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Military readiness likely to emerge again as campaign issue

First published in Army Times on March 22, 2004.

The military readiness shoe that President Bush tried to use to stomp the Democrats in the 2000 presidential campaign is now on the other foot. It will be interesting to see if he can wear it with character. When nominated for president at the Republican convention in August 2000, Bush criticized President Clinton’s tenure over the Pentagon by saying some Army divisions were unprepared for operations overseas. In his words: “If called on by the commander in chief today, two entire divisions of the Army would have to report, ‘Not ready for duty, sir.’” The inside-the-Beltway crowd in Washington made Bush eat crow. Former Chairman of Joint Chiefs, Army Gen. Henry Shelton, and former Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki, along with pundits from think tanks like the Brookings Institution and even Clinton’s Republican defense secretary, William Cohen, all joined Democratic candidate Al Gore to say Bush was wrong.

The fact is, those two divisions had returned from deployments to the Balkans and needed time to reconstitute themselves. But that had been done, and they both were rated “ready” by the Army when Bush made his statement. His evidence was out of date. Wary of being found ignorant on a national security issue, Bush and his campaign managers cut their losses and moved on. Bush didn’t know it, but he was right about at least one of those divisions, the 10th Mountain Division. As a staffer for the Senate Budget Committee and a former General Accounting Office investigator, I went to Fort Drum, NY in September 2002 to find out about the division for myself. What I found was unpleasant. Despite its “ready” rating from the Army, the 10th Mountain was in real trouble. Its people, especially the junior and non-commissioned officers I spent most of my time with, were highly professional and hardworking, but there were too few of them. The headquarters units were fully manned with both officers and enlisted, but in the combat units, commanders told me they usually were missing from one-third to one-half of the people their units should have had. Enlisted personnel also were high quality, but their training standards were shockingly low. New, high-tech equipment was described by its operators as pretty much useless. One soldier said there were two 10th Mountain Divisions, “the one described in Washington and the one that exists.” This dichotomy between what Washington wants to exist and what does exist is about to bite Bush in his rear end. With several Army and Marine divisions now returned to the United States from fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, Bush has at least doubled the number of units “not ready for duty, sir.” Some have been home for several months to reconstitute, but as the Army’s new chief of staff, Gen. Peter Schoomaker, told Congress, it can take at least a year for them to get back into prime shape. Moreover, once they are formally rated “ready,” it’s unclear just what shape they really will be in. Somewhere out there is a Democratic operative who knows most of this and who has probably already written the script for John Kerry to dump it all onto Bush’s lap. When the attack comes, and it will in some form, the country will have a chance to assess the character of both candidates. Bush already has sloughed off public acknowledgement of the cost of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan in the upcoming fiscal year by delaying the supplemental funding to pay for it all until after the November election. It’ll be $50 billion or more; he clearly doesn’t want such a large bill coming due in the political season, which by unhappy coincidence is just when the troops will need the money. The failure to own up to the budget consequences augurs poorly for his owning up to the readiness consequences. In September 2000, Democratic Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts hopped onto the Bush-is-wrong bandwagon without knowing what he was talking about. This time around, he has an opportunity to take another easy cheap shot, or he can find out for himself the truth about the condition of the combat divisions in question and acknowledge that the any actual unreadiness is an unavoidable consequence of the war he voted to support. Presidential campaigns are opportunities for candidates to show character—or lack of it. When this issue hits the media, how Bush and Kerry react will tell us important things about their character and aptitude to lead the armed forces and the nation.