att Kapinos was born into the military, at a U.S. Army hospital outside Frankfurt, Germany. It was 1979, and his father was an Army officer, one of thousands of soldiers stationed along the plains of central Europe. Kapinos moved around a lot growing upthirteen places in all, including upstate New York, Tennessee, Georgia, Kansas, and Korea. From his perspective, these locations all appeared pretty much the same. No matter where he lived, at 5 p.m. everyone paused as the American flag was lowered to the sound of a bugle. He attended schools run by the Defense Department, where many of the teachers were married to soldiers, and where military police chaperoned the school bus at times of heightened security. It wasn’t until he was a high school junior that his family first lived “off post.” His father, then a colonel, got a job at the Pentagon, and so the family moved to Springfield, Virginia. Unsurprisingly, by then Kapinos could imagine only one career for himself: he wanted to be an officer in the Army.
One spring afternoon in his senior year, Kapinos came home from track practice to find a FedEx envelope on the doorstep. It contained his acceptance to the military academy at West Point, the alma mater of great American generals going back to Ulysses S. Grant. Kapinos’s father, who had also attended West Point, “tried to let me know what I was getting into, that you lose a little bit of control over your life and that the Army is not always fun and games,” Kapinos recalled. “[But] my dad always pushed us to, you know, do something to contribute. I guess I wanted to do something that seeks glory, to do great things.”
Kapinos thrived during his four years in New York’s Hudson Valley. In particular, he loved learning the history of warfare, including twentieth-century counterinsurgenciesthe French in Algeria, the British in Malaysia, the Americans in Vietnam. As a cadet, he excelled in the military training program. He was one of only six graduating students to wear six bars on his lapel and earn the title of cadet regimental commander. He graduated near the top of his class, one of the Army’s most talented recruits.
A few months before September 11, 2001, Kapinos began training to jump out of a plane with a rifle and a rucksack. By then, he was a platoon leader assigned to an elite unit of paratroopers in the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. About forty enlisted men were placed under his command. In early 2003, they followed Kapinos aboard a C-130 plane bound for Khost, Afghanistan, a border town nestled below snow-capped peaks in a valley stretching east into Pakistan.
Kapinos was placed in charge of a “firebase,” an abandoned Afghan home where he lived with his soldiers and patrolled local villages. At first, he loved the work. “I felt like this was what I’d always wanted to do,” he told me. An air assault mission in the spring of 2003 was particularly exhilarating. He and his soldiers flew into a remote valley, streamed out of Black Hawk helicopters, and encircled the home of an insurgent leader who had been accused of killing a Red Cross worker. Rifles raised, they kicked in the doors and found the man, wearing a tan turban and a traditional cotton gown, and in possession of a stash of weapons and $10,000 in U.S. currency.
But from his reading of military history, Kapinos understood that fighting a counterinsurgency is about more than catching bad guys. He made an effort to build rapport with locals, even though no instructor had ever suggested that he do so. He requested medical supplies for local village leaders when no supplies had been provided. He told his soldiers to be cautious before using deadly force, and he scolded them for making derogatory remarks about the local Pashtun Muslims.
Kapinos returned to Fort Bragg in late 2003. His wife, Katherinea smart University of Virginia graduate with career plans of her ownwas relieved. They’d married the previous year and had hardly seen each other since. After a few months, they’d started to settle into married life. Then, at a holiday party for officers and their wives, a loose-lipped sergeant major revealed that the battalion was leaving for Iraq in two weeks. Matt and Katherine’s first Christmas together was an anxious one.
Before boarding the plane for Iraq, Kapinos was promoted again. At the age of twenty-four, he was helping to lead a company of nearly 200 soldiers. In Iraq, he oversaw security at Camp Anaconda, one of the largest U.S. air bases in Iraq, home to tens of thousands of soldiers and contractors. From a high-tech command post, he monitored grainy video screens, spotting insurgents erecting mortar tubes and dispatching quick reaction units to kill or capture them.
Kapinos was accumulating lessons afforded few West Point graduates of recent generationsthe chance to experience real war as a young lieutenant. Still, he was feeling frustrated. He worried that his superiors were slow to grasp the complex nature of counterinsurgency. In Afghanistan, he had suggested that instead of merely conducting nighttime raids, his men should camp in small villages to help local leaders root out insurgents and their sympathizers. His commanders repeatedly rejected the idea. In Iraq, he was full of similarly innovative proposals, but felt his commanders disregarded his input. “After a while, you just stop asking,” he said.
Kapinos was questioning the Army’s conventional wisdom at a time when it urgently needed independent thinkers. Indeed, as the Iraq and Afghanistan missions have floundered, the Army has begun to turn to unorthodox leaders who look beyond heavy artillery and tank battles. General David Petraeus is the best example of this; in the 1980s, while other ambitious career officers were stationed in Germany pointing tank brigades at the Fulda Gap, Petraeus was at Princeton studying counterinsurgencies and questioning military doctrine for his doctoral thesis, “The American Military and the Lessons of Vietnam: A Study of Military Influence and the Use of Force in the Post-Vietnam Era.” Kapinos, who was similarly absorbed by both the practice of war and its more intellectual aspects, was rising swiftly through the ranks at the moment when the Army needed him most.
Kapinos, however, is no longer in the Army. Fifteen days after his initial five-year service agreement expired, he left military life entirely. When I met him, it was near the downtown campus of the Georgetown University Law Center, where he was taking a break from classes on corporate income tax law. Tall and fit, with close-cropped sandy brown hair and a green cable-knit sweater, he resembled both the lawyer he is preparing to be and the Army captain he once was. “I was a true believer at West Point. When Afghanistan kicked off, I don’t want to say I bought the propaganda, but I wanted to change the world,” he said. “I thought I was going to be a four-star general.”
For several years now, we’ve been hearing alarming warnings about the strain that the Iraq War has placed on the military. Since the conflict began, around 40 percent of the Army and Marine Corps’ large-scale equipment has been used, worn out, or destroyed. Last year, the Army had to grant waivers to nearly one in five recruits because they had criminal records. There are no more combat-ready brigades left on standby should a new conflict flare.
These problems are of vital concern, and are reasonably well understood in newsrooms and on Capitol Hill. But the top uniformed and civilian leaders at the Pentagon who think hardest about the future of the military have a more fundamental fear: young officerspeople like Matt Kapinosare leaving the Army at nearly their highest rates in decades. This is not a short-term problem, nor is it one that can simply be fixed with money. A private-sector company or another government agency can address a shortage of middle managers by hiring more middle managers. In the Army’s rigid hierarchy, all officers start out at the bottom, as second lieutenants. A decline in officer retention, in other words, threatens both the Army’s current missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, and its long-term institutional future. And though many senior Pentagon leaders are quite aware of the problem, there’s only so much they can do to reverse the decline while the United States maintains large numbers of troops in Iraq.
n the last four years, the exodus of junior officers from the Army has accelerated. In 2003, around 8 percent of junior officers with between four and nine years of experience left for other careers. Last year, the attrition rate leapt to 13 percent. “A five percent change could potentially be a serious problem,” said James Hosek, an expert in military retention at the RAND Corporation. Over the long term, this rate of attrition would halve the number of officers who reach their tenth year in uniform and intend to take senior leadership roles.
But the problem isn’t one of numbers alone: the Army also appears to be losing its most gifted young officers. In 2005, internal Army memos started to warn of the “disproportionate loss of high-potential, high-performance junior leaders.” West Point graduates are leaving at their highest rates since the 1970s (except for a few years in the early 1990s when the Army’s goal was to reduce its size). Of the nearly 1,000 cadets from the class of 2002, 58 percent are no longer on active duty.
This means that there is less competition for promotions, and that less-able candidates are rising to the top. For years, Congress required the Army to promote only 70 to 80 percent of eligible officers. Under that law, the rank of major served as a useful funnel by which the Army separated out the bottom quarter of the senior officer corps. On September 14, 2001, President Bush suspended that requirement. Today, more than 98 percent of eligible captains are promoted to major. “If you breathe, you make lieutenant colonel these days,” one retired colonel grumbled to me.
The dismay of senior leaders at this situation pierces through even the dry, bureaucratic language of Army memoranda. In an internal document distributed among senior commanders earlier this year, Colonel George Lockwood, the director of officer personnel management for the Army’s Human Resources Command, wrote, “The Army is facing significant challenges in officer manning, now and in the immediate future.” Lockwood was referring to an anticipated shortfall of about 3,000 captains and majors until at least 2013; he estimated that the Army already has only about half the senior captains that it needs. “Read the last line again, please,” Lockwood wrote. “Our inventory of senior captains is only 51 percent of requirement.” In response to this deficit, the Army is taking in twenty-two-year-olds as fast as it can. However, these recruits can’t be expected to perform the jobs of officers who have six to eight years of experience. “New 2nd Lieutenants,” Lockwood observed, “are no substitute for senior captains.”
Even the pool from which the Army draws its future leaders is being diluted. Last year, the Army commissioned more officers as second lieutenants than it has since 1989, when the Pentagon was still planning for a cold war-era force nearly 50 percent larger than the current one. (The commissioning figures are partially a reflection of the Army’s restructuring efforts since 2002, which created a greater number of smaller combat units and increased the need for junior officers.)
Those new officers, however, are not coming from the traditional sources of West Point and ROTC programs, which supply recruits fresh from college. Instead, they are coming from the Army’s Officer Candidate Schoolmostly attended by soldiers plucked from the enlisted ranks, who probably entered the military straight from high school. The number of OCS graduates has more than tripled since the late 1990s, from about 400 a year to more than 1,500 a year. These soldiers may turn out to be good commissioned officers. But they are also needed in the noncommissioned officer (NCO) corps, the parallel structure of senior-level sergeants who form the Army’s backbone, responsible for ensuring that orders are effectively carried out, rather than making policy or strategic decisions. Yet the Army is already several thousand sergeants short and has been reducing NCO promotion times in order to fill the gaps. Sending more soldiers who are NCOs, or NCO material, to Officer Candidate School is merely robbing Peter to pay Paul.
raq, in one way or another, is a driving force behind many officers’ decision to leave. For some, there’s a nagging bitterness that the war’s burden is falling overwhelmingly on men and women in uniform while the rest of the country largely ignores it. While many officers don’t oppose the war itself, returning repeatedly to serve in Iraq is a grueling way to live. One of the many reasons for this is that it corrodes their families; the divorce rate among Army officers has tripled since 2003. Internal surveys show that the percentage of officers who cite “amount of time separated from family” as a primary factor for leaving the Army has at least doubled since 2002, to more than 30 percent. And family is a factor even for officers who don’t have one yet. One young soldier I met at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, said his primary problem with military life was the difficulty of finding a girlfriend while spending more than half his time in Iraq. As officers prepare for a third or even fourth deployment, a new wave of discontent is expected to wash over junior leaders. Studies show that one deployment actually improves retention, as soldiers draw satisfaction from using their skills in the real world. Second deployments often have no effect on retention. It’s the third deployment that begins to burn out soldiers. And a fourth? There’s no large-scale historical precedent for military planners to examineyet.
Still, the roots of the phenomenon of officer discontent go far deeper than multiple deployments or the war in Iraq. Since the 1970s, societal and cultural shifts have created a tough environment for the Army to attract and keep bright young officers.
After the Vietnam War, as the Army started to make the transition to a volunteer force, officers left the service in droves. Morale was miserable, and discipline was lacking. In 1980, Ronald Regan won the presidency promising to restore honor to the armed forces, and with an infusion of congressional funding officer retention improved during the rest of the decade. However, beginning in 1991, with the cold war over, Washington moved to reduce the size of the Army by about 40 percent. The Army in turn actively encouraged young officers to leave, and whittled down West Point and ROTC classes. The drawdown likely masked any mounting retention problems.
By the late 1990s, the Army had about 480,000 troops, and new complications had emerged. Without a major-league enemy like the Soviet Union, the Army felt less relevant. Other job opportunities were plentiful in a thriving economy. In 2000, nearly 15 percent of junior officers between their fourth and ninth year of service left the military, the highest rate since the 1970s; experts labeled this statistic a crisis. An upsurge of patriotism after September 11 briefly pushed retention rates back toward historic norms. But as the Iraq War has become increasingly unpopular, the cultural factors that underpinned the exodus of the 1990s are again driving officers out of the service.
At the most basic level, being in the Army is a government job. Baby boomers were once drawn to the officer corps by cushy benefits and generous pension packages. But since the 1990s, an Army career has seemed less attractive in comparison with the lucrative opportunities available to a young, educated overachiever in corporate America. (The income of an Army officer with a college degree and twenty years of experience currently tops out at about $90,000.)
Money isn’t necessarily the main factor in a junior officer’s decision to quit. But military officers are constantly made aware of better-paid opportunities. Corporate recruiters view a combat deployment to Iraq as a highly marketable qualification, and often spam officers’ in-boxes with job possibilities. This fall, I attended a job fair in Philadelphia where I saw about fifty junior officers in their late twenties, dressed smartly in business suits. All the officers I met expected to receive several offers of midlevel management positions in sectors such as manufacturing or construction, with salaries starting at around $70,000 with the potential of reaching six figures within several years. The recruiters, in turn, were excited by the officers’ leadership and stress management skills. “We’re looking for leadership,” one recruiter for a commercial real estate management firm explained. “We can teach them the rest.”
Another cause of officer discontent is the geography of Army life. A military career has always involved a rural lifestyle, since sparsely populated places provide more room to test artillery and simulate warfare. These locations appealed to baby boomers, who came of age when many American urban centers were in decay, and Army garrison towns like Fayetteville, North Carolina, evoked the feeling of the small towns in which many officers had grown up. Today, numerous coastal American cities have been revitalized, and they attract the most educated and ambitious young men and women, many of whom grew up in suburbs. Meanwhile, Army towns like Killeen, Texas, or Watertown, New York, have devolved into impoverished, isolated outposts economically dependent on their military installations and notable mostly for a seedy proliferation of chain restaurants, pawnshops, and strip clubs.
Perhaps the most powerful new element affecting officers’ willingness to stay in the Army is the shifting dynamic of marriage and the roles of men and women in the family. Even in the rather traditional realm of Army culture, fathers now expect to be more actively involved in raising their children, and women tend to be less deferential to their husband’s career. Among baby boomers, officers’ wives were usually homemakers. Today, however, many officers’ wives are doctors or lawyers or have degrees in international affairs, and there are few opportunities for them in places like Kentucky or West Texas. Recently I met a former captain named Adam Ake, who had won a Rhodes scholarship after graduating first in his class from West Point in 1997. He spent seven years as a platoon leader in Korea, and wrote speeches for a three-star general at Fort Lewis in Washington State. Knowing he would be swept up into the Iraq deployment schedule, he reluctantly left active duty in 2004, due to the stress his service was placing on his family and his wife’s career (she is an Army doctor at Walter Reed Hospital in Bethesda). “Something had to give,” he said. He went to law school, and now clerks for a federal judge in Washington, D.C.
ver the past three months, I talked to numerous former officers around the country. What struck me most was their dissatisfaction with the way the Army leadership is managing the war, and the part that played in their decision to leave.
In Philadelphia, I met Zeke Austin, a twenty-eight-year-old former captain at Fort Hood, Texas, who left the Army after five years to look for a private-sector job. Austin first explained that he quit because his fiance was finishing medical school and couldn’t find a residency program in an Army town. Suddenly, he veered into a scathing critique of his commanders’ preoccupation with institutional process. “Rather than focus on important stuff, they focus on PowerPoint slides. They’d have me up all night to make one slide a little prettier,” he said. “After a while, you start to think, What am I doing over here?”
In Houston, I met an officer who had taken the rare step of leaving only eight years before he was due to retire. When I inquired why, he described a generation of senior leaders who gained experience in the relative calm of the 1980s, and seemed most comfortable in Iraq behind a desk. “What did these guys ever do? Go to Panama?” said the captain, who now makes more than $100,000 as a logistics manager for a petrochemical services company. “All they know how to do is train. So you’re out in a firefight and they’re complaining because you’re not wearing eye protection. The colonel says ‘Why don’t you have your knee pads on?’ and you’re like, ‘Shut the fuck up, I’ve got a guy bleeding over here.’ That has a lot to do with it.”
In Washington, I met Matt Kapinos and his longtime friend Jim Morin for lunch. Like Kapinos, Morin was a history major from West Point’s class of 2001 and then served with the 82nd Airborne in Iraq and Afghanistan. He, too, left the Army for Georgetown’s law school. Both men were frank, thoughtful, and occasionally sarcastic about their disillusionment with the Army; it was clear that they’d discussed the subject repeatedly before.
“You have a three-star general like John Vines come down to talk to us, and he says, ‘Just go out there and shoot people,'” Kapinos said. “And you know that that is not how to fight an insurgency. Everyone who’s ever read the most basic article on counterinsurgency knows that is not how you’re going to win.”
“Yeah,” Morin agreed. “The general would come out and give these bellicose speeches, and every time he did that, I’d have to go back to my guys and say, ‘What the general really meant to say was …'”
Morin is a soldier-scholar type who frequently refers to military theorists in casual conversation. Like Kapinos, he always thought he would spend twenty-plus years in uniform. Morin became addicted to military history when he was twelve years old. When he was fifteen, he persuaded his parents to help him buy Civil War-era military dress and an antique musket worth several thousand dollars so he could participate in large-scale battle reenactments. At West Point, he took a special interest in counterinsurgency, writing his senior the-sis on how the British successfully quelled the French-Canadian rebellion in Quebec. “If you go read Clausewitz and the other military writers,” he explained, “[you learn that] war is politics by other means. You have to offer them an alternative better than the other guy. You have to fight a bullet war, but you also have to fight an economic development war, you have to fight a PR war, and you have to do it all at the same time. From what I saw, that just wasn’t happening. I felt like we were keeping people safe so they could starve.”
As a young lieutenant, Morin once drafted a memo for his commander proposing an elaborate program to help fund humanitarian and infrastructure projects, using integrated teams of infantrymen, civil affairs specialists, and civilian aid agencies. He didn’t receive a response, and quickly stopped making such suggestions for fear of being perceived as “a wet-behind-the-ears second lieutenant.” Now, he laughs about the incident as an example of his naivete.
Of course, every generation of young officers is critical of their superiors. But the botched management in Iraq and a sense of squandered momentum in Afghanistan have intensified those feelings among today’s young officers. It’s one thing for young officers in the 1980s or ’90s to stand around at a training facility at Fort Polk, Louisiana, complaining about the higher-ups; it’s another when junior officers have to see soldiers under their command dying in missions they believe are strategically flawed or futile.
Like many young officers I met, Kapinos and Morin were particularly disturbed by the experience of a colonel named H. R. McMaster. McMaster earned a Sliver Star in Operation Desert Storm. In 2005, he commanded a brigade of several thousand men in the northern Iraqi city of Tal Afar. He was lauded as the first upper-level commander to introduce progressive counterinsurgency strategies, rather than the traditional security-based mission that most other commanders were pursuing. He sought support from the entire population of Tal Afar. When his men released detainees, they asked them how they felt they had been treated (this was dubbed the “Ask the Customer Program”). The results were impressive. As the rest of Iraq deteriorated in 2006, Tal Afar was relatively calm, and President Bush touted it as a success. Despite these achievements, McMaster has been passed over twice for promotion to brigadier general. Kapinos concluded, “The junior officers see a guy who they worshiphe’s smart and successfuland they see him get the short end of the stick. If he doesn’t make one star, if he doesn’t go on to great things, if the cream stops rising at some pointthen the good guys are going to say, ‘What’s the point?'”
he consequences of shedding thousands of bright, battle-tested young officers are likely to be grim. In the short term, experts worry that military units in Iraq and Afghanistanwhich have performed impressively despite staggeringly bad senior leadershipwill degrade in effectiveness.
Many in the military are mindful of what happened when the Army experienced a similar flight of top young talent near the end of the Vietnam War. Then, critical midlevel leadership positions were filled by soldiers with less experience and maturity. Poorly prepared leaders drove relations between the officer corps and the enlisted men who served under them to historic lows. The Army documented incidents of “fragging,” when outraged enlisted men turned their weapons on officers who they felt were gratuitously or ineptly leading troops into danger. “We got more of our own people killed than the enemy killed because of insufficiently skilled solders and lousy leadership,” said General Donn Starry, a retired four-star general who was a commander in Vietnam. After the war, the military was undisciplined and struggled with crime and drugs. Top generals described it as a “hollow force.”
There is also concern about the medium term beyond Iraq and Afghanistan. Over the next five to ten years, experts foresee a high likelihood that the military will be drawn into humanitarian and counterinsurgency-style operations that require officers with foreign-language aptitude, cultural awareness, negotiating skills, and other specialized talents. Many of these skills are rarely, if ever, taught in formal Army training programs. Soldiers who have seen firsthand what works and what doesn’t intuitively understand the need to be courteous but always ready to pull the trigger. Yet shifting from an Army culture that once revered ornery, pugnacious characters like General George Patton won’t be easy. “If we think that our future wars are going to look a lot more like this one, we are losing a huge knowledge base,” said Rachel Kleinfeld, a director at the Truman National Security Project in Washington. “And once they’re gone, they’re gone.”
But the greatest concern is how the exodus of the best and brightest will affect the Army’s long-term capacity to win wars, counter threats, and keep the peace. Today’s lieutenants and captains are the pool from which three- and four-star generals will be chosen twenty years from now. If the sharpest minds aren’t in that pool, we could wind upto put it bluntlywith a senior leadership of dimwits.
Again, the Vietnam experience is instructive. After that war, the junior officers who did remain in the Army were promoted. During the 1970s and ’80s, that generation of officers deliberately turned their backs on the study of counterinsurgency, believing they could simply avoid such conflicts in future. Many of the Iraq War’s generals came from that generation (think Tommy Franks). Among the thousands of their peers who left the Army after the war ended, were there a small handful of exceptional leaders who might have helped the military better prepare for a post-9/11 world? “The senior leadership of the Army and Marine Corps were slow to understand the nature of the Iraq War,” said Andrew Bacevich, a professor at Boston University and a retired Army colonel who served in Vietnam as a junior officer and who lost a son in Iraq. “Was there a brain drain in the 1970s in the Army? Yes, there absolutely was. Had that brain drain not have occurred, would the officer corps have been quicker and better at adjusting? It’s impossible to say.” However, numerous military experts I spoke with all agreed that the attrition of junior officers will harm the quality of the officer corps over the long term. Critics of the Army leadership often note that the highest positions in the military at largethe chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the commander of CENTCOM, and the commander of Special Operations Forcesare all held by Navy officers, which seems odd at a time when ground forces are at the center of war operations.
The good news is that some leaders at the top understand the gravity of the situation. This October, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates made reference to officer retention in a speech: “There is a generation of junior and midlevel officers and NCOs who have been tested in battle like none other in decades. They have seen the complex, grueling face of war in the twenty-first century up close,” he said. “These men and women need to be retained, and the best and brightest advanced to the point that they can use their experience to shape the institution to which they have given so much.” A month later, General Petraeus was summoned from Baghdad to Washington to preside over a board that will select the next class of brigadier generals. This was an unusual move that signaled, according to the Washington Post, “the Army’s commitment to encouraging innovation and rewarding skills beyond the battlefield.”
The bad news is that an all-volunteer military has few tools at its disposal to staunch the loss of high-grade junior officersespecially if the war in Iraq continues much longer. The Army has set an aggressive goal of retaining 95 percent of company-grade officers (typically those in their first ten years of service). That would be a higher retention rate than the Army has managed since the cold war ended, and experts describe this target as completely unrealistic. Otherwise, the Army’s solution has been to throw money at the problem. Pay is higher, bonuses more common, and institutional incentives doled out generously as the Army seeks to grow its ranks while fighting a war on two fronts. (The average cost of training and paying a soldier has risen 60 percent since 2000, from $75,000 to $120,000 in 2006.) The Army also offers to pay graduate school tuition or give a young officer the base of his choice in exchange for the promise of a few more years in uniform. It’s too early to tell whether this will have any impact on officer retention rates, and expectations are mixed.
There are other ways the Army might ease pressure on officers’ families. It could lengthen the time between combat deployments. It could do more to harness fresh ideas among young officersfor example, by pulling them out of the combat rotation and assigning them to help develop new training programs. Or it could allow them to take outside internships with civilian agencies, in order to gain expertise in economic development or civil administration. It could even allow them to serve in the reserves for several years before resuming full-time active duty. Still, there’s a slight hitch to all these plansthe war in Iraq. “These guys are getting tired from being ridden hard, and we want to give them a break. But it’s hard to give them a break, because we need to put them in the fight,” said Dr. Leonard Wong, a retired colonel and a research professor at the U.S. Army War College.
Army officials say anything less than two years at home for every one year at war is unsustainable for soldiers in the long run. Yet the current scheduling calls for fifteen months overseas followed by twelve months at home. For the past several years, officers who wanted a break from repeated deployments could seek the relative comfort of assignments at training posts or as staffers at the Pentagon. But with some soldiers now having endured three or four in tours in Iraq, such refuges are disappearing. In November, General George Casey identified 37,000 soldiers7.2 percent of the forcewho have not been to a war zone since 2001 and have no legitimate (that is, medical) reason not to go. He told them to pack their bags.
When seasoned junior officers read that President Bush is negotiating a long-term occupation of Iraq, and that the Democratic presidential candidates are acquiescing to the notion of 50,000 or 100,000 troops being stationed there for five to ten years, they can foresee the future. They know that their Army life won’t be like that of their parents’ generation, when a foreign posting meant Germany in the 1970s, touring the Black Forest in a BMW with the kids. Rather, it means daily danger and the complexities of diffusing a civil war. The family will be back home in a remote place like Fayetteville, North Carolina, wondering if Dad or Mom is going to return alive.
Civilian hawks in the government believe that the way to reduce the grueling pace of deployments while continuing to prosecute the war for “as long as it takes” is simply to increase the size of the force. Rudy Giuliani, for instance, has called for adding ten combat brigades. But who is going to lead these new forces if seasoned young officers continue leaving the Army in droves? Calls to expand the Army are empty rhetoric if the military brass and their civilian bosses fail to grapple with whether the services can recruit and retain junior leaders in both numbers and quality. The Army has struggled to meet the increase of 30,000 troops authorized since 2004. This year, new laws call for an additional increase of 65,000 during the next five years. But according to the Congressional Budget Office, if recruiting and retention does not improve from 2005 levels, the Army’s end strength will actually decline.
apinos has been out of the Army for more than a year now. He lives with his wife in a small home in northern Arlington. He gets up early each morning and works out at a nearby gym, a lingering habit from his Army days. From the gym, he drives the same Honda Civic he bought while a cadet at West Point across the river to law school. He’s friendly with his classmates, but many of them seem relatively immature to him.
On Fridays, when he doesn’t have classes, Kapinos often plays golf in Virginia. He started taking lessons with his wife, who left her career as a schoolteacher after they moved to Virginia and now works for a private equity firm in Washington. They recently returned from a trip to Tuscany, where they celebrated their fifth wedding anniversary. Some weekends, they drive to Charlottesville for a football game at the University of Virginia, or they visit Kapinos’s Army friends in North Carolina. Otherwise, they often stay in, taking turns cooking dinner and watching TV. “I like my life now. There’s a certain predictability to it,” Kapinos said. “It’s totally different, because there is zero probability that I am going to get deployed next week to go fight away.”
This summer, he plans to take the bar exam. He already has a job lined up in the Washington office of a prominent international law firm, where he’ll start as an associate in the energy and utilities practice. Occasionally, he looks back at his Army life with regret. “Every so often I kind of put on the rose-colored glasses and say, ‘Man, that was awesome. We were doing all this great stuff.’ But, you know, you’re only thinking of the excitement, which is only 5 percent of what we did in the Army.”
Kapinos will probably make a great Washington lawyer. But rarely does anyone suggest that we’ll need more gifted, dedicated, and seasoned Beltway attorneys in the twenty-first century. When the government struggles with its most elemental challengesidentifying geostrategic goals and designing the tactical missions to achieve themit turns in part to its four-star generals. The generals who will appear before Congress in twenty-five years are in the Army right now. They’re junior officers, probably captains. And keeping them in uniform might be the Army’s most important mission.