One of the mottos of the Marines is that every Marine is a rifleman first, and any other specialty second. Until the early 1970s (hmm . . . can anyone recall a historical event involving the Department of Defense around that time?), every sailor in the Navy received infantry combat training. The Air Force, of course, didn't exist apart from the Army until after World War II, so pilots also received combat training. Now, the only pilots or aircrew who receive infantry training are those in the Marines.
One of the side effects of this development is that the United States military acts like a union shop with strict job classifications. With a handful of narrow exceptions, the Navy (the military service, not the Department), and the Air Force, don't do infantry combat and simply aren't available for ground war functions of any kind. They operate their very expensive armed vehicles and let someone else take most of the casualties. This is a good thing if you happen to be a crew member tooling around the seven seas with no one to fight, or a fighter pilot who can walk the streets of Italy and have a nice cup of expresso on his (or her) day off. It is not such a good thing if you are the Secretary of Defense trying to find soldiers to fight a couple of wars with, you can't resort to a draft, you've tapped out your supplies of Army National Guard and Army Reserve troops, your recruiting numbers aren't looking good, your allies are deserting you left and right, and 50% of your active duty force is off limits for anything you need to do. Donald Rumsfield has done a lot of things wrong in his tenure, and to a great extent he got himself into the mess that he is now in, but I can sympathize with the challenge he faces.
There is a part of me that is inclined to take a Grover Norquist starve the beast attitude to the problem. If you can't raise an Army to fight a pointless war, maybe you shouldn't be fighting it. But, I have to be honest with myself and recognize that part of that attitude is a product of my faith in this particular war, which was fought for no good reason, and with very little planning for how events after "major combat operations" would be handled. It is still irksome that despite the fact that the Department of State had drawn up contigency plans for just such an event, that those plans were ignored. I'm also well aware that one of the reasons that the United States is so pressed for troops, is because we have so little support from allies, and we have so little support from allies, because the war in Iraq is not a particularly worthy cause. Wars are more often won or lost based on who chooses to ally themselves with each side, than because of the valliant efforts of a country's own soldiers alone.
Still, if the current wars were being fought for a worthy cause (and I am not such a pacifist that I can't imagine one), and the United States was, as it is now, hard pressed for troops, and I were the Secretary of Defense, I would be infuriated to no end by the fact that we had half a million active duty military service members continuing their business as if there wasn't a war on. Every single one of those service members has already received the initiation into military culture that makes up much of basic training. Every single one of those service members is in acceptable physical condition. They are already on the payroll and sworn to act on their commander's lawful orders. And, their commander has more or less ordered them to twiddle their thumbs, and seems too hide bound by the bureacracy to do much else. Would it really be so unthinkable to send a couple of additional aircraft carrier groups to port, and give another dozen attack submarines some downtime, so that the military could redeploy those service members to a combat zone (or, at least, relieve Army soldiers who are tied up in less critical roles)? And, if it is unthinkable now, should that remain the status quo? Should every sailor and airman be a rifleman first, and a member of his or her particular service second?
There are real reasons for the current situation. We don't live in the world of Andrew Jackson where just about anyone was qualified to do just about any government job. The federal government, both military and civilian, is an organization made up of highly trained specialists and must be in order to function. It may not make sense for the organization as a whole to put pilots that it took millions of dollars to train in harm's way driving a truck in a convoy down a lonely Iraqi road. And, there are far more specialities than pilots that are hard to replace.
There are also issues of expectations and motivations. The Army, which is facing the worst recruiting woes, is facing the biggest shortages not in its frontline combat specialties, but in the ranks of its support troops. An infantryman signed up for the Army to get into firefights. A married electronic equipment repair specialist with three children may have been more motivated by the prospects of an afforable college education, extra pay for extra kids, and paid skills training. The electronics specialist signed up recognizing that he or she might be doing work in dangerous situations and might have to use a gun in self-defense. The electronics specialist may not have come on board with the expectation that he or she would be spending months manning a .50 caliber machine gun on the back of a Humvee patrolling a city where everyone speaks another language. An every soldier is a rifleman attitude, like the one that pervades the Marines, who have not have serious recruiting problems, solves that problem. But, it creates another. The supply of people qualified to learn how to fix electronic equipment is finite. Not everyone qualified to march and fire a rifle can do it. If you adjust the expectations of every soldier, you might find that specialty skills across the entire military grow scarce as a consequence of a policy that heaps effort into developing combat skills that many technical specialists will never have an occassion to use. Those are the calls we pay the military brass and civilian chiefs at the Pentagon to make. But, if you watch the politics surrounding the military for any length of time, it becomes pretty clear that autopilot, rather than reasoned decision making, is the order of the day.
It certainly seems clear that the U.S. military needs to have more flexibility to shift resources from service to service than it does now. It also seems clear that it almost never makes sense to transfer everyone from a service indiscriminately to another service, wasteing their skills entirely. This may simply be a case where the RIP principle ("rank has its privileges") works. Maybe every sailor and airman of rank E-4 and below ought to be available for reployment to another service on demand in times of military need, on the theory that they are likely to be the least skilled members of their respective services, and that they are also likely to be the youngest service members who are least set in their ways. This could free up tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of service members in times of need. It would be a bit like having a Marine reserve within the Navy and an Army reserve within the Air Force.
I'd welcome input explaining to me why this just can't work, but apparently, military planners had similar ideas until the Vietnam War came along.