War on the Cheap

By BOB HERBERT

New York Times

December 21, 2004

Greg Rund was a freshman at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., in 1999 when two students shot and killed a teacher, a dozen of their fellow students and themselves. Mr. Rund survived that horror, but he wasn't able to survive the war in Iraq. The 21-year-old Marine lance corporal was killed on Dec. 11 in Falluja.

The people who were so anxious to launch the war in Iraq are a lot less enthusiastic about properly supporting the troops who are actually fighting, suffering and dying in it. Corporal Rund was on his second tour of duty in Iraq. Because of severe military personnel shortages, large numbers of troops are serving multiple tours in the war zone, and many are having their military enlistments involuntarily extended.

Troops approaching the end of their tours in Iraq are frequently dealt the emotional body blow of unexpected orders blocking their departure for home. "I've never seen so many grown men cry," said Paul Rieckhoff, a former infantry platoon leader who founded Operation Truth, an advocacy group for soldiers and veterans.

"Soldiers will do whatever you ask them to do," said Mr. Rieckhoff. "But when you tell them the finish line is here, and then you keep moving it back every time they get five meters away from it, it starts to really wear on them. It affects morale."

We don't have enough troops because we are fighting the war on the cheap. The Bush administration has refused to substantially expand the volunteer military and there is no public support for a draft. So the same troops head in and out of Iraq, and then back in again, as if through a revolving door. That naturally heightens their chances of being killed or wounded.

A reckoning is coming. The Army National Guard revealed last Thursday that it had missed its recruiting goals for the past two months by 30 percent. Lt. Gen. H. Steven Blum, who heads the National Guard Bureau, said: "We're in a more difficult recruiting environment, period. There's no question that when you have a sustained ground combat operation going that the Guard's participating in, that makes recruiting more difficult."

Just a few days earlier, the chief of the Army Reserve, Lt. Gen. James Helmly, told The Dallas Morning News that recruiting was in a "precipitous decline" that, if not reversed, could lead to renewed discussions about reinstatement of the draft.

The Bush administration, which has asked so much of the armed forces, has established a pattern of dealing in bad faith with its men and women in uniform. The callousness of its treatment of the troops was, of course, never more clear than in Donald Rumsfeld's high-handed response to a soldier's question about the shortages of battle armor in Iraq.

As the war in Iraq goes more and more poorly, the misery index of the men and women serving there gets higher and higher. More than 1,300 have been killed. Many thousands are coming home with agonizing wounds. Scott Shane of The Times reported last week that according to veterans' advocates and military doctors, the already hard-pressed system of health care for veterans "is facing a potential deluge of tens of thousands of soldiers returning from Iraq with serious mental health problems brought on by the stress and carnage of war."

Through the end of September, nearly 900 troops had been evacuated from Iraq by the Army for psychiatric reasons, included attempts or threatened attempts at suicide. Dr. Stephen C. Joseph, an assistant secretary of defense for health affairs from 1994 to 1997, said, "I have a very strong sense that the mental health consequences are going to be the medical story of this war."

When the war in Afghanistan as well as Iraq is considered, some experts believe that the number of American troops needing mental health treatment could exceed 100,000.

From the earliest planning stages until now, the war in Iraq has been a tragic exercise in official incompetence. The original rationale for the war was wrong. The intelligence was wrong. The estimates of required troop strength were wrong. The war hawks' guesses about the response of the Iraqi people were wrong. The cost estimates were wrong, and on and on.

Nevertheless the troops have fought valiantly, and the price paid by many has been horrific. They all deserve better than the bad faith and shoddy treatment they are receiving from the highest officials of their government.