Army at crossroads, facing budget cuts and uncertainty about future role

November 22, 2012

For much of this year, Sgt. Maj. Raymond F. Chandler III, the Army’s top enlisted soldier, has traveled to bases around the world with a simple message: “We’ve allowed ourselves to get out of control.”

His solution has been a raft of new regulations governing tattoos, the length of soldiers’ sideburns and the color of the backpacks they are allowed to carry while in uniform. The tighter standards are intended to improve discipline in a force that is recovering from an exhausting decade of war.

But some of his fellow troops viewed the new regulations as one piece of a larger, more worrisome trend in the Army as it confronts an uncertain future. Instead of embracing change, some officers worry that the service is reverting to a more comfortable, rigid and predictable past.

“We are at a crossroads right now, and I don’t get the sense that we know what we are doing,” said Maj. Fernando Lujan, a Special Forces soldier who has served multiple combat tours. “I am worried about the Army.”

These are tough times for the Army. The service is facing big budget cuts and hard questions about its future role in a Pentagon defense strategy that emphasizes air and naval power over ground forces. It also is still fighting a messy war in Afghanistan and dealing with the mental wounds of combat. Ten months into 2012, the number of suspected suicides of active-duty soldiers had exceeded last year’s total of 165.


Sgt. Maj. Raymond F. Chandler III, the Army’s top enlisted soldier, has traveled to bases around the world with a raft of new regulations. (Anonymous/AP)

Earlier this month, the service suffered another psychological blow when retired Gen. David H. Petraeus, the most lauded Army officer of the post-Vietnam War era, was forced to step down as director of the CIA after admitting to an extramarital affair with his biographer.

“We’ve always come down in numbers after conflicts, and our budget has always gone down, too,” said Lt. Gen. John Campbell, a top Army general at the Pentagon. “The difference is that we are doing this while we are still continuing to fight. And that is what is causing a lot more friction.”

Officials, however, said that the Army is not facing the crippling problems with discipline and drug abuse that followed the Vietnam War. Although multiple combat tours have strained marriages and contributed to the increasing suicide rate, the Army has been able to retain its combat-tested junior leaders.

“Our young leaders learned to run cities in Iraq,” Campbell said. “They are so . . . adaptable and flexible.”

One big struggle for the Army will be to keep these junior officers and sergeants interested in a stateside service in which fewer resources are available for tough, realistic training and a greater focus on minutiae such as drill and ceremony.

One mid-level sergeant at Fort Bragg, N.C., recently complained that he watched several junior soldiers get yelled at for donning Army-issued fleece hats on a cold morning when they were supposed to be wearing baseball-style patrol caps. “It’s cold. They are cold. Let them wear what they want,” the sergeant said. “But it is not the published standard, so everybody gets a butt-chewing. We have defaulted back to before 9/11.”

As the war in Afghanistan draws to a close, more senior officers worry that the Army has not been able to articulate a clear mission that will enable it to hold on to its shrinking share of the Pentagon budget.

“I want an Army that is capable of many missions at many speeds, many sizes, under many different conditions,” Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the Army’s chief of staff, said in a speech this month.

In recent months, the Army has announced a new plan to focus individual combat brigades and divisions on specific regions of the world, such as Asia, Africa or Europe. Soldiers in these units will receive special cultural and language training and could be dispatched on training missions to work with developing armies.

Some Army officers, however, worry that Odierno’s pronouncements and the regional plans are too vague. “What bugs me is being stuck in an institution that doesn’t know where it is going,” said one senior Army officer at the Pentagon.

Other mid-level officers are concerned that the Army, consumed with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, has been too slow to define its future role relative to the Air Force and the Navy. An internal Army survey conducted in December 2011 found that only 26 percent of Army leaders believed that the Army was “headed in the right direction to prepare for the challenges of the next 10 years,” down from 38 percent in 2006.

“We have to prioritize. Our mid-level and junior officers expect it,” said Lt. Col. Paul Larson, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and recently completed a teaching stint at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. “We are all waiting to see what group of mid-level and senior officers takes the lead in defining priorities.”

Meanwhile, many mid-level officers are voicing new doubts about the Army’s battlefield performances in Iraq and Afghanistan. A few years ago, Army officers almost universally celebrated the service’s freshly minted counterinsurgency doctrine and its ability to adapt to a new kind of warfare. Soldiers who were trained to fight tank battles shifted to a style of combat that emphasized politics, cultural awareness and protecting the local population from insurgent attacks.

Today Iraq, which is still wracked by violence and influenced by Iran, seems like less of a victory than it did only a short time ago. In Afghanistan, a surge of more than 30,000 U.S. troops has produced a stalemate that leaves soldiers counting down to withdrawal at the end of 2014.

“For the institution, these outcomes matter,” said retired Lt. Col. Douglas Ollivant, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. “Can the Army tell a story about how it figured it out in Iraq and made it a success? Can it tell itself that it was a learning and adaptive organization?”

The Army’s struggles in Afghansitan have sharpened some officers’ critiques of the branch. “Our learning curve has been much too slow,” said Lujan, who is preparing for a tour in Afghansitan. “I would never in a million years call us smart or agile. We have made a million mistakes.”

Petraeus’s resignation further dampened the Army’s self-esteem. His performance in Iraq infused younger officers with confidence and pride. “Petraeus made everyone around him want to be a better person and a better officer,” said Lt. Col. Mark Weber, who served with the general in Iraq and recently wrote a book, “Tell My Sons,” about his military service and his battle with cancer. “He was a warrior, statesman, intellectual. He made it okay to be smart.”

Ollivant agreed. “Petraeus exemplified the Army finally getting it right in Iraq,” he said. “When that goes away, it is a problem.”

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