Winning: After The War Is Over

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June 23, 2008:  U.S. Army leaders don't have much time to celebrate their recent victory in Iraq, as they scramble to figure out what to prepare for next. By the end of July, the Iraq force will have been reduced from 20 combat brigades, to fifteen. Another five brigades may move in the next year or so.

 

The army brass are more concerned with morale, rather than readiness or the next war, at the moment. The troops who won the battles in Iraq did it by spending more time under fire, on average, than did their predecessors in Vietnam, Korea or World War II. That takes its toll psychologically.  Mass media coverage of  PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) rarely gets it right. PTSD is something not every combat veteran gets, and many of those that get it, recover. The military has known about this for over sixty years, but the media is still stuck in the same stories they invented in the late 1940s, as the unpleasant effects of World War II PTSD appeared. Apparently, breathless stories of "deranged combat veterans running amok" never get old for journalists.

 

This time around, the army wants to hang on to as many of those combat veterans as possible.  Two or three tours in Iraq, for a combat soldier, produces the kind of experience you can get nowhere else. It creates an edge in future battles that can make an enormous difference. To avoid losing a lot of these guys, the army wants to keep troops with PTSD symptoms out of action for two or three years. In addition, new treatments have been developed, and old ones improved. But it will be a few years before the army knows how many PTSD victims they will have lost for good. Many marginal cases can just be moved to a non-combat job, and finish out their careers with less stress. But the hardest hit will get medical discharges.

 

And then there's the issue of where the next battlefield will be. No matter who wins the upcoming presidential election, more peacekeeping is likely. Larger scale ground combat is less likely. North Korea and Iran may be future battlefield foes, but only if they choose to be. North Korea is an economic mess at the moment, and its armed forces are falling apart. Iran has a ramshackle military of questionable capability.  There is little enthusiasm inside Iran for invading anyone. Most Iranians, like most North Koreans, just want to get rid of their current rulers and live a little better.

 

Much is made of China's growing military power, but it's mostly Chinese naval and air power that worries American military commanders. For sixty years, it's been a staple of American military doctrine to "avoid a land war on the Asian mainland." That attitude remains, and any future conflict with China would mainly involve naval and air power.

 

The army would like to get its armor and artillery units back in shape. Because Iraq and Afghanistan are mainly infantry operations, the artillery and armor troops have either been switched to infantry jobs, or doing only a little of what they were trained to do. The infantry, on the other hand, are the best they've been for decades, courtesy of years of combat experience. While the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan was not "conventional," from the infantryman's point of view, a firefight is a firefight, an ambush is an ambush. Getting back in shape for more conventional combat doesn't take long with troops who have been under fire a lot already.

 

 


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