Squeezing the U.S. Army

Posted: Jun 23, 2003 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- Two trenchant quotations were repeated through Army corridors of the Pentagon last week -- one by an enlisted infantryman enduring hardships of occupation duty in Iraq and the other by a four-star general leaving the service after 38 years. Each was clearly unhappy with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Taken together, their comments signaled hard times ahead for the U.S. Army.

On the previous Sunday, a front-page story in The New York Times aroused attention throughout the Pentagon. Pfc. Matthew C. O'Dell, 1st Brigade of the 3rd Infantry Division, told a reporter: "You call Donald Rumsfeld and tell him our sorry asses are ready to go home. Tell him to come spend a night in our building."

Four days earlier, in a speech that marked his retirement as the Army's chief of staff, Gen. Eric Shinseki said it's "just not helpful and it isn't true" for "some (to) suggest that we in the Army don't understand the importance of civilian control of the military." He added: "To muddy the waters when important issues are at stake, issues of life and death, is a disservice to all of those in and out of uniform who serve and lead so well." Unlike the pfc., the general did not mention Rumsfeld by name. But that's who he meant.

O'Dell's complaint echoed previous grumbling by troops occupying Iraq, but the willingness of a professional soldier to be quoted by name was something new. It suggested deep-seated morale problems with profound repercussions. Shinseki's passionate farewell address, extraordinary for a retirement ceremony, reflected the divide between the old Army brass and Rumsfeld.

At the heart of both men's unhappiness, the Army has been stretched thin to execute the nation's foreign policy. Shinseki and Rumsfeld were in continuous tension over how many troops were needed to pacify Afghanistan, to subdue Iraq and then occupy Iraq.

The end product is Matthew O'Dell's lament for being stuck in Baghdad. The Washington Post reported Friday from the Iraqi capital that victorious U.S. troops, under fire in a hazardous occupation, are "frustrated and disillusioned" as too thinly deployed peacekeepers. The unspoken fear in Army circles is that complaints will depress re-enlistment, so important to an all-volunteer force, and ultimately diminish the vital corps of non-commissioned officers.

With over 370,000 soldiers or 70 percent of the Army now deployed in 120 countries, President Bush's capability to pursue his doctrine of pre-emption is constrained. In his farewell address, Shinseki called for "a force sized correctly to meet the strategy set forth in the documents that guide us." He warned: "Beware the 12-division strategy for a 10-division army."

As a yearlong lame duck when Rumsfeld unexpectedly announced Shinseki's retirement a year in advance, Shinseki never was able to convince the secretary that policy was outstripping capabilities. When his June 11 speech declared that "mistrust and arrogance are antithetical to inspired and inspiring leadership," everybody in the Pentagon knew he was accusing Rumsfeld of exercising command but not leadership. The general declared that "command is about authority, about an appointment to position" but that "leadership . . . must be learned and practiced."

Nobody from the Office of the Secretary of Defense attended Shinseki's retirement ceremony, and none had been invited. Rumsfeld's response to Shinseki was bringing back Gen. Pete Schoomaker, who retired in 2000, as the new chief of staff. That indicated the secretary of defense felt none of the serving three-star or four-star generals could be trusted. Appointing Schoomaker, renowned in his career as an exemplar of special operations, was a rebuff to heavy infantry and tube artillery advocates.

Civilian Defense Department officials have stressed that the highly regarded Schoomaker is no yes-man, but it is taken for granted inside the Pentagon that Rumsfeld would not have picked another no-man. It is taken for granted that the gruff and difficult James Roche, shifted from secretary of the Air Force to secretary of the Army, will do Rumsfeld's bidding (in contrast to his fired predecessor, Thomas White) -- once he is confirmed by the Senate.

Confirmation will not be automatic. Senators will interrogate Roche and Schoomaker about plans to further squeeze the Army without diminishing its global mission.