During and after World War II, psychologists studying the effect of combat determined that a soldier could be in battle for approximately six months before he (they were virtually all men in those days) became ineffective. Not six months at a time--six months, total. Look at the history of American units in the Second World War and you will see that few were in front-line combat for six months or more. And, in the case of formations such as the 82nd Airborne, which served in Africa, Sicily, Italy and Northern Europe, a very high percentage of the men in the earlier campaigns had been replaced by the time of the later ones; each of the 82nd's battle experiences were also limited in time.
In Vietnam, as up to now in in Iraq, the US Army assigned soldiers for one-year tours of duty in the war zones. That did not, and does not, mean twelve months in combat, because these wars were and are not the same as the Second World War. But in a war with no front, the soldier is always under stress, always liable to attack. In Iraq, even more than in Vietnam, there are no safe havens.
So, the announcement yesterday that Army tours in Iraq are being extended for three more months will not only be an immediate blow to morale. If carried out--if the American people do not stand up and force an end to the insanity of an open-ended commitment to this unwinnable struggle--this new policy will permanently damage the psyches of thousands of people who will return with no visible injuries, will seriously erode the cohesion and fighting efficiency of units and will only accelerate the downward spiral of the United States from the pinnacle of power that it held when George W. Bush became President.
(The very idea of a pre-determined tour of duty in a war zone is--to be charitable--of questionable wisdom. "Short-timers" in Vietnam were well known to be dangerous to themselves and those around them. The idea of soldiers counting down the days is counterproductive to military discipline and efficiency. And, it will also tend to straitjacket the thinking of commanders, leading them to keep some units in the war zone longer than necessary or desirable, while others may be rotated before they need to be--although in Iraq, with danger always present, it is hard to see how that could be true for any American formation.)