A senior Army general said on Wednesday that the military was beginning to face serious discipline problems as troops leave Iraq and Afghanistan and start returning to less-rigorous deployments at large bases in Europe and the U.S.
Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling, the top Army officer in Europe, said that the overall quality of the force remained high, with many troops bringing back tactical skills honed over repeated tours in the two war zones. He estimated that fewer than 5 percent of the military had discipline problems, and said the military showed few indications to date of repeating the rampant drug use and racial rioting which marred the armed forces in the years after Vietnam.
But Hertling used an appearance before a small group of military reporters to issue an unusually blunt warning that the military had allowed discipline problems like drunk driving to fester for so long that the situation risked becoming “cancerous.”
“There are those in the force that we have a discipline problem with,” Hertling said. “In some cases there are discipline problems that we have not paid as much attention to as we should.”
Hertling said the discipline problems would become increasingly dangerous without renewed attention to giving troops more education on the military’s professional skills, values, and behavioral norms.
“If you allow that to go unnoticed it becomes cancerous," he said.
Hertling was particularly concerned about soldiers driving while drunk. Shortly after assuming command this spring, he asked for a listing of all of the soldiers in Europe who had multiple citations for driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs. The number, he said, was much higher than he’d expected.
"When I asked the question, 'What has happened to these soldiers?' the answer was, 'Not much,'" Hertling said.
Discipline problems as America’s wars wind down have been a source of deep concern for the Pentagon since Vietnam, when drug abuse and open racially-motivated violence on American bases in Europe and U.S. were disturbingly common.
“The Army that left Vietnam and returned to America and its garrisons in Germany and Korea in the early 1970s was at a low ebb of morale, discipline, and military effectiveness,” according to an official account by the Army Center of Military History. “Race riots were not uncommon, especially in the understrength [garrisons] of Germany as the Army tried to rebuild its European units that had been drained to support the Vietnam War.”
Hertling traced the new discipline problems to the military’s earlier push to get troops into the field as quickly as possible because of the unending manpower demands of Iraq and Afghanistan.
“We were in such a rush to field forces that we ignored some intricacies of what we should have been doing,” he said on Wednesday.
The end result, Hertling said, was a situation in which officers and non-commissioned personnel – focused on the immediate demands of the two wars – didn’t pay proper attention to ensuring troops were censured for “acts of intolerance.”
During a recent trip to Iraq, several U.S. commanders made similar points, arguing that the ongoing drawdown there had left the remaining troops – largely confined solely to their bases – bored and potentially complacent despite the ongoing dangers there.
Lt. Col. Andrew Poznick, the top U.S. commander in the southern city of Basra, said in a recent interview that military leaders at all levels were being forced to pay more attention to keeping their troops motivated as their mission in Iraq wound down.
“Complacency is a risk, and we’re constantly guarding against that,” Poznick said at his base in Basra. “This is a different kind of mission, and not all our soldiers are really all that excited about it.”