The consequences of nine years of war
The U.S. military has been engaged In constant combat In Southwest Asia for nine years, from the first deployment into Afghanistan only weeks after 9/11 to the surge there in August 2010, even as U.S. combat forces withdrew from Iraq.
It is the longest period of sustained combat since Vietnam - but the differences between the two conflicts and the structure of the U.S. military have far-reaching implications for the future.
Vietnam was fought largely by draftees, the vast majority of whom left the service at the end of their required term; all U.S. warfighters in Southwest Asia are volunteers in a professional military. And while Vietnam was the only conflict in U.S. history that did not involve extensive use of the National Guard and Reserves, those elements have provided roughly half the combat troops deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.
While many veterans of World War II served two or more successive years in theater, in a war involving a far larger number of soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines, they, too, largely returned to civilian life as the postwar military was significantly downsized.
The Army estimates more than 55 percent of today's active, Guard, and Reserve members have been deployed into combat at least once. The percentage for the Marine Corps is even higher, while the Navy and Air Force, with a far less active role in this conflict after the first two years, have lower rates, with the exception of certain specialties, such as special operations and medical.
The result is a corps of officers and non-commissioned officers (NCOs) - not only active duty, but Guard and Reserve as well - who will often carry extensive, multiple tour, combat experience into their future assignments, from training to combat, acquisitions and program management to senior leadership and planning. For at least the next decade, more than any other in U.S. history, the military - especially the Army and Marine Corps - will be led by battle-hardened, combat-experienced warfighters.
"For the first time, you have an all-volunteer force that has been able to sustain itself and bring back combat experience - and not just in terms of counterinsurgency [COIN]," said John Grady, spokesman for the Association of the U.S. Army (AUSA) and an Air Force Vietnam veteran. "As the Army withdraws from Southwest Asia, you will be able to put even more into their training beyond COIN and civil military affairs and into the full spectrum of operations in terms of major ground combat."
"About the only combat experience [resident in the military] prior to this was Grenada, Panama, the first Gulf War, and Somalia, which was quite different from the first three. There may have been some special forces working with different countries involving insurgencies, such as the Philippines and in Central America. But aside from that, it was basically garrison duty and forward deployment in Korea and Europe. Even the Balkans, in the mid-1990s, was not combat but more like peace enforcement, keeping the parties separated to allow the establishment of some type of civil order under U.N. supervision."
In addition to moving from the draft to an all-volunteer force - now considered the permanent model for U.S. force projection in the future - the Army also changed from sending individual replacements, as was done in most previous wars, to units replacing units.
"So you now have people moving into leadership roles who have experienced combat and understand the value of unit cohesion, partly as a result of the replacement policy. They also know they need to learn as much as possible in advance of any future operations," Grady added. "One thing picked up early was not just a unit being deployed contacting the unit they are replacing to better understand the major players and what is happening, but also host nation district and local level officials with whom they would be working for the next year.
"There is a greater understanding about the need for interagency cooperation and how a military commander works with both U.S. and host country civil authorities. These are not just military operations, but have a major civil component, involving everyone from the State Department and Agriculture to the Drug Enforcement Agency, FBI, and CIA. For the first time in the U.S. military, you have an understanding, at both the officer and NCO level, that this is critically important to the success of any mission."
Army Chief of Staff Gen. George W. Casey, Jr. has warned that the nation is facing an undetermined period of "persistent conflict," even as the military struggles to deal with the cumulative effects of nine years of combat and how those will manifest themselves among both warfighters and their families.
"We're building an Army that is a versatile mix of tailorable and networked organizations operating on a rotational cycle, to provide a sustained flow of trained and ready forces for full spectrum operations
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