Way, Way Too Much

A magazine article about the frequency of military deployments caught my eye with a fact I had not known:  “. . . many combat units have been deployed to war zones every other year for almost a decade.”

I knew it was bad, but not that bad.  The article, entitled “When Are We Asking Too

Much?“, also mentions that some “national leaders” have proposed a “goal” of getting to a 1 to 2 or a 1 to 3 ratio of “home time”, but that has apparently gone nowhere.  America’s leaders seem to have decided that the present 50/50 ratio is sustainable even

BTR-60PB APC of the Soviet-controlled Democrat...

Image via Wikipedia

as symptoms of severe problems appear almost daily in the media.

What are the symptoms of “Too Much”?  Well, for one thing,  the suicide rate is at a 17-year high.  Mental illness in the Army is increasing dramatically, as told in this USA Today article.  ” . . . in 2009, for the first time in 15 years, mental health disorders caused more hospitalizations among U.S. troops than any other medical condition, including battle wounds.   There are other problems too.  The quality of recruits is declining from lack of physical fitness, e.g., obesity, and the breakup of family mores.  Consequently the Army has been lowering standards, accepting some criminal backgrounds and/or people with behavioral problems.  That may be behind the growing problems of corruption, excessive aggression and domestic abuse within the services.

I all too vividly recall one period spanning 19 months in my own military career (Viet Nam) during which I was deployed away from home port for 14 of those months and was home only on weekends for 3 of the other months.  This was at a time when my 3 sons were aged 8 to 10 and I desperately wanted to be home.  The stress and frustration that builds up under such conditions was intense for both me and my wife.  Even with that I
find it hard to imagine what it must be like for a family that has had four year-long deployments in eight years.  There is no doubt in my military mind that that is indeed “Asking Too Much”.  For a distaff viewpoint, I recommend this LINK.

As I have posted before, HERE and HERE , we are in the process of making another Viet Nam mistake.

Americans are sympathetic to our troops and express patriotism, but do not feel a part of the “war”.  This is because the definition of “war”

Alexander Cuts The Gordian Knot - Wikipedia Commons

has changed.  The Afghan “war” strategy is currently one of nation-building, and it is one that has, in my opinion, little chance of success.  The public increasingly agrees.  Nobody seems to know what “winning” would even look like.  We are not going to turn these warring, semi-literate tribesmen into anything really stable, especially when the so-called Afghan government is corrupt to the core.

al Qaeda and the Taliban are strengthening rather than weakening.  This is not because we can’t defeat them,

Mujahideen in Asmar, Afghanistan

Image via Wikipedia

but because we can’t FIND them. This is guerilla warfare and the enemy doesn’t wear uniforms.  Islam is growing while Christianity, at least in the First World countries, is in decline.  Further, Islamic terrorists’ recruiting is aided by vast numbers of poorly-educated Muslims providing personnel for suicide bombing and cannon fodder.

We can not pull out of Afghanistan abruptly, but we need a strategy that leads to getting out and doing the job better.  I have been wracking my brain about how to approach this Gordian Knot of a problem.  How about this?  Why can’t we approach the problem with specialized units authorized to find and assassinate the heads of terrorist schools and organizations instead of trying to rebuild Afghanistan, Yemen, Sudan, Ethiopia, etc., etc.??????

Coincidentally, tonight’s (8/1/2010) CBS’s 60 Minutes had a feature showing that the CIA has already had early success with this kind of strategy.  Cut off the monster’s head and it will die.  Then maybe we can stop trying to kill flies with a sledgehammer.

About Jim Wheeler

U. S. Naval Academy, BS, Engineering, 1959; Naval line officer and submariner, 1959 -1981, Commander, USN; The George Washington U., MSA, Management Eng.; Aerospace Engineer, 1981-1999; Resident Gadfly, 1999 - present. Political affiliation: Democratic.
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9 Responses to Way, Way Too Much

  1. Duane Graham says:

    First, I appreciate the fact that you sacrificed family time to serve your country. I cannot even imagine doing such a thing, when my children were of comparable age. Thanks for your service, my friend.
    Second, the war in Afghanistan has no acceptable solution. That much is clear to everyone this side of Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh. In one sense, I admire Obama’s willingness to give the generals a chance to accomplish something meaningful, but in another sense, it seems pointless to go on with their strategy. As I have said previously, I am willing (as a non-participant, which isn’t worth much, is it?) to give the president a chance to make his (?) strategy work, but it appears that in July of next year, if significant and visible improvement isn’t made, even Obama will be willing to try something new, probably something along the lines of what you propose or something like the “Biden-George Will” strategy.
    I’m afraid, as much as I hate to admit it, that politics plays at least a small role in this unfortunate drama. It would be nice if Obama could get to the point where he could, without thunderous criticism from the right, declare that the problems associated with the prosecution of the “war” in Afghanistan were hopelessly intractable, short of waging a massive military assault and eventual occupation of the entire country for God knows how long. But, alas, that isn’t the reality.
    I’m confident, though, that Obama isn’t the kind of man (like Lyndon Johnson) who will prosecute the war just to save face, either for himself or his country. In other words, I don’t think this will be Obama’s Vietnam. In the mean time, let’s hope there is some kind of breakthrough.


  2. ansonburlingame says:


    You address two major issues, the first is deployment lengths and frequencies and the second, how to win in Afghanistan. I comment only on the deployment issue herein based on first hand, personal experience.

    I went directly from college to nuclear training then the submarine force. Our class was the first one to do so and it was driven by the need to mann new submarines building at an accelerated rate.

    In the training pipeline I worked 14 hour days, 7 days a week with an occassional but infrequent day off. Once (18 months later) I entered the fleet our deployment “cycle” was designed to give us 50% of “time” in our homeport (where we could “relax) with a 1 in 3 duty rotation (as compared to a 24/7 rotation while at sea).

    For the next 20 years I served in such a “cycle” even when assigned to “shore” duty on a submarine staff where I went to sea for short periods on assigned ships. I was away from home some 30% of the time during that one tour.

    Two major personal “stressors” occured throughout those 20 years. When “on duty” the demands for excellence were unrelenting. Time was hardly ever your own. And the deployment cycle was unrelenting as well. I could set my watch observing my family’s “moods” as the next deployment time came closer. These “stressors” caused the numbers of junior officers and enlisted men leaving the Navy after one tour to skyrocket. By the late sixties/early seventies we were in danger of tying ships to the pier because they could not be manned adequately, particularly with mid-grade officers and men.

    The solution in Vietnam was the draft and in the submarine force money, called nuclear bonuses. My class/officer year group was the first to receive a bonus to remain in the Navy beyond the obligated 4 years. It worked and submarines continued going to sea on mind numbing and rigorous deployments throughout the Cold War.

    One other note. In those 20 years or so of “sea duty” I NEVER once saw an officer or enlisted man miss a deployment for reasons of mental health. People with such problems were “weeded out” during the initial training cycle before they ever showed up on a ship. Now look at what happens today for mental health reasons. Then ask yourself why that is the case.

    The answer I believe is a societal one not unique to the military. But that is a whole blog or even book to analyze.

    No doubt the men and women serving in the field or fleet today are of the same caliber as those with whom I served 30+ years ago. But what about the ones that do not serve in field or fleet or leave prematurely for reasons that were rare or non-existent years ago?



  3. ansonburlingame says:

    To both,

    Now I reply to the Afghanistan part of the above blog as well as Duane’s thoughtful comments.

    My only objection to Duane’s point is waiting until July 2011 to do something differently. We continue to struggle in Afghanistan, mightily with an ever increasing casualty rate. All of the troops requested last year are now in place. But what if anything (other than more troops) has changed “on the ground” or battlefield?

    I don’t know for sure but sense that Special Operation intensity has stepped up. Good! That is a great and probably the only way to “cut the heads off the leadership”. I certainly would not wait for a “lucky” bomb guided or not to do that job.

    But you don’t need an extra 30,000 soldiers to fight a special ops war. Yes, you need secure bases in country but we have always had that.

    So what exactly are 100,000 or so troops doing other than guarding bases and “eating snakes in the field” (sepcops)? I honestly don’t know other than artillery men are not shooting much artillery.

    Petraeus broke new ground in Iraq by getting troops out of strongholds and putting them on the streets on a semi-permanent basis. I don’t know what their ROE were in Iraq but do not recall an escalation in casualties during the “surge”. It was really a redeployment of in country assets to perform a different mission in Iraq. Is that going on in Afghanistan now? I don’t know. I hope so.

    I still give Obama great credit for “trying” last fall. He spent huge political capital in doing so. I doubt that it is politically possible to stand tall and say, “one more change now”. The left will go crazy and/or the right will only yell cut and run.

    Bob Woodward is coming out with a new book in Sept ’10 related to Afghanistan and Obama, I think. Unless a “secret (new) strategy” is now in place with Petraeus now in the lead, we’ll never know for sure for several months or even a year.

    One other point for Duane. Please keep your pronouns straight. Is what we are doing in Afghanistan “their” strategy (meaning the military) or “his” strategy (meaning the Commander in Chief). I prefer the all encompassing “our” because it is in fact what we the people are permitting to be done, like it or not.



    • Duane Graham says:


      I made the simple point that I am willing to allow time for the generals’ strategy to “work.” Of course, it is “ours” in the sense that it is done in our name, but the strategy most assuredly was not devised by any civilian, including the President. It is a military strategy through and through, and it is in that sense that I use the word “their.”



  4. Jim Wheeler says:

    To both,

    Anson, despite the intense stress of the19 month period I mentioned in my post, my family separations appear to be quantitatively less than your’s. What you did, in my opinion, required near-Jesuit- style commitment to the job. Rickover was expert and successful in culling the ranks for people such as yourself who would not buckle under that kind of stress.

    Anson’s service and mine were during the Cold War, different from today’s elusive, ever-shifting and uncertain threat. As I mentioned in the post above, both the nature of the “war” and the composition of the military have changed.

    To both: I was amused to see an op-ed letter in today’s Globe suggesting the re-instatement of the draft. I have to think it was written tongue-in-cheek. There is no way the American public would go for it of course, but I think the mere mention of it reinforces my point that we are trying to use an old strategy on a new enemy – you know, the old adage about always fighting the LAST war.

    If you did not see the 60 Minutes piece, I strongly recommend it. I found it inspiring. You can find it here (click on the title, Out of the Shadows):




  5. ansonburlingame says:


    Believe me, IF what you said was true I would be very pleased. A President MUST establish national objectives (like Unconditional Surrender in WWII) He should then “get out of the way” and let the military fight the war with occssional political input. For darn sure, ROE on the battlefield are NOT civilian perogatives, in my view.

    The problem in Vietnam and today, and almost all times in between (MAYBE the Gulf War One being on exception) civilian leadership has “tinkered”. If you think the Ambassador didn’t try to direct things on the ground and daily in Afghanistan or the Chairman of NSC council was not in the loop on battlefield decisions and many other examples of such “tinkering”, then we have strong disagrement right out of the gate.

    So in fairness to the “generals” I would not imply that it was “their” strategy alone.

    Here is another example, not related to the battlefield in any way. On my class web site a “hot” debate over current CNO initiatives to promote diversity is underway. Many of my classmates feel his efforts are wrong, dead wrong and are driven by his (the CNO’s) desire to be politically correct.

    A small few defend the CNO’s actions as reasonable.

    My question is not the correctness in some absolute sense of the CNO’s actions but rather WHY he is doing what he is doing, some of which sounds egregious at least on the surface.

    In essence that same question relates to McChrystal’s action in Afghanistan as well as the now former Supt. at USNA about whom I blogged recently (Another Senior Officer in Trouble).

    Is the military command structure doing what is the “next right thing” base solely on their professional experience, intelligence, etc? Or is it an attempt to “please the boss” such that they can continue their careers.

    When debates occur about how we fight a war or train future military leaders, those are important issues, in my view.



  6. Jim Wheeler says:

    To both,

    I strongly agree with you, Anson, in your comment above, and I would further add that the issue of military control, which is split into strategy and tactics, is complex and interesting to say the least.

    Abe Lincoln, from all that I have read, was a better tactician than most of his generals – until he found U. S. Grant. Lyndon Johnson and his whiz-kid SecDef McNamara tried to run not just strategy but tactics from the oval office. What a horrible fiasco that was!

    But here is the larger issue. “War” is no longer what it was in 1861 nor in 1968. As Anson says, the civilian leadership should set goals, approve strategy and then get out of the way. The temptation of the top brass and the civilian heads to interfere in both on-going strategy and tactics has always been strong, but now more than ever.

    Consider this: the NSC, including of course the president, the SecDef and various intelligence heads get regular briefings that, because of modern technology and satellites, are up to date almost to the hour or better, AND, the military is just about the only thing the president and the others can actually CONTROL in real time. Can’t do that with the economy. Can’t do that with the environment. Can’t do that with legislation. No, the only button on the desk in the Oval Office that can be pushed to produce an IMMEDIATE result is the MILITARY button. The president says, “jump”, and the only thing he hears from that button is, “how high?”. No wonder they can’t leave it alone. It wouldn’t surprise me if they watch live feeds from Predator Drones during meetings.

    Actually, I believe Obama has shown good restraint compared with many of his predecessors.

    All this, in my opinion, supports my plea that we need a completely fresh look at the overall strategy against al Qaeda and the Taliban.



  7. ansonburlingame says:

    I love it. Live feeds from Predator drones in the White House. I bet it is TRUE!

    One reason President Obama may have a slightly more hands off approach, personally, is that he has zero experience, personally in military matters. I am still amazed the he does not articulate the difference between a corpsman and a dead person.

    But even if HE is hands off, you can bet that his handlers are not. And who do you think the President really listens to, someone that he may have considered a “baby killer” in the past or someone with his progressive, “human” agenda?



  8. Thank you Jim and Anson for your service. We all owe you.


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