Over hill, and dale

November 07, 2007

The Army's brightest young officers - the men and women upon whom the success of the service genuinely relies - are voting with their feet.

Every West Point graduate must serve five years after leaving the academy, and historically all but about 29 percent of them continued their military careers after that term was up. But no more - as McClatchy Newspapers has reported, 35 percent of the Class of 2000 left the Army five years after graduation; 46 percent of the Class of '01 did so; and this year, 58 percent of the Class of '02 chose to leave active duty.

That's about as red a flag as could be imagined. Captains have a lot more to do with the smooth running of the Army than generals do, but the captains are getting out. And it's not just the West Pointers: The Army Reserve has only 53 percent of the captains it needs, and 58 percent of the sergeants first class.

And the Army began its new recruiting year Oct. 1 with fewer enlistees signed up for basic training than at any time since the draft ended in 1973.

The Army may not be broken, but "if we wait for threats to fully materialize, we will have waited too long."

President Bush said that, though he was talking about the threat of terrorism, not the threat of a disintegrating army. But it's where he said it that's interesting: He was the commencement speaker at West Point on June 1, 2002. He was speaking to the class that is now bolting for the exits.

He talked a brave game that day.

"We are in a conflict between good and evil, and America will call evil by its name," he said. "By confronting evil and lawless regimes, we do not create a problem, we reveal a problem."

"Containment is not possible," he said, "when unbalanced dictators with weapons of mass destruction can deliver these weapons or missiles or secretly provide them to terrorist allies."

"As we defend the peace," he said, "we also have a historic opportunity to preserve the peace."

America hadn't yet gone to war in Iraq when he made this address, but five years later, there's no mistaking the bitter disaster that Iraq has turned into, nor the disillusionment that has inevitably followed.

It helps explain, among other things, why the two presidential candidates who have received the greatest number of donations from the military are Democrat Barack Obama and Republican Ron Paul, both of whom want to bring the war to an end. And it also helps to explain why the Army that President Bush inherited is being steadily and dangerously hollowed out - on his watch.

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