WASHINGTON -- "We are stretched, really stretched," a senior U.S. Army combat commander told me. The 10 divisions that constitute the sole surviving superpower's fighting strength are scarcely able to handle today's responsibilities, much less a full-scale war in Iraq. What's more, a pre-emptive strike against Baghdad may only be the first of such military ventures.
Rep. Duncan Hunter of California, vice chairman and dominant Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, last week shined a light onto this nation's future pre-emptions. Questioned on CNN's "Crossfire" about military intervention in Iraq, Hunter said: "The president understands this is a new era of what I call terrorists with high technology. I think we're going to have to make this decision over and over." He listed Libya as another nuclear threat, followed by other possible U.S. targets, adding: "Iraq is the first take on that question."
That alarms the uniformed military. These career officers, who are faithful to civilian supremacy in military affairs, do not question policy. What bothers them is lack of muscle to execute so muscular a global strategy. The concern is about quantity, not quality. Old-timers view today's volunteer soldiers as better trained and better motivated than their draftee predecessors. There are just not enough of them to meet demands.
Major troops assignments in Korea, Japan, Germany and elsewhere in Europe (well over 100,000) did not end with the Cold War. Fighting in Afghanistan will last a long time, and a U.S. presence is projected there even longer. Peacekeeping commitments in Bosnia (supposed to have ended five years ago) and Kosovo are open-ended. One battalion (830 troops) is assigned to the Sinai, requiring an additional battalion ready to go there and still another battalion coming back. Four divisions (around 60,000) are talked about at the outset for Iraq, with the possibility of many more to follow.
Stretched though the Army may be, no help is on the way. Defense Department sources know Congress will not approve any increase in manpower. On the contrary, decreases in weapons systems can be expected once the mid-term elections are out of the way.
Some ground troops are needed for Iraq, with nobody envisioning a repeat of total reliance on air power in Kosovo. While Defense Department Policy Board Chairman Richard Perle long has talked about overthrowing Saddam Hussein with Iraqi opposition forces, the military cannot rely on those visions. At a minimum, U.S. special operations forces -- stretched thin by Afghanistan -- will have to play a major role.
Tension between the military and civilians is kept private, but it is palpable. Many young officers heartily dislike Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz. The top brass respects Donald Rumsfeld as a strong secretary without particularly liking him and certainly not fearing him. There will be no repeat of Vietnam 40 years ago, when career officers were so intimidated by Secretary Robert S. McNamara that they failed to challenge his illusions.
The way Rumsfeld killed the proposed Crusader artillery system was deeply painful to the Army, but officers have saluted sharply and moved on. What lingers is resentment over the lack of U.S. cannon artillery four months ago in Operation Anaconda against al Qaeda and Taliban fighters in Afghanistan, when enemy mortar fire killed seven American troopers.
Last week, 105-millimeter artillery finally arrived in Afghanistan for U.S. forces. The cover story was that these weapons compensated for removal from the theater of British artillery. Actually, Gen. Tommy Franks, the Afghanistan commander in chief, withdrew his objection to cannon artillery. When I asked a combat general about the issue last week, he replied: "I will never go into action without artillery." Indeed, Pentagon sources say there will be no more deployment of light infantry without supporting guns.
That constitutes a victory for the officer corps -- running counter to the theme of Eliot A. Cohen's new book, "Supreme Command." Cohen, a defense intellectual closely associated with Wolfowitz and Perle, celebrates successes of Abraham Lincoln and other political leaders who intervened in technical military matters. In fact, President Lincoln's military interference did more harm than good until he gave Gen. Ulysses Grant a free hand. Lincoln's successor should heed the advice of Grant's successors.