In yet another Band-Aid solution to our troop shortage, Defense Secretary Gates announced yesterday that soldiers will be serving 15-month tours in Iraq, instead of just one year.
First and foremost, this policy will deal a tremendous blow to our active-duty soldiers and their families, who have already sacrificed so much in this war. No matter how you cut it, 15 months is an excruciatingly long time to be away from one's spouse and children. It means you miss some occasions - like your child's birthday, or Christmas -- for two years in a row.
These extensions are also a terrible hit on our military readiness. Secretary Gates, in his briefing yesterday, lauded the troops and their families for their commitment and sacrifice. But courage and commitment aren't replacements for training and rest. They are also no replacement for the missing equipment that we need, both in Iraq and here at home to respond to national disasters.
We're using our military to the point of exhaustion. 31 of the 44 Army brigades have served two or more tours in Iraq or Afghanistan. The Army is losing West Point graduates at a record rate. Four National Guard brigades that already served a tour in Iraq are being sent back; others are getting extended. There's one brigade from Minnesota that's already done 12 months in Iraq and is going to be extended for another four months now - 16 months total.
To use a baseball analogy, sending National Guard units back to Iraq this fast is like asking your star pitcher, who just pitched a complete game, to go back on the mound with only one day's rest to pitch again. You can do it, but it's just plain stupid. The pitcher's performance will suffer significantly, he will jeopardize the team's chances to win, and his arm will practically fall off.
Secretary Gates has promised that these longer tours will ensure troops get a full year at home between deployments. But the Pentagon has a record of breaking the promises made to our troops - sending troops to Iraq even after their contracts are up, calling up troops who've spent years as civilians, and failing to provide adequate care to the wounded at Walter Reed. So what is to stop the Department of Defense from breaking this promise too?
The current force level in Iraq is unsustainable, and is breaking the back of our armed forces. Like so many other choices made by the Bush Administration during this war, extending Army tours to 15 months is merely a half-measure move to cover up the much larger problem of a poorly planned war with an unprecedented operational tempo and a military structure that is simply too small to fight two protracted wars for five years.
The President's decision to over-commit military resources to the war in Iraq has depleted our strategic reserves and left America's back door wide open. As General Barry McCaffrey wisely warned earlier this week, "We are in a position of enormous strategic peril." I hope the President is listening.