WASHINGTON, D.C. – One year ago, as President Bush decided to send more troops to Iraq, the conventional wisdom in Washington among opponents of the war was that the U.S. Army was on the verge of breaking.
In December 2006 former Secretary of State and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell warned, "The active Army is about broken."
Ret. Gen. Barry McCaffrey, in a much-cited memo to West Point colleagues, wrote: "My bottom line is that the Army is unraveling, and if we don’t expend significant national energy to reverse that trend, sometime in the next two years we will break the Army just like we did during Vietnam."
Army Maj. Gen. Bob Scales, the former head of the Army War College, agreed. He wrote in an editorial in the Washington Times on March 30:
"If you haven't heard the news, I'm afraid your Army is broken, a victim of too many missions for too few soldiers for too long. ... Today, anecdotal evidence of collapse is all around."
But now, one year later, Scales has done an about-face. He says that he was wrong. Despite all the predictions of imminent collapse, the U.S. Army and the combat brigades have proven to be surprisingly resilient.
According to Army statistics obtained exclusively by FOX News, 70 percent of soldiers eligible to re-enlist in 2006 did so — a re-enlistment rate higher than before Sept. 11, 2001. For the past 10 years, the enlisted retention rates of the Army have exceeded 100 percent. As of last Nov. 13, Army re-enlistment was 137 percent of its stated goal.
Scales, a FOX News contributor, said he based his assessment last year "on the statistics that showed a high attrition among enlisted soldiers, officers who were leaving the service early, and a decline in the quality of enlistments," a reference to the rising number of waivers given for "moral defects" such as drug use and lowered educational requirements.
"In fact, what we've seen over the last year is that the Army retention rates are pretty high, that re-enlistments, for instance, particularly re-enlistments in Iraq and Afghanistan, remain very high," Scales said. He noted that re-enlistments were high even among troops who have served multiple tours.
A year ago, some military experts were comparing the Army of 2007 with the army of a generation ago, at the end of the Vietnam War, when it was considered "broken" due to morale problems and an exodus of the "best and the brightest" soldiers from service.
Scales said he didn’t take into account that, unlike Vietnam, this Army is sending soldiers to fight as a unit — not as individuals. He also neglected the "Band of Brothers" phenomenon — the feeling of responsibility to fellow soldiers that prompts members of service to re-enlist.
"The soldiers go back to the theater of war as units," Scales said. "They are bonded together, they know each other, they don't have to fight as an army of strangers.
"I was wrong a year ago when I forecast the imminent collapse of the Army. I relied a little bit too much on the data and not enough on the intangibles."
Not all the military analysts who made similar predictions last year agree. Lawrence Korb, who worked on personnel issues during the Reagan administration, testified to Congress last July: "As Gen. Barry McCaffrey pointed out when we testified together before the Senate Armed Services Committee in April, ‘the ground combat capability of the U.S. armed forces is shot.'"
Korb, a resident scholar at the left-leaning Center for American Progress, told FOX News the Army is worse off than it was a year ago. He suggested that the Army is not being honest with its re-enlistment and retention numbers, an accusation echoed by House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton, D-Mo.
The Army’s use of stop-loss — the automatic re-enlistment of soldiers whose units are being redeployed to Iraq or Afghanistan, even if their service time is up — has distorted the figures, Korb said.
He also said that while the numbers of captains leaving the military may not be alarming, the number of captains educated at West Point is. According to Korb, half of the eligible captains from West Point’s class of 2002 have left the service.
And then there are the re-enlistment bonuses, which rose from $50 million in 1998 to $562 million per year in 2007. The amount of re-enlistment bonuses paid is now five times what it was at the start of the Iraq war, according to U.S. Army figures.
But Scales says the desertion by mid-grade officers — captains and majors — just hasn’t occurred as predicted.
"The Army's collapse after Vietnam was presaged by a desertion of mid-grade officers (captains) and non-commissioned officers," Scales wrote a year ago. "Many were killed or wounded. Most left because they and their families were tired and didn't want to serve in units unprepared for war....
"If we lose our sergeants and captains, the Army breaks again. It's just that simple. That's why these soldiers are still the canaries in the readiness coal-mine. And, again, if you look closely, you will see that these canaries are fleeing their cages in frightening numbers."
But an internal Army document prepared at the request of Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Casey and obtained by FOX News suggests that the comparison to the "hollow Army" of 1972 near the end of the Vietnam War is inappropriate.
The main reason: Today's Army is an all-volunteer force, and the Army in Vietnam largely was composed of draftees.
Captain losses have remained steady at about 11 percent since 1990, and the loss of majors has been unchanged at about 6 percent.
"To date, the data do not show heightened levels of junior officer departures that can be tied directly to multiple rotations in Afghanistan or Iraq," the internal Army memo concludes.
The key difference between now and Vietnam, Scales explains, is: "this idea that soldiers fight as part of a team. It’s the ‘Band of Brothers’ approach to combat that makes armies effective in wartime, and the Army has been wise enough over the past five years to work very hard to keep soldiers together in units and not to treat soldiers as sort of replacement parts, but to keep them together as cohesive units. ... I believe, is the glue that has really served to hold this army together.”
For more on this story, tune into "Special Report With Brit Hume" at 6 p.m. ET.