The Perfect Soldier: Special Operations, Commandos, and the Future of Us Warfare by James F. Dunnigan
More Books by James Dunnigan
Dirty Little Secrets
Ruining the Reserves
by James Dunnigan
November 27, 2002
Since the late 19th century, the use of trained troops from "the reserves" (soldiers who are civilians most of the time, usually 11 months a year) have formed the bulk of the soldiers in many countries. Even though most nations have dropped conscription, they still recruit volunteers to join the reserves. The appeal of this is extra money and, well, something different to do. Patriotism, help with college tuition and the chance for a little adventure also play a part. But a major negative is getting called up for months of active duty too often. This has become a growing problem in the United States, and Israel. America has 1.1 million men and women in it's reserves (half of which are the State controlled, in peacetime, National Guard.) During the 1991 Gulf War, a quarter million reserves were called up. Throughout the 1990s, tens of thousands were called up for peacekeeping duty in the Balkans and, since September 11, 2001, 50-70,000 have been on active duty at any one time. This is having a negative effect on recruiting new reserve troops, and getting existing ones to reenlist.
A further problem is the changes in the 1980s which put most of the combat support jobs into the reserves, and moved more combat jobs into the active forces. In theory, this was an excellent plan. Combat jobs require continuous training for the troops to attain top effectiveness. Most of the combat support jobs are similar to civilian work. In a major war, by calling up the reserves, you get a larger army with well trained combat troops and plenty of combat support units (especially supply, maintenance and intelligence) that don't have much to do in peacetime.
But since the end of the Cold War, the military has been used only in peacekeeping and small wars. So the Department of Defense is proposing moving more of the combat support jobs back to the active forces. While the proposal didn't say so, it probably also means a shrinking of the reserves. This would help solve the recruiting and retention (keeping the troops in service) problems in the reserves. It also helps recruiting for the active forces, as it is easier to get people to enlist for combat support jobs. Troops with this kind of training (computers, administration, vehicle maintenance) have an easier time using their military experience to get a good civilian job. This is not the case with infantrymen or artillery crews.
The retention problem can get a lot worse than it is now. Israel, which still has conscription, maintains an active duty force of 186,500 troops, and 445,000 reservists. The two year uprising of the Palestinians has caused the same problems with reservists as the United States is experiencing. But in Israel, you don't have a choice about joining the reserves, or reenlisting. By law, once you are in, you are in until you are physically unable to serve. Or until you desert. As in America, multiple call ups make it difficult for reservists to hold on to their civilian jobs. These men (most of the Israeli reservists are men) usually have families to take care of. Many reservists are being called on to serve several months a year. Those who do not, or feel they cannot (for financial reasons) serve, and don't show up, are deserters. While the number of deserters in the Israeli armed forces is only 2,616 (one out of every 243 active and reserve soldiers,) that is up 40 percent over last year. And the rate will go up as long as the war with the Palestinians continues.
This is not the first time the Israelis had this problem During their last war, the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, there was also an increase in desertions, and psychological problems, among reservists. The similar trends in Israel and America should serve as a warning for those who think the reserve system will work well in anything short of total war. The reserve system will survive under these conditions, but those who run it will have to cope with these problems.