In December 2004, a little over a year after the launch of major combat operations in Iraq, then-Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld gave a speech to troops in Kuwait and a line that stays with me to this day:
“You go to war with the Army you have…not the Army you might want or wish to have at a later time.”
Way back in 1991 when I went to war with the 1st Infantry Division (The Big Red One), the Army that surrounded me as we launched our attack into Iraq was huge. The legions were spread from the Persian Gulf in the east to the Jordanian border in the west as the largest mechanized force since World War II assembled for battle.
The list of Army divisions involved in Operation Desert Storm read like a who’s who of American combat muscle—1st Infantry, 1st and 3rd Armored, 1st Cavalry, 24th Infantry, 101st Airborne, 82nd Airborne, 2nd Armored, and two Marine divisions. The joint force assembled numbered over 500,000 men and women from the Army, Marines, Navy and Air Force. Some would say the force was too large. In hindsight, perhaps it was. But the fact is that the ground war was over in four days!
The joint force with which America went to war in Afghanistan and in Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003 was much smaller, and the primary reason is seldom discussed. The Army we had, the joint force we had, to paraphrase Sec. Rumsfeld, was the product of a 40% cut during the 1990s by the Clinton Administration. The number of active Army divisions went from a pre-Desert Storm total of 18 down to 10, and its end strength from 750,000 to under 500,000. The other services underwent similar reductions, with the Air Force losing squadrons of combat aircraft and the Navy losing ships, especially aircraft carriers.
The reasons for the reductions of the 1990s surely seemed reasonable at the time. The Soviet Union had disappeared, an aggressor had been thrown out of Kuwait, and we were, after all, at “the end of history.” However, in ten short years, the situation changed with 9/11, and today even more threats loom on the horizon. Yet the force structure remains basically the same as when it was downsized, while the stresses on the men and women in all of our military services after six years of combat are enormous.