Does the United States need a bigger military? The charged debate over this question, with much of Congress, including Sen. John Kerry, on one side and the Bush administration on the other, has raged since the summer of 2003, when it became apparent that the U.S. military was destined for a significant stay in Iraq.
Over the past year, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has compromised somewhat, adding about 25,000 soldiers to the active-duty Army. That makes for roughly a 5 percent increase (Kerry would add 40,000 more troops.) But the Bush administration has resisted writing even its small increase into law -- preferring to fund it with emergency war appropriations and to carry it out with "stop-loss" orders that prevent many soldiers from leaving the Army even when their tours of duty end.
Who is right, and where should we go from here? Any assessment must begin with several key facts:
No crisis in Army or Marine Corps recruiting and retention has developed, at least not yet. American military personnel are displaying remarkable perseverance, patriotism and commitment, and are signing up for service in generally adequate numbers.
That said, the Army National Guard was about 5,000 soldiers short of its 2004 recruiting goals, mostly because it failed miserably to attract former active-duty soldiers into its ranks in the usual numbers. With an average of 150,000 Army National Guard and Reserve personnel activated at any given time since Sept. 11, 2001, and 55,000 in Iraq today, joining the Guard is no longer a good way to stay involved in the military while also being able to stay home.
U.S. forces in Iraq still number about 140,000. That is almost equal to their peak number there in the spring of 2003; it is 25,000 more than last winter and at least three times the number Pentagon planners expected for this phase of the operation. The Army, which is providing about 80 percent of the total, is making plans to keep its deployed strength near that level for several more years if necessary.
All of the Army's active-duty combat brigades were deployed overseas to a combat zone in 2003 or 2004, some of them twice. All will have to go back again. In fact, the average unit could have to deploy to Iraq or Afghanistan two more times in the next presidential term if the Army's current planning assumptions prove correct.
Already, the 3rd Infantry Division, which constituted most of the left pincer of last year's invasion force, has received orders to return to Iraq this winter. The 1st Marine Division, which provided most of the right pincer, is of course already back in Iraq -- soon to be relieved by the 2nd Marine Division, which in recent years has sent units to Afghanistan and Haiti.
The soldiers of the 2nd Brigade of the 2nd Infantry Division, who spent most of the past year in South Korea, are now to spend another year away from their families, in Iraq.
Taking all this together suggests that there is a crisis in today's ground forces -- but a crisis of fairness rather than numbers. We are, so far, able to sustain our deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq -- but only by badly overworking our current contingents of soldiers and Marines. And ideas being considered to address this problem, such as deploying Army troops for tours that are half as long but twice as frequent, will not change the basic obstacle.
In previous wars in modern times, the United States has typically sent soldiers abroad for no more than one tough, dangerous year and then let them come home for good. Now it is, as a matter of cold and calculated policy, planning to send the same people back to combat zones every other year as far as the eye can see.
There is no way around it: The United States will have to ask a great deal of its ground forces as long as it stays in Iraq and Afghanistan. Recruiting and training more troops takes time -- which is why Rumsfeld and Gen. Peter Schoomaker, the Army chief of staff, were mistaken to oppose a larger military last year when warning signs of a long presence in Iraq already abounded.
That said, it is not too late to ameliorate the situation. Indeed, policymakers should consider a further increase in U.S. ground forces even larger than the 40,000 additional soldiers Kerry recommends.
Rumsfeld and Schoomaker argue that any legislated increase in the Army would be difficult to reverse when the additional troops were no longer needed. They further worry that by driving up personnel costs, it could deprive the Army of funding needed to modernize its force structure. But Congress will surely fund defense robustly as long as the large-scale missions in Iraq and Afghanistan continue. And if we someday no longer need a larger Army, we can scale it back. After the Cold War, the United States reduced its Army by 300,000 soldiers; certainly it could administer a reduction one-fifth or one-sixth as large in the future.
No nation can ever truly repay its uniformed men and women who risk, and sometimes lose, their lives for their country. But the United States should do its utmost to be fair to them. It need not and must not ask a small group of dedicated professionals to become strangers to their own families and their own country in the course of waging a war that, for better or worse, we are all engaged in now.
The writer is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.