Study Says U.S. Troops are Stretched Thin

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A report commissioned by the Pentagon says the U.S. Army is at a breaking point. The 136-page study was published earlier this week. It warns that the Army has become a "thin green line" that could snap unless relief comes soon. Host Ed Gordon talks with Rep. David Scott (D-GA) and Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC) about the challenges.

ED GORDON, host:

For NPR News, I'm Ed Gordon, for Friday, January 27, this is NEWS AND NOTES.

President Bush insists his administration is optimistic about the mission in Iraq. This despite a sobering report commissioned by the Pentagon that says the U.S. Army is at a breaking point. The 136-page study was published earlier this week. It warns that the Army has become a thin green line that could snap unless relief comes soon. Yesterday at a news conference, President Bush disputed the report. He maintained that American troops are making progress.

President GEORGE BUSH: Retention is high, recruitment is meeting goals, and people are feeling strong about the mission, Mark. But I also recognize that we've got to make sure that our military is transformed, and that's what is taking place right now. We're transforming the United States Army so that capabilities and the threats are better aligned.

GORDON: Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld also dismissed the Pentagon study, saying the military is prepared to take on challenges of the 21st Century. We get more now from two congressmen who can speak first hand about how the troops are fairing. Democratic Representative David Scott of Georgia recently returned from Iraq. He is co-chair of the Democratic Group on National Security and joins us via phone from Atlanta. Also with us, Republican congressman Joe Wilson of South Carolina. Representative Wilson has traveled to Iraq several times. His last visit was in August. Congressman Wilson is a member of the House Armed Services Committee.

Gentleman, thanks for joining us this day. Representative Scott, let me start with you. We hear one thing from the Pentagon commissioned report, another thing from the president. What are we to believe?

Representative DAVID SCOTT (Democrat, Georgia): I think you're to believe some of both. The President is right on one point. He's right about we're making progress in Iraq. I've been there. We've seen it. He's right about our military doing an extraordinary job. We can feel very proud of our military. Where the President is wrong is in his unacceptance of what is the truth in terms of the status of our army now, our defenses, and the status of where it's got to be for the future. It is clear that our army, our military is under strain, if from no other reason than the fact that we have soldiers who are going to their second and third and some their fourth tour of duty over there.

We know that the Marines, for example, are meeting their recruitment goals. But that is not the case for our National Guard. So there is some truth in each of what is saying. I would like to see the President understand that there is room in here for everybody to play. And simply because you're bring attention to a very important fact, one, that our military is stretched thin, does not mean that you're being critical of the performance of what we're doing now. It says that we must prepare for the storm before the hurricane is raging.

We look on the horizon and we see great needs of our military. President Bush has started a new policy, of which I, to a degree, agree with, which his preemption, as a result of 9-11. Well, our army is not equipped to do that at this point.

GORDON: Representative Wilson, we should know that you've traveled to Iraq five times, and in fact, have three sons in the military, one who has served a year in Iraq. And when you've talked to your sons, when you've talked to the troops, do you get a sense that the feel stretched?

Representative JOE WILSON (Republican, South Carolina): I agree with David, actually, that I've never been prouder of the military. In addition to having three sons in the military, I have another son who's enlisting in the Marines this year. And so, I'm very proud of what our military is doing. I agree with the President that we are transforming our military to address a new enemy, an asymmetric terrorist force around the world. I have the greatest faith in General Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. I've met with General Abizaid in the Middle East. I spoke this week with General Casey by telephone in Baghdad.

This morning I met with troops from Fort Jackson, and I asked them, because I was preparing to be on this morning, I asked them what their view was of a broken army. They said, no, we're a trained green line, not broken. We're prepared. We've never been better prepared, never had better technology. I've never seen a higher morale taken into account I've served 31 years as an army guard.

GORDON: Let me suggest that we have heard from troops that have come home who have suggested that they are weary, that their colleagues, in fact, are fighting the good fight, but they are weary. Representative Scott, is there a concern that in all of this talk, everyone wants to make sure that they say they support the troops, you'd be hard-pressed to find many folks in America who would go against that notion, but there are still those - the president did not necessarily address this yesterday - who feel that those troops are there under false pretenses and that we cannot let that go.

Rep. SCOTT: Yes, I think so. And that's why I say we really have to back off and separate this into two parts. The first part, of course, is what my colleague, Congressman Wilson said. And I've traveled with Congressman Wilson. We went over to the NATO area together and to Eastern Europe this May for celebration of the sixth anniversary of V.E. Day. And he is correct. But we have to separate the military performance and support of the troops and all of that. They're doing a marvelous job.

GORDON: Representative Scott, do you believe this to be an unjust war?

Rep. SCOTT: I believe this to be a war that we have mismanaged. Okay? When you say unjust, I do not think it is unjust. But I do think we have mismanaged the ball. One, we did not go in with the size force we did. Two, the one person in the administration who had the credentials, who actually fought in wars, who were actually there in the very beginning, who pinpointed so much accurate information, was kicked to the side. That was Colin Powell. I think we made serious mistakes in not having the force capable to do post-stabilization effort, that has brought about the insurgency because we went with a lean, mean machine. So we didn't have the support mechanism to go in to do it. So I'm not going to say it's an unjust war, but I will say it's a mismanaged war.

GORDON: Representative Wilson, you have suggested that you are committed to achieving victory in Iraq. This country should be, this president should be. So obviously, I don't assume that you see it as an unjust war. But define victory for me. There are a lot of people who are concerned that the end result, the end of war, whether it be this or others, is so hard to define. What is victory in your mind?

Rep. WILSON: I believe that victory is what the president has announced, and that is building a civil society in Iraq, a nation that no longer provides terrorist training facilities to attack the United States. And it's being done. We can see the government coming together. It's not a pretty sight. But democracy is not an orderly process. But over 10 million people participated in the elections. This is extraordinary. They are developing their economy. 30,000 new businesses in the last three years. Additionally, they are building security forces in the elections. In December, there were nearly 230,000 Iraqi police and military. I have visited the training facilities.

Our troops are doing a remarkable job training the Iraqi security. And that's how we can now reduce the troop level we had, and that's what victory is.

GORDON: And what do you say to those who raise the words, quagmire, and Vietnam, and occupation?

Rep. Wilson: We tell them that America is at risk, and that we must take every step, as Congressman Scott has identified, to protect the American people. We've had troops in Germany for 60 years. We've had troops in Korea for 50 years, in Japan for 60 years, in Italy for 60 years, and I don't see a quagmire. What I see are brave troops protecting the American people, and I'm very proud of what they're doing, and I look forward to making this a bipartisan effort to win the war to protect the American people.

GORDON: Representative Scott, there seems to me a very clear line of those who believe that there is a quagmire and that there is not and that they do see some sense of Vietnam coming down the way. How do you see it?

Rep. SCOTT: I see the point we're right on the precipice of a quagmire. Let me explain what I am saying. When we set out, the two things you've got to have going into any battle, you've got to have the size force you've got, but you have to have the exit strategy.

You have to know what constitutes the win, and we're not fighting the European war we did. We're not fighting Japan. We're not fighting a state as such. We're fighting an ideology. That ideology said this, when I was over in Iraq, I sat down with General Casey, and I said General Casey, I said, according to most recent polls, 80% of the Iraqi people say we're there as occupiers, and 45% say that the attacks on our soldiers are justified. These are the people we're over there to help.

General Casey said to me, he said, well, Congressman Scott, it's worse than that. 90% of the Iraqi people feel we're occupiers. It's not 45%, it's 50% of the people over here feel that the attacks are justified. Al Qaeda and the Jihaders and our enemies over there are using this thing of us being an occupier, number one, why were there, number two, because we're there to take their oil and their land, number three, we're there to destroy Islam. Those three things of what goes in and stirs up the insurgency, and so, it is very important to identify the fact.

I believe we have attained the level of victory for our military. What we have not attained is a level of peace, and I think that at this point, if we do not do what we are now doing, which I commend the President, commend everybody on (Unintelligible) this moment to ease out some of our troops from there, because it will take away that sense that we're an occupier. It will also give time for the Iraqis to begin to stand up. And they...

GORDON: Representative Wilson, let me ask you this.

Rep. SCOTT: ...the Shias to bring the Sunnis in. The quicker we can get out of there, now...

GORDON: All right.

Rep. SCOTT: ...with a measure of sustainability and stability, the better. We stay...

GORDON: Representative Wilson, with less than a minute to go, let me ask you this. As you know, there was another group who released a report including former U.S. Defense Secretaries and Secretaries of State who suggest that the U.S. military ground forces are so stretched that it may tempt others to challenge the United States. With less than a minute to go, literally, are you concerned about that?

Rep. WILSON: I believe good people can disagree, but I have absolute faith in General Pace. I have been so impressed by Generals Sanchez, Franks, Petreas. We are relying, and President Bush is relying, on our military leaders, and they snow what they're doing, and I'm very, very proud of them.

GORDON: All right. Democratic Congressman David Scott of Georgia, Republican Congressman Joe Wilson of South Carolina, thanks for joining us today. Appreciate it.

Rep. SCOTT: Thank you.

Rep. WILSON: Thank you.

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