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Unusual public discourse on Army

Those of us who live in Western New York have grown accustomed to hearing and reading about dramatic differences in opinions on public policy issues. Most often it involves controversies between unions and office holders, each defending long-held and expected positions. Those of us not directly involved tend to shrug our shoulders and say we've heard all of this before. And they are right. Constant reiteration of the same refrain from both sides of these disputes engenders boredom.

Now, however, we're being subjected to a dispute on the national level involving the security of our nation. In all my many years of deep, abiding interest in national politics, I can't recall a struggle involving the U.S. Army and its strengths and weaknesses. Politics, of course, is involved in this controversy that has now become public.

The debate is over whether the U.S. involvement in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has worn out our Army and its ability to protect the nation in any future entanglements. Voices pro and con are now surfacing publicly.

Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., triggered much of the current debate when he called for an early exit from Iraq, saying that the Army was "broken, worn out" and was feeding the insurgency movement in Iraq by its presence in that nation. A decorated veteran of the Vietnam War, Murtha's words were surprising and were taken seriously by members of both parties.

Those who vehemently disagreed with Murtha, particularly supporters of President Bush, expressed their opinions but then were faced with a scathing report from Andrew Krepinevich, a retired Army officer who had been working under a Pentagon contract.

He in effect endorsed what Murtha had said, noting that the Army could not sustain the pace of troop deployment long enough to defeat the insurgency. He said the Army was overextended and was forced to reduce troop levels in Iraq because of the stress on the Army. He added that if the U.S. acknowledged that factor, it would give encouragement to the enemy and therefore never conceded that was a rationale for troop reduction.

Krepinevich, while conceding that the Army was still a highly effective fighting force, wrote that it is "in a race against time to the demands of war" and warned of a "catastrophic decline in recruitment and reenlistment." He noted that the Army experienced a recruiting slump last year, missing its goal for the first time since 1999.

Krepinevich currently is the executive director of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a nonprofit policy research institute. Unlike Congressman Murtha, he did not call for U.S. forces to leave Iraq now, but he did say that reducing troop levels below 100,000 by the end of the year might be possible. It is a goal he endorses.

The Army now has set even higher monthly recruiting targets for this coming summer, with new financial inducements. It will try to recruit 8,600 to 10,400 soldiers a month by doubling the maximum payment to $40,000 for new active-duty recruits and to $20,000 for reservists. Also, the top re-enlistment bonus for active-duty soldiers will be increased to $90,000, up from $60,000. Its recruitment goals for June and July are 2,500 soldiers higher than for those months last year.

The Krepinevich view of the Army contradicts the evaluation of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who not unexpectedly claims that the Army is probably as strong and capable as it ever has been in history. And Army Secretary Francis Harvey echoed those words, saying that the Army is the best trained, best-equipped and most experienced force the U.S. has had for more than a decade.

Murray B. Light is the former editor of The Buffalo News.

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