This month, June 2013, the Department of Defense announced it will be reducing the size of the army, both active and reserve, by 14%. The reasoning is dual: budget cuts and peacetime requirements. The problem with this thinking is simple: the army was already too small. It is relevant here to remind readers of the maxim that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.
When Thomas Jefferson took office in 1801, he saw the Federal Government saddled with what he viewed as an unwieldy debt. Jefferson’s idea was to completely eliminate the regular army but “settled” for reducing it by 1/3. He cut the army’s budget by ½ and stopped all naval ship building stating that a “big boat” navy was unnecessary. It was, in fact, the will of the people he carried out but it nearly proved our country’s undoing.
Curiously, however, it was Jefferson who founded the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1802. Jefferson, like other founders of the country, was aware of the vacuum of professionally trained military officers in America. Washington himself was an exception, but by and large the leaders of the Revolution had been either political appointees or voted into leadership in their state’s militia by their fellow townspeople. But Jefferson’s view of the future, even with a home grown professional military establishment, he viewed peacetime military needs to by small.
The War of 1812 happened because of the impressment of American commercial sailors being impressed, forced into service, in the British navy. America did not have the navy to protect its interests. Although England had no desire to reign over America, it did carry the battle forward was it was engaged. America was so shorthanded that it was not until 1814 that it was able to raise a force sufficient to repulse the English, and even then a combination of luck and help from the French was needed.
That done, however, America once again fell into a military morass, keeping just enough troops to fight on its western frontier, and the occasional skirmish with Mexico.
The Civil War did nothing to change the American mindset. The entire war, on both sides, was fought with each state’s militia. Even though these forces were large they were also quickly and easily disbanded at war’s end. Heroes like George Armstrong Custer, who rose to the level of Major General, 2 stars, during the war, was returned to the grade of Lieutenant Colonel after the war since he had been a part of the Michigan militia. To this day, such practices are still common.
The next engagement of any size, the Spanish-American war, did not seriously challenge the state and size of the military to any great degree. And when America finally entered World War 1, April 1917, its entire army, active and reserve, consisted of about 300,000 men. Worse, those who were in the regular army, were poorly trained and poorly equipped for the most part. The American army had no serviceable aircraft with which to counter the German air corps, and no tanks either. So poorly prepared was America that it was a full year before the first American troops saw action. Fortunately, American patriotism ran high and once America committed itself, recruiting soldiers in large numbers was fairly easy. But as anyone familiar with the military knows, from enlistment to the completion of initial training takes a good six months, and then you have green troops. Thrown into action, green troops are likely to suffer a high casualty rate. General John (Black Jack) Pershing, a man with considerable experience, knew this only too well and was able to forestall the introduction of American troops into battle until he was satisfied they were properly trained and properly lead.
But World War 1 left such a bad taste in the mouths of Americans, the hideousness of the trench warfare and the liberal use of gas, brought home the horrors of modern warfare. Americans dubbed it as “the war to end all wars.” The felt justified in using the draconian doctrines of handling post-war Germany that they were unable to see that it not only destabilized the entire Western Europe, but sowed the inevitable seeds for a second world war. To be fair, the French and English demands upon reparations from Germany for actual costs of war were so heavy that the economic bankruptcy of Germany was insured. America, for its part, was happy to simply walk away and be done with it all.
The war over, America once again reduced the size of its military to a level that put the country in jeopardy, although Americans were wont to see or understand this. Funding for development of new weapon systems, particularly the military aircraft, was cut to nearly nothing. The allies had forced upon the defeated German people, and itself, a tonnage limit to the number and size of naval forces.
During his court martial in 1925, General William Mitchell warned America against the military complacency it had not only embraced, but demanded. He warned the cost in American lives at the outbreak of hostilities, a foregone conclusion in his estimation, would be great. No one listened. On July 1, 1941, a mere 5 months prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, the active army forces stood at 151,000. Once again, too many of those soldiers were poorly trained and poorly equipped.
After WWII, Korea and Vietnam provided enough inertia for America to keep a sizeable and adequately supplied military. In the late 1980s, during the Reagan-Bush administrations, the Base Closure Commission was tasked with closing and combining unnecessary and redundant military facilities. This was actually a good idea. But with it came the incessant reduction in the size of the active duty military, those who are not a part of either the reserves forces or the National Guard.
When the first Gulf War happened, the reliance upon National Guard forces increased more than at any time since the Civil War. To be clear, the American National Guard, while partially federally funded, fall firstly under the command of each state’s governor and then as a secondary reserve force to be activated, brought on active duty, during periods of national emergency. The primary mission of these citizen soldiers had always been primarily to ensure the security of the individual states. The Vietnam War did use National Guard troops but it was more the exception than the rule. Today, that had changed. Also during the Vietnam War, those National Guard troops used in the war were assured of a single tour and nothing more. That too is no longer true. Entire National Guard units have experienced 2, 3 and 4 tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. This has led to the states being consistently short-handed in National Guard troops to conduct necessary state activities. And yet, these short-handed states, will be asked once again to reduce the size of their force.
My concern is a simple one. The extensiveness of our next altercation is an unknown but it is a sure thing. If, for example, North Korea decided to invade the south, we would be hard pressed to provide the additional forces South Korea would need to protect itself. To its credit, South Korea possesses one of the largest and best trained military forces in the free world. But even so, it is not nearly as large as it northern neighbor and would require our immediate and substantial support. I am not certain to what level we could meet that commitment.
That part of the world which would love to take America down is only encouraged by our continued reduction in force. They know our ability to respond is reduced and it gives them confidence to do their mischief. You must remember, there is a certain percentage of the military which cannot be deployed to a war zone simply because of our requirements at home, and in other countries.
I believe that if anything, the size of our active duty army needs to be at around 1 million men, or a little more than twice its present size. Similarly, our reserve forces, to include the National Guard, should be at last another 1 million men. And this is over and above active and reserve naval and air forces and their respective reserve components. Yes, it is expensive but it is also the cost of our peace of mind in today’s world. While we may never fight another war like World War 2, we also cannot entirely dismiss the idea. We do so only at our own peril.