In recent weeks several events have moved me to think about the military members of our community. One, of course, was the Memorial Day holiday, a day set aside to fly the flag and remember those who gave their lives to protect our nation and way of life.
The military is a vital part of our South Sound region. There is Joint Base Lewis McChord, with its over 44,000 soldiers and airmen. And, of course, a good number of our friends and neighbors serve in the Washington National Guard.
Also I was provoked to think about 30,000 or more soldiers at JBLM by a letter to the editor published last month in The Olympian. The letter, written by Bill Wiley of Rochester, touched on declining force strength in the Army and questioned how America could meet its many enemies with declining troop numbers.
You know, our military is really good at reporting numbers. They are gathered by the Defense Manpower Data Center at the U.S. Department of Defense and with a little effort I found them (historyinpieces.com/research/us-military- personnel-1954- 2014). What I learned was really interesting and worth sharing.
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The peak numbers for Army personnel since the Korean War was about 1.5 million, during the Vietnam War. And, as some may remember, the military draft was needed to recruit and sustain these numbers. Starting in 1973, the Department of Defense announced the creation of an all-volunteer armed forces, ending the need for the draft.
Substantial resistance to the Vietnam War and the draft that supported it lead to this 1973 decision. All that controversy was over 40 years ago and many have no memory of those days.
My memory was rekindled by the recent death of Muhammad Ali. Part of the many reflections of Ali’s career always included his draft and refusal of military service.
Ali was one of those larger-than- life people who influenced much, even after his death. His passing gave me a chance to talk with my son, Aaron, about those days long ago when I was required to carry my draft card at all times and, as part of college, required to take two years of military training.
Post-Vietnam War (and post-draft) the peak Army force strength was around 750,000 annually until 1991. From 1996 through 2005, the Army force strength was under 500,000 each year.
Politically this decline was the “end of the Cold War” dividend and helped lead to a balanced federal budget in the late 1990’s.
I suspect you are now thinking something like, “that’s interesting, but so what?” Well, as Mr. Riley implied in his letter, we’re in the middle of a presidential election and, as many have noted before me, elections have consequences. For example, Army force strength is an unrecognized but important element of the greatest presidential blunder in the past few decades, the decision by the United States in 2003 to invade and conqueror Iraq. What kept Iraq stable under Saddam Hussein’s rule was a 400,000-man army. This Iraqi force kept violence and dissent controlled (and sent paychecks into 400,000 households). When the Bush-Cheney administration disbanded that army, it left a control void.
An occupation force to fill this void would have required deployment of perhaps 300,000 troops.
It was not deployed (and could not be deployed), and the result is the chaos and factionalism that continues in Iraq to this day.
That’s where Army force strength should come into our understanding. In 2003 we were at war in Afghanistan, and military forces also were deployed to other commitments (Korea, Eastern Europe, etc.). The Army’s force strength in 2003 was 499,000; to fight two wars and meet those other commitments, the Bush administration had to activate multiple units of the National Guard.
There was no way, without reinstituting the draft, that we could have accomplished a successful 300,000-man occupation of Iraq.
Now it’s 2016, another presidential election year, and presidential candidates are talking freely and casually about our military. We need to be thoughtful and cautious. They’re talking about the lives and futures our friends and neighbors at JBLM and in the Washington National Guard.
George Walter is the Nisqually Indian Tribe’s environmental program manager, and is a member of The Olympian’s 2016 Board of Contributors. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org