Guardian Unlimited | Special reports | Broken US troops face bigger enemy at home

The Peril of Anecdotes:

Today the Guardian, whose journalists are so antiwar that they wrote a book entitled The War We Could Not Stop, has a piece on American soldiers. It is called "Broken US troops face bigger enemy at home." They list several examples of "broken" soldiers, but only one by name [UPDATE: Three, not one. I missed the two names toward the end of the piece on the first read-through. -G].

The drain on combat-ready soldiers--and the costs of carrying those damaged by this war--are becoming logistical nightmares for military planners. The Pentagon has already been forced to extraordinary measures. Last year, it locked up the service contracts of National Guard members and army reservists, preventing them from leaving the military when their time is up.

[Jason] Gunn's commanders seem adamant on keeping him. On Wednesday, Ms Gunn was forwarded a statement from her son. "It is my wish to be redeployed with my unit to finish my tour of duty with my unit here in Iraq," the statement said. "I feel that I am able to complete my mission here as well as any other duties assigned to me while on current deployment." It also said he had discontinued his prescription. Ms Gunn is convinced the statement was coerced.

Everyone who's been in the military knows that it occasionally does some stupid things. Military bureaucracy is the source of endless jokes, and a few pieces of great literature, including Heller's Catch 22, which was one of my father's favorite books when it was new and he was an Army sergeant. It's entirely possible--indeed, it's very nearly certain--that some serious errors are taking place.

Still, as the Mudville Gazette reports, retention rates in our all-volunteer army are not a problem:

Army divisions that fought the past 12 months in Iraq have met virtually every re-enlistment goal, a sign that the all-volunteer force remains strong under the stress of frequent deployments and hazardous duty.

The Pentagon has been closely monitoring the re-up rate for five Army divisions that fought in Iraq for about a year. Some officials feared the time away from home and the gritty duty would prompt a large soldier exodus. After all, the war on terrorism is unchartered territory. The 30-year-old volunteer Army has never been this busy in combat.

But numbers compiled this week for the first half of fiscal 2004 show that those five combat units met, or nearly met, all retention targets for enlisted soldiers--the privates, corporals and sergeants who total 416,000 of the Army's 490,000 active force.

This is the problem with journalism-by-anecdote. The Guardian gives the impression of an army under such catastrophic stress that it will soon break. But the number of "broken" troops can't be very large if retention is this good. I object to the term anyway. A slave or a prisoner can be broken, but these are not that. Indeed, because they have suffered what they have suffered, this year far fewer slaves and prisoners exist in the world.

My sympathy goes out to anyone who is at the wrong end of a bureaucratic blunder. I've been there. For Ms. Gunn, I have a suggestion: if she feels that there is a serious problem, and especially if she really believes her son is being forced to write false letters, she'll do better to write her Senator than the Guardian. That's what they're for, and they get results.

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