Merchant of Death
Money, Guns, Planes, and the Man Who Makes War Possible

Blood from Stones

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A Long-Term Problem in Need of Immediate Remedy
A story in today's Washington Post mirrors much of what I have heard in recent discussions with military groups, focusing on a problem that will have long-term implications for fighting hot wars, large and small, in the near future.

It is the crisis caused by the exodus of the middle cadre of the officer corps, the captains, majors and LTCs who simply are worn out by the military rotations in Iraq and Afghanistan, see no relief in sight and are dealing with an increasing level of equipment failure and other signs of material fatigue. Not to mention family lives that are sinking.

These are the men and women with combat experience, training and the leadership qualities that will be fighting hot wars, large and small, mostly against radical Islamists, for years to come.

The military has invested tens of thousands of dollars in their training and deployments. They are the ones learning lessons in the current forms of combat, lessons that must be learned and taught in years ahead. The experience is vital, given my baseline supposition that we will be fighting small-scale wars in faraway places on a regular basis. The Gulf of Guinea? Horn of Africa? the Stans (including Pakistan)? All are areas where al Qaeda and other radical Islamist groups have vowed to open new fronts in a long war.

They are not leaving for lack of patriotism or lack of respect for the military, and many I have spoken to planned on making the military a 30-year career.

They feel they cannot do so and stay alive, keep their families together and count on the medical care and technical support they feel is vital to do their jobs.

As the article notes, the Army alone faces a shortage of more than 6,000 captains and majors needed to boost the force by 65,000 soldiers by 2010, and it recently began offering unprecedented bonuses of up to $35,000 and other incentives.

That is a large number, and one needs to take into account the need to retain them past that level to maintain a fighting force that is experienced, well-led and capable. Add in the other services, and the size of the problem is obvious. Losing these people in droves is a national crisis.

The cash bonuses are a start, but it is not likely to be enough. Adm. Michael Mullen, the new chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, is highly aware of the size and severity of the problem.

"This is the most combat-hardened force we've had in our history. . . . How do I hang on to all of that combat experience?" he said to the captains. "I don't want to lose that."

_A Vietnam veteran, Mullen vowed to do everything in his power to keep the all-volunteer force from breaking. "I watched the military break in the 1970s," he said. "I'm never going to let that happen again."_

It is not clear what his plan is, but if it is not successful, our national security will be severely impaired.

A first step, which Mullen has taken, is to listen to the men and women in uniform, and take their concerns seriously. I don't know what a long-term, successful strategy for keeping these folks is, but I do know we better find one soon.

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