Sen. Jim Webb is a serious guy. A decorated Vietnam veteran, a Navy Secretary in the Reagan Defense Department, the Virginia Democrat is also the father of a veteran of the conflict in Iraq. And Mr. Webb is seriously opposed to the U.S. military campaign there. So when he decides to try to end that campaign, it would be advisable to take him and his legislative initiatives, well, seriously.
That is particularly true given the seemingly unobjectionable nature of an amendment he proposed earlier this year and is expected to offer anew this week. It would afford troops who have been pulling repeated, exhausting and dangerous combat tours guaranteed respite between deployments. To add to its appeal, the Webb Amendment affords the president the latitude to waive its requirements in response to "an operational emergency posing a threat to the vital national security interests of the United States." For these reasons, those in the know think it may be able to command the 60 votes needed to cut off debate.
Unfortunately, the Webb requirement is so fraught with logistical and administrative problems that it would be devastating for the very people it is intended to help — the troops and those responsible for safely leading and successfully managing them in time of war. As one of the most thoughtful military strategists of our time, Fred Kagan, put it recently in National Review Online:
"[The original Webb amendment] specified not only that a particular unit had to spend basically a day at home for every day it spent deployed, but that every member of the armed forces had to receive such 'dwell time,' as the period between deployments is called. The problem is that when a unit returns from a deployment, its personnel are often reassigned to other units and other assignments. Brigades don't stay together forever. So this amendment would actually require the Army and Marine Corps staffs to keep track of how long every individual service member had spent in either Iraq or Afghanistan, how long they had been at home, how long the unit that they were now in had spent deployed, and how long it had been home, and somehow find units to deploy that had been home for the specified time and all of whose personnel had also been home for the required period.
"Since that would be patently absurd, the alternative would be to pull people out of units that were going to deploy if those individuals did not have enough 'dwell time,' breaking up leadership and soldier teams the formation of which is the express purpose of the Army and Marine training system. Requiring the president to issue a certification to Congress to waive this requirement for every individual soldier who might be affected is even more absurd."
Now, everyone should be sensitive to the needs of U.S. servicemen and -women. Unquestionably, they and their loved ones are bearing a disproportionate burden in this War for the Free World. It is wearing them out, threatening to break an all-volunteer force and to render wholly unsustainable its combat equipment.
This reality is, of course, contributing to actions by the Commander-in-Chief at the recommendation of Gen. David Petraeus to begin withdrawing 5 brigades from Iraq before it may actually be prudent to do so. Indeed, under present circumstances, force structure limitations are another form of "artificial deadline." Despite talk about conditions on the ground determining the number of troops in Iraq, the enemy knows that we may not be able to sustain the fight.
Another consideration is that we may need U.S. forces for fights elsewhere. Indeed, the probability of conflict with Iran is growing as we fail to take steps that might make unnecessary the use of the military against the regime in Tehran — notably, by depriving it of money (for example, via "terror-free investing") and legitimacy (through the use of Reagan-style political warfare techniques). This prospect is made likelier by the increasing offensive capability of Iran, thanks in no small measure to help provided by Russia, China and North Korea.
Legislators legitimately troubled about these facts have a responsibility not to make matters worse by adopting the Webb Amendment. If they wish to help, rather than hurt, our national security, they need to address not the symptoms but the cause of our present difficulties: We need a larger military.
It was predictable — and predicted by the Center for Security Policy — during the early 1990s that the ill-advised desire to cash in the so-called "peace dividend" would inevitably bring us to such a pass. As with similar draw-downs in the past, we wound up cashiering force-structure we need to deter aggression against us or our interests and to contend with its perpetrators.
The costs of rectifying this mistake are huge. But they will be vastly larger if we wait to increase the size of our Army and Marine Corps under far worse circumstances down the road. In the latter case, one such unwanted cost may be the need for conscription to meet our military requirements.
If we truly desire more rest for our troops and time with their families amidst a global war, without sacrificing the nation's security — and who doesn't? — we must achieve those objectives in ways that won't hamstring the Pentagon. We must instead use all appropriate techniques to minimize the tasks assigned to America's military and to assure it is properly sized and equipped for those it will have to perform, both today and tomorrow.