On Meet the Press yesterday we learned that the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Peter Pace USMC says that the armed forces can cope adequately with its impending crisis of personnel and unit "fatigue" by re-training support personnel to perform the duties now done by the infantry.
This means that some of those young folks who were recruited on the basis of a better future through Army training and the experience of a measure of discipline in their lives are going to be re-trained to be an approximation of an infantryman. Mechanics, finance clerks, chaplain’s assistants, truck drivers, artillerymen, etc. The list of possibilities is extensive.
Can this be done? Certainly. Will it produce a force equal in quality to the one we now have? Certainly not.
THE INFANTRY. The "poor bloody infantry," as the British sometimes say. The mission of the infantry is "to close with the enemy and to kill or capture them by fire and maneuver and close combat." Not everyone is "cut out" for that. Some people have the idea that the way people end up in the infantry is that new infantrymen are those who were left over after the Army was finished sifting through the recruited for people who were "trainable" for more complex jobs. Not so! The Army is looking for men who will fit into the kind of social set up that exists in infantry units, live easily in the out-of-doors, and are not easily shocked into trauma by what their duties will expose them to. The process of screening new recruits, of training them and evaluating the results tries to identify the suitable. Life among other infantrymen produces the men you see on television at Walter Reed. Most of them want to go back to their company, battalion or regiment. They want that almost as much as they want that missing hand, foot or whatever back.
It can be argued, that all soldiers are basically infantrymen. This sounds good but is not true. All soldiers should be able and willing to fight, but it is one thing to be useful in a fire fight when you must be and another to be someone whose every day job is to be at the center of fire fights.
The marines maintain stoutly that every marine is a rifleman. This is a pretty fable, useful in building "esprit de corps," but just about any seasoned marine officer will tell you (as they have me) that there is a big difference between marine infantry "grunts" and the troops from marine aviation (the air wing). Additionally, the U.S. Marine Corps is part of the Department of the Navy. It is basically a naval landing force and as such receives quite a lot of its support from the U.S. Navy. This means that the percentage of marines who are already infantrymen is higher than in the Army. Pace’s experience of this very different force may have something to do with his willingness to go along with this re-training idea. On the other hand, the plan may well have more to do with the now legendary distaste of Donald Rumsfeld for the US Army.
There are rumors that something similar is going to be attempted in the Navy and Air Force to produce scratch battalions of Air Force and Navy people guarding things in Iraq. They could not do more than that because such units would have little or no combat value.
A policy of this kind is a measure of desperation. A sustained policy of disregard for the terms of enlistment of our soldiers will wreck the volunteer Army force. Does the administration believe that Navy and Air Force enlisted people will accept a re-classification of this kind without protest?
In 1944 and 1945, the U.S. Army "re-classified" large numbers of men into the infantry from aviation and logistical support duties. A little research will show that the people treated in this way were not the best of infantrymen.