June 23, 2006:
Score another one for the Internet. The U.S. Army is now planning on shorter combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, largely because of the Internet buzz from troops who had been in touch with marines and air force personnel who already enjoy 6-7 month tours.
This issue has come up before. Two years ago the army considered, and decided against reducing 12 month tour of duty in places like Afghanistan and Iraq, to six or seven months. Then, and now, there were two main reasons for not having shorter tours. First, the army units are the most heavily involved in reconstruction and peacekeeping. This involves direct contact with locals and it takes time to build relationships. New units coming in take a month or so to get tight with the local relationships the units before them had built up, and are passing on. So if you cut the tour to six months, you have less time in country with all your local connections tight.
The second problem has to do with the special training units go through before they are sent overseas. This would be the same for a twelve or six month tour. Actually, National Guard and reserve units go through more training than active duty troops, and would suffer even more from the shorter tours.
Over the last two years, many soldiers and marines (both officers and enlisted) have been comparing notes. Not just via email, but often face-to-face while in Iraq or back in the states. The Internet has made it easier for soldiers and marines to get connected. Another factor is the greater respect the marines have for soldiers. Since World War II, the marines saw themselves as elite volunteers, obviously superior to all those reluctant draftees in the army. There was some truth to this, but that has changed since the army went all volunteer in the 1970s, and especially since the army developed exceptional new training methods two decades ago. First in the 1991 Gulf War, than in Afghanistan and Iraq, the marines could see that the soldiers were not just volunteers, but pretty professional and bad ass. This made it easier for troops from the two services to compare their experiences and exchange combat tips. One of the exchanges involved the seven month and twelve month tours. Bottom line was that, while there were hassles with the shorter tour, it was much better in the mental health, and domestic tranquility departments. Even if soldiers and marines did the same number of months in Iraq, the consensus was that it was earlier to handle seven months at a time. Wives and kids liked it better as well, which is a big deal since over half the troops are married. A third factor has to do with the "no booze" policy in combat zones. While many guys can unwind with Xbox and a Marlboro, others really need a few beers. Twelve months, even if broken up by one or two short vacations, is a long time to go without an occasional drink.
The unofficial announcement indicated that, unlike the marines, soldiers doing shorter tours would get to spend more time at their home base (up to two years) between trips overseas. Marines often spend less than a year at home before heading out for another dose of combat, or months serving on an amphibious ship.