Overstretched Forces Concern US Officers

The US military is "severely strained" by two large-scale occupations in the Middle East, other troop deployments, and problems recruiting, according to a new survey of military officers published by Foreign Policy magazine and the centrist think-tank Center for a New American Strategy.

"They see a force stretched dangerously thin and a country ill-prepared for the next fight," said the report, "The US Military Index," which polled 3,400 current and former high-level military officers.

Sixty percent of the officers surveyed said that the military is weaker now than it was five years ago, often citing the number of troops deployed to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"We ought to pay more attention to quality," said retired Lt. General Gregory Newbold, who retired from the Joint Chiefs of Staff in part over objections to the invasion of Iraq, at a panel during a conference to release the data.

From Republican presidential hopeful Sen. John McCain to President George W. Bush, politicians regularly speak on the military from a position of authority. They know, they contend, that despite the two ongoing wars, the US is ready to deal with new threats militarily if need be.

"I’m sorry to tell you, there’s going to be other wars," said McCain at a campaign stop last month. "We will never surrender but there will be other wars."

But the officers surveyed implied that military options against future threats may not be – as politicians from across the spectrum have intimated – "on the table."

"Asked whether it was reasonable or unreasonable to expect the US military to successfully wage another war at this time," said the report, "80 percent of the officers say that it is unreasonable."

When asked to grade the preparedness of the military to deal with the threat of Iran – on which McCain’s rhetoric has been especially hawkish – respondents gave an average score of 4.5 on a scale of 1 to 10 with 10 representing fully prepared.

The difference in which civilian and military leadership are viewed also made its way into the survey results. The level of confidence in the presidency among officers averaged just 5.5 out of 10, with 16 percent having "no confidence at all in the president."

The US Congress scored lowest of the institutions that the survey referred with an average score of just 2.7.

The low regard for politicians could arise from the officers’ notion that elected officials know little about the workings of military – 66 percent of officers responded that elected leaders are "either somewhat or very uninformed about the US military."

Those views are likely informed by survey respondents’ opinions about the way the civilian leadership handled the war in Iraq in the immediate aftermath of the fall of Saddam Hussein. Nearly three quarters of the officers said that the goals of the civilian leadership for the military were "unreasonable.”

Furthermore, it appears that many officers find that the efforts of US forces have sometimes been counterproductive. Asked what country had gained the "greatest strategic advantage" from the war in Iraq, 37 percent said Iran while 22 percent answered China. Just one in five of the officers answered that the US had gained the most.

Though many of the results of the survey were negative, the officers were not pessimistic about the forces themselves. 64 percent of the officers said that they believe morale is high in the military, and nearly 9 in 10 believe that the "surge" escalation was having a positive effect on the war effort.

"The Army is not broken," said Major Robert Scales. Fifty-six percent of those polled agreed, though nearly 90 percent said that the war in Iraq has "stretched the US military dangerously thin," with just over half agreeing strongly.

A problem for the military, said Scales, could arise if the forces become "hollowed out" as they were after the Vietnam War. Degraded equipment and a loss of some of the fighting force – particularly mid-level officers – could adversely affect the future health of the military.

Thirty-eight percent of the officers advocated increasing the total number of US ground forces to face future challenges, and the same percentage called for the reinstatement of the draft.

By far the most common answer to the question of how to best win the "Global War on Terror" was to improve intelligence – which nearly three quarters of the officers supported. Thirty-eight percent said that the size of Special Operations Forces should be increased.

One of the most interesting splits in survey came on the question of what constitutes torture and whether torture is acceptable as an interrogation method. Prompted with the statement "torture is never acceptable," 53 percent of the officers agreed and 44 disagreed.

On the subject of "waterboarding" – a harsh interrogation technique that simulates drowning – there was also an even split with 46 percent saying "waterboarding" is torture and 43 disagreeing.

The report – a rare public look into the thoughts of the military higher-ups – is one of "the few comprehensive surveys of the US military community to be conducted in the past 50 years.

Author: Ali Gharib

Ali Gharib writes for Inter Press Service.