There’s an old saying that war is 99 percent boredom and 1 percent sheer terror.
Now that the war in Iraq is over, operations in Afghanistan are winding down and budget cuts are curtailing training missions, several Joint Chiefs told Congress on Monday they’re worried that their troops are “bored.”
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh said he recently met a group of young pilots who are eligible for an incentive bonus to stay in the force. “Of that group, there were six to eight in the group, none of them had accepted the bonus to that point in time,” Welsh told the Senate Armed Services Committee, during a hearing on the impact of sequestration. “That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re planning to leave the Air Force, but it certainly means they’re keeping their options open as a minimum.
“By the way, it’s not just pilots. I was at another base where a couple of very young airmen told me that they love the Air Force but they were bored,” he said. “Their particular squadrons were not flying. They were sitting on the ramp because of the reductions last year. And they said at the end of their enlistment they planned to find work that they thought was a little more exciting. I haven’t heard anybody in our military say they were bored in quite some time, so that got my attention.”
The days of heavy combat tempo are over, and the Obama administration has made it clear that it has no interest in getting involved in another large-scale war. There still are about 50,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan right now, but that number will drop to about 34,000 by February before the planned final withdrawal will leave smaller residual force by the end of next year.
Of course, it’s the military’s job to fight wars, and certainly many men and women joined up solely because the nation was at war after 9/11. And when the military isn’t fighting a war, they’re preparing to fight a war. But there’s now a return to garrison life, where a soldier’s biggest worry is passing barracks and uniforms inspections. The top brass argues that maintaining high standards during peacetime is an important measure of professionalism and discipline. But they’re also worried that their troops are bored. After more than a decade of war, fewer and fewer of them actually will see combat abroad, and continued political uncertainty over the budget has all the services cutting back on training at home.
Several committee members asked Marine Commandant Gen. James Amos whether sequestration was hurting recruitment and retention. Amos said that the budget wasn’t the biggest factor, rather his troops “didn’t join up to sit back at home stations and be a garrison Marine.”
“They actually like deploying. So when you go visit them in Afghanistan, in the western Pacific, you don’t get questions like, ‘Oh, shoot, what’s sequester going to do to me?’ They know how to spell it, but that’s about it. They want to know, ‘Hey, Commandant, you know, is this going to be the last deployment I’m going to get on, or am I going to actually be able to go to combat again or be able to go to WESTPAC (western pacific) again,” Amos said. “So our morale’s pretty high right now, and I think it’s going to stay high as long as we give them something to look forward to. The reorientation to the Pacific has just reenergized a lot of Marines as they think about Afghanistan: ‘My gosh, we’re coming out of there in 2014. What’s left?’ Well, we talk about Darwin, Australia. We talk about Japan. We talk about Guam. And their eyes light up.”
Chief Naval Officer Adm. Jonathan Greenert said he’s also trying to keep his sailors energized, especially as the Pentagon rebalances its resources to the Asia-Pacific region.
“Gen. Welsh mentioned kids getting bored, and so in the Navy we’re starting to develop a situation where when you get ready to deploy you’re going to be ready, but, boy, you’re going to do it fast and you’re going to do it hard,” Greenert said. “So our pilots, a lot of our air wing, or carrier strikers about the air wing, they’re flying a lot and training a lot for about seven months, and they barely have time to get their will done and get their power of attorney done, and then they’re deploying and they’re gone for six, seven, eight months. And then they come back and they just longingly look out the window at their Hornet aircraft and say, ‘Gee, I wish I could fly again.’”