Even as the Iraq war has dragged on, offering no foreseeable end, top Pentagon officials have maintained that the nation's Army is fit enough and big enough to fight it. But last week the military's taut tendons--at the breaking point for better than a year--could be heard painfully snapping from the Pentagon to the Sunni triangle. First came a warning from the head of the Army Reserve that those troops are "rapidly degenerating into a broken force." Then Army officials, speaking privately, conceded that a long-standing policy limiting deployments of National Guard and Army Reserve forces is likely to be scrapped. That's going to make the already difficult job of recruiting--and retaining--such part-time soldiers even tougher. Finally, they added, the continuing instability in Iraq will probably force the Army to make permanent what was supposed to be a temporary addition of 30,000 troops to the active-duty force.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld--who has long opposed a permanent hike in the Army's 500,000-strong active-duty force--made himself scarce as these troubling indicators surfaced. The Defense chief has argued that retooling the Army--turning cooks and accountants into trigger pullers and hiring contractors to perform such civilian tasks, among other steps--should generate efficiencies that would ease the strain on the Army without having to boost its size. But other Pentagon officials doubt that such measures will suffice. "We're growing increasingly concerned about the health of the force," an Army personnel officer says. "These deployments are really beginning to take a toll."
Outside observers agree. "The Army's wheels are going to come off in the next 24 months," Barry McCaffrey, a retired four-star Army general, said last week. "The data are now beginning to come in to support that." McCaffrey said the service needs to add 80,000 troops to ease the strain brought on by the Iraq war. "We are in a period of considerable strategic peril," he said. "And it's because Rumsfeld has dug in his heels and said, 'I cannot retreat from my position.'"
Because of other commitments overseas, in Europe and Eastern Asia, and because the Pentagon is trying to limit Iraq tours to a year, the Army increasingly has had to rely on the National Guard and Army Reserve to help fill the roster of 150,000 troops in Iraq. Those part-time forces represent 40% of the current U.S. troop strength in Iraq and will grow to 50% in coming months. There were about 160,000 National Guard and Army reservists on active duty last week, including 60,000 inside Iraq. In a Dec. 20 memo published in the Baltimore Sun last week, Lieut. General James Helmly, chief of the Army Reserve, warned that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have put in "grave danger" his force's ability to fulfill other Pentagon missions or help grapple with domestic emergencies. "I do not wish to sound alarmist," wrote Helmly, who won a Bronze Star for valor in Vietnam. "I do wish to send a clear, distinctive signal of deepening concern." Helmly's memo split the Pentagon into two camps--those who praised Helmly's candor and courage, and those who found the memo's tone, and its appearance in a newspaper, a little too self-promoting.