Thin Ice on Blood and Treasure

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Benjamin Lowy / Getty Images

Night-time missions like this one in Iraq are more dangerous for U.S. troops. But commanders have decided their greater chance of success is worth the risk.

A couple of members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said at one of last week’s hearings into the impact of sequestration’s looming budget cuts that more U.S. troops – and even civilians – will die if those cuts occur.

It’s a heart-stopping statement when made a politician. But it’s downright chilling when made by a senior officer.

“When the next major conflict starts, we will send our joint force to fight, regardless of how well, how ready they are,” General Mark Welsh, the Air Force chief of staff, told the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday. “And they will go and they will fight and they will die in greater numbers than they have to. The conflict will last longer than it should. Civilian casualties will be more than we would like to accept.”

“If we have to reduce the amount of training we give our pilots, they will go in there with a hell of a lot less capability. And what does that mean?” General Ray Odierno, the Army chief of staff, asked at the same session. “That means there will be mistakes made. And what does that mean? That means we’ll have accidents or that means they’ll be more likely to be shot down by enemy fire. And ultimately that results not only in the death of our pilots but those who are riding with them.”

Such language is troubling, coming from military officers.

All combat is hazardous, and it involves a never-ending juggling act of risks, costs and benefits. We charge pros like Welsh and Odierno with balancing among them and coming up with the least-bad option:

— Flying at night is more hazardous than flying during daylight, yet U.S. military aviation likes to boast that it “owns the night.” The benefits of flying at night – in terms of accomplishing the mission – more than outweigh the added risk of flying through the dark. Flying at night kills U.S. troops. Should the officers ordering such flights be held responsible?

— The more training a soldier or a pilot has, the more likely he or she is able to accomplish the mission. Yet at some point, military leaders decide that a certain amount of training – flight hours, tank miles, steaming time — is sufficient, and they opt not to pay for more. Should the officers making such choices be held to account?

— A Government Accountability Office report released last week said one in four U.S. troops who has died in the post-9/11 wars could have lived if medical care had been closer to where he or she was wounded. But U.S. military leaders have decided there is sufficient medical care on the battlefield. Does that mean they unnecessarily condemned 1,666 U.S. troops to die because they felt it more important to spend the money elsewhere?

Mixing – confusing — blood and treasure leads to a slippery slope. Military officers need to take care before beginning their descent.