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HOME > VIETNAM > COLLAPSE? (4)

"The Collapse of the Armed Forces" (cont'd)

Desertions and Disasters

With conditions what they are in the Armed Forces, and with intense efforts on the part of elements in our society to disrupt discipline and destroy morale the consequences can be clearly measured in two ultimate indicators: manpower retention (reenlistments and their antithesis, desertions); and the state of discipline.

In both respects the picture is anything but encouraging.

Desertion, to be sure, has often been a serious problem in the past. In 1826, for example, desertions exceeded 50% of the total enlistments in the Army. During the Civil War, in 1864, Jefferson Davis reported to the Confederate Congress: "Two thirds of our men are absent, most absent without leave."

Desertion rates are going straight up in Army, Marines, and Air Force. Curiously, however, during the period since 1968 when desertion has nearly doubled for all three other services, the Navy's rate has risen by less than 20 percent.

In 1970, the Army had 65,643 deserters, or roughly the equivalent of four infantry divisions. This desertion rate (52.3 soldiers per thousand) is well over twice the peak rate for Korea (22.5 per thousand). It is more than quadruple the 1966 desertion rate (14.7 per thousand) of the then well-trained, high-spirited professional Army.

If desertions continue to rise (as they are still doing this year), they will attain or surpass the WWII peak of 63 per thousand, which, incidentally, occurred in the same year (1945) when more soldiers were actually being discharged from the Army for psychoneurosis than were drafted.

The Air Force--relatively uninvolved in the Vietnam war, all-volunteer, management-oriented rather than disciplinary and hierarchic--enjoys a numerical rate of less that one deserter per thousand men, but even this is double what it was three years ago.

The Marines in 1970 had the highest desertion index in the modern history of the Corps and, for that year at least, slightly higher than the Army's. As the Marines now phase out of Vietnam (and haven't taken a draftee in nearly two years), their desertions are expected to decrease sharply. Meanwhile, grimly remarked one officer, "let the bastards go. We're all the better without them."

Letting the bastards go is something the Marines can probably afford. "The Marine Corps Isn't Looking for a Lot of Recruits," reads a current recruiting poster, "We Just Need a Few Good Men." This is the happy situation of a Corps slimming down to an elite force again composed of true volunteers who want to be professionals.

But letting the bastards go doesn't work at all for the Army and the Navy, who do need a lot of recruits and whose reenlistment problems are dire.

Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt, Jr., chief of naval Operations, minces no words. "We have a personnel crisis," he recently said, "that borders on disaster."

The Navy's crisis, as Zumwalt accurately describes it, is that of a highly technical, material oriented service that finds itself unable to retain the expensively-trained technicians needed to operate warships, which are the largest, most complex items of machinery that man makes and uses.

Non-Volunteer Force?

If 45% of his sailors shipped over after their first enlistment, Admiral Zumwalt would be all smiles. With only 13% doing so, he is growing sideburns to enhance the Navy's appeal to youth.

Among the Army's volunteer (non-draftee) soldiers on their first hitch, the figures are much the same: less than 14% re-up.

The Air Force is slightly, but not much, better off: 16% of its first-termers stay on.

Moreover--and this is the heart of the Army's dilemma--only 4% of the voluntary enlistees now choose service in combat arms (infantry, armor, artillery) and of those only 2.5% opt for infantry. Today's soldiers, it seems, volunteer readily enough for the tail of the Army, but not for its teeth.

For all services, the combined retention rate this past year is about half what it was in 1966, and the lowest since the bad times of similar low morale and national disenchantment after Korea.

Both Army and Navy are responding to their manpower problems in measures intended to seduce recruits and reenlistees: disciplinary permissiveness, abolition of reveille and KP, fewer inspections, longer haircuts--essentially cosmetic changes aimed at softening (and blurring) traditional military and naval images.

Amid such changes (not unlike the Army's 1946 Doolittle Board coincidences intended in their similar postwar day to sweeten life for the privates), those which are not cosmetic at all may well exert profound and deleterious effects on the leadership, command authority and discipline of the services.

Soulbone Connected to the Backbone

"Discipline," George Washington once remarked, "is the soul of an army."

Washington should know. In January 1781, all the Pennsylvania and New Jersey troops in the Continental Army mutinied. Washington only quelled the outbreaks by disarming the Jersey mutineers and having their leaders shot in hollow square--by a firing squad made up of fellow mutineers.

(The navy's only mutiny, aboard USS Somers in 1842, was quelled when the captain hanged the mutineers from the yardarm while still at sea.)

If Washington was correct (and almost any professional soldier, whether officer or NCO, will agree), then the Armed Forces today are in deep trouble.

What enhances this trouble, by exponential dimensions, is the kind of manpower with which the Armed Forces now have to work. As early as three years ago, U.S. News and World Report reported that the services were already plagued with "... a new breed of man, who thinks he is his own Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, and Attorney General. He considers himself superior to any officer alive. And he is smart enough to go by the book. He walks a tightrope between the regulations and sedition."

Yet the problem is not just one of trouble-makers and how to cope with them.

The trouble of the services--produced by and also in turn producing the dismaying conditions described in this article--is above all a crisis of soul and backbone. It entails--the word is not too strong--something very near a collapse of the command authority and leadership George Washington saw as the soul of military forces. This collapse results, at least in part, from a concurrent collapse of public confidence in the military establishment.

General Matthew B. Ridgway, one of the Army's finest leaders in this century (who revitalized the shaken Eighth Army in Korea after its headlong rout by the Chinese in 1950) recently said, "Not before in my lifetime ... has the Army's public image fallen to such low esteem ..."

But the fall in public esteem of all three major services--not just the Army--is exceeded by the fall or at least the enfeeblement of the hierarchic and disciplinary system by which they exist and, when ordered to do so, fight and sometimes die.

Take the case of the noncommissioned and petty officers.

In Rudyard Kipling's lines, "the backbone o' the Army is the noncommissioned man!"

Today, the NCOs--the lifers--have been made strangers in their own home, the regular service, by the collective malevolence, recalcitrance, and cleverness of college-educated draftees who have outflanked the traditional NCO hierarchy and created a privates' power structure with more influence on the Army of today than its sergeants major.

No Office for the Ombudsman

In the 4th Mechanized Division at Ft. Carson, Sp4 David Gyongyos, on his second year in the Army, enjoys an office across the hall from the division commander, a full-time secretary, and staff car and driver also assigned full time. He has the home phone numbers of the general and chief of staff and doesn't hesitate to use them out of working hours when he feels like it.

Gyongyos (with a bachelor's degree in theology and two years' law school) is chairman of the division's Enlisted Men's Councils, a system of elected soviets made up of privates and Sp4s (NCOs aren't allowed) which sits at the elbow of every unit commander down to the companies. "I represent, electively," Gyongyos expansively told this reporter, "the 17,000 men on this post."

The division sergeant major, with a quarter-century in the Army, who is supposed to be the division's first soldier and--non-electively--father and ombudsman of every soldier, has an office with is [not?] even on the same floor with the general (or Sp4 Gyongyos either). He gets his transportation, as needed, from the motor pool. He does not "rap" freely over the phone to the general's quarters.

The very most that Gyongyos will concede to the sergeant major, the first sergeants, the platoon sergeants--the historic enlisted leadership of armies--is that they are "combat technicians." They are not, he coldly adds, "highly skilled in the social sciences."

The soldiers' soviets of the 4th Division represent an experiment in what the Army calls "better communications." Conditions throughout the rest of the Army do not quite duplicate those at Carson, but the same spirit is abroad. And experienced NCOs everywhere feel threatened or at least puzzled.

Most major units of the Army, Navy, and Air force have some form of enlisted men's councils, as well as junior officer councils. Even the trainee companies at Ft. Ord, Calif, have councils, made up of recruits, who take questions and complaints past their DIs to company commanders and hold weekly meetings and post minutes on bulletin-boards. General Pershing, who once said, "All a soldier needs to know is how to shoot and salute," would be surprised.

The Vocalists

As for the officers, said a four-star admiral, "We have lost our voice."

The foregoing may be true as far as admirals are concerned, but hasn't hampered short-term junior officers (including several West Pointers) from banding together into highly vocal antiwar and antimilitary organizations, such as the Concerned Officers' Movement (COM). At Norfolk, the local COM chapter has a peace billboard outside Gate 2, Norfolk Naval Station, where every sailor can profit by the example of his officers.

continued in part 5