”
Meyer, a West Point graduate who served in combat in Vietnam and later rose to be chief of staff of the Army, identified the one great unknown of the 175,000-plus men and women currently deployed in the Middle East. When the shooting begins, if it begins, how will the US military of the 1990s perform? It is not a question to be taken lightly: While the Bush administration and the media blithely tout the tremendous firepower of those forces currently in place in northern Saudi Arabia, a number of officers have hidden doubts about the ability of US forces to fight and win a conflict in the Middle East.
The reasons for the doubts, one Pentagon colonel said recently, is simple: “We advertise for our military,” this officer says. “We’re really the only major power in the world that does that. These men and women are hired guns. We say ‘If you want a college education, you should join the Army’ — you know those commercials. If we were really honest about it we’d say: ‘Here’s your chance to die for your country.’ That’s what the Iraqis say.”
The military the US has deployed in Saudi Arabia is the first of its kind in US history. First, it is an Army (and Navy and Air Force) composed entirely of volunteers. Second, the US military has a higher percentage of women in its ranks than at any other time in American history. Third, the US has deployed units that are, in Meyers’s words, “married,” marking a significant change from the 200-year US tradition of deploying a basically single, young and male Army. In addition, the military the US has built since the end of the Vietnam wartime draft in the early 1970s is composed of a higher percentage of minority soldiers than at any time in its history.
Which is not to say that this military will not, or cannot, fight. The only question is just how well it will fight. The American military of the 1990s is an experiment in volunteerism untried in modern history.
Publicly, at least, the highest-ranking military officers dismiss any suggestion that there are troubles with the composition of US forces. JCS Chairman Colin Powell and Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf of CENTCOM (the US Central Command, responsible for military deployments in the region), have both loudly and publicly defended their soldiers’ ability to take on the Iraqis with little or no trouble.
Nevertheless, some clear clues about these doubts can be gleaned from the public statements of the same top brass. The most recent came from Air Force Chief of Staff Michael J. Dugan, whose public statements on the US’s warfighting strategy in the Middle East earned him a quick dismissal by Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney. If Dugan is to be believed — and Cheney’s dismissal of him does, after all, seem to confirm his views — the US will be placing heavy reliance on firepower, and not ground troops to defeat the Iraqis.
While this is well within the American tradition of warfare — begun when Grant defeated Lee through sheer numbers, not finesse — the current use of such a strategy is clearly designed to help cover the chasm of talented billets the Army (in particular) has been trying to fill over the last 20 years. Complaints from military officers that they have not been getting the kinds of educated, highly motivated officers needed to run a modern military establishment have been muted in the last several weeks, but these needs are still critically important. As one junior officer says: “We’ve become everything to everyone — an educational institution, a support group, you name it. It didn’t use to be that way.”
Gone too from public view are nagging questions about US weaponry. There is no assurance that the untried weapons systems currently in use will actually work in combat situations. The US Army has yet to develop the sophisticated anti-tank weapon needed to stop the hundreds of tanks the Iraqis are likely to throw into battle, if it comes to that. And while modifications have been made to the M-1 Abrams tank, certainly one of the most sophisticated weapons in the American arsenal, this behemoth is plagued with continuing problems and a thirst for fuel that means logistical support for American armor will have to be stationed dangerously close to the front line.
If war breaks out in Arabia tomorrow, the US will rely heavily on the tank-killing capabilities of the Apache helicopter. The Apache performed woefully in Grenada — where US forces became engaged in a slugfest that was glibly billed as a walkover. “Helicopters don’t fly,” said one Apache commander, reflecting on the Grenada experience, “they crash.” They crashed frequently in Grenada, and are particularly vulnerable to small arms fire; in Vietnam, one battle was dubbed “Helicopter Hell.”
Nor are US Special Forces units, trained to interdict behind-the-lines support for enemy troops and clear harbors under fire, as well-trained as they could be. In some parts of the Army, the Green Berets are viewed as an expensive encumbrance the US cannot afford. Such units are basically untried — except once again for the unedifying experience of Grenada. There US Special Forces units performed so poorly that, in one case, they did not even get into action. On the morning of the Grenada invasion, a US Ranger unit whose mission was to tie down Cuban construction battalions at Grenada’s airport floated out to sea and had to be rescued by the Navy.
Most important of all, the US military is plagued by continuing command and control problems. In the Grenada invasion, US Army casualties could not be evacuated from the island because Army helicopter pilots had never been trained to land on aircraft carriers. Combat frequencies were not coordinated — a US soldier in Grenada was forced to use his long distance credit card to call Fort Bragg, in North Carolina, to request air support for his hard-pressed unit. Officers claim that these, and other problems, are a thing of the past — but they will not know for sure until the Army, Navy and Air Force actually get into a fight once again.
The good news for the Pentagon is that the US is more than prepared to match Iraqi tactics in the Arabian desert. Ironically, this is due to the fact that the Iraqi army is a carbon copy of the Soviet Army — a tank-heavy, top-down unit that is extremely dependent on a central command for success — just the kind of military that US forces have been trained to fight.
Moreover, the US command system is well-prepared for this conflict. The war will be run from Saudi Arabia, with Gen. Schwarzkopf in command. Both Schwarzkopf and JCS Chairman Colin Powell have learned the lesson of Vietnam: The opening round in the war with Iraq, when and if it comes, will be brutal and, they hope, as painless for the US as possible. “We’re going to hit them with everything we have right away,” one officer says. “We’ll go in and get it over with. That’s the real lesson.”
Nevertheless, both officers are schooled in what is called “the fog of war”: You never really know what will happen in a battle until it happens, and the results are usually surprising. US military leaders are counting on that. Their soldiers, sailors and airmen have been taught to be self-reliant and creative, to make the best of bad situations. The US military is known for its decentralized command system, a purposeful reflection of the Army leadership’s belief that future wars will depend heavily on small unit actions.
That will be true in any conflict with the Iraqis. While advocates of air power claim that the air war over Baghdad will be decisive, it is much more likely that any victory will have to be won on the ground. Col. Harry Summers, the guru of military strategy and perhaps the most well-known critic of US performance in Vietnam agrees: “We have to beat them on the ground,” he says. “We have to be able to handle their huge tank formations. If we can’t defeat their army, we can’t defeat them.”
How will those US military units now deployed in Saudi Arabia perform in any future conflict? The answer may well come from Edward Meyer himself. Meyer is perhaps more responsible than any other soldier for the makeup of the American military. His advocacy of the “light division” concept in the early 1980s is largely responsible for the comparatively swift deployment of US troops to Saudi Arabia. The 82nd, 101st and 24th infantry divisions that were the first to arrive are the backbone of the American military, (and perhaps the best prepared of any units to fight the coming war. Behind the scenes, military officers are confident the US can whip the Iraqis, but they say that any conflict will not be quite as easy as it is now being portrayed. “I don’t care what anyone is saying,” a Pentagon captain says. “This thing isn’t going to be over in a few days.”