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The return of forces.
REFORGER, yesterday and now.
When the civilian leadership made the decision to squander the United States Army in Vietnam, it did not draw upon the force structure erected for the purpose of manning and sustaining a major war. The Army Reserve and National Guard was left mostly untouched by that war. (This had strange political follow-on effects: for a period in the 1990s and 2000s, Vietnam-era National-Guard service was invoked as imputing cowardice to an office-seeker.) Instead, the regular Army relied upon draftees — to disastrous social effect — and the reallocation of forces from elsewhere in the world. A major source of those forces was Europe.
From nearly the entirety of the Cold War, the assumption was that the Army ought to be optimally configured for a Third World War land campaign in Europe. (That it fought nearly everywhere, in that period, but there, either testifies to the unmoored obstinacy of the view, or — if you prefer — the deterrent effect of the Army’s readiness.) Therefore, the bulk of the overseas Army was there, and it was designed to fight there. Removing significant echelons of the Army from Europe — two divisions’ worth, announced in 1967 — for the purpose of sending it to Vietnam rationally raised questions about the American ability to defend Europe. Thus was born REFORGER.
It isn’t clear to me that the American public ever quite noticed REFORGER — the word, borrowing from United States Navy naming conventions, signified “Return of Forces to Germany” — but in the event of general war against the Soviet Union, they would have. The more-or-less annual event saw significant Army divisions surge directly from the continental United States into Germany, run through exercises there, and then return westward. Of course, the transport across the Atlantic was an exercise in itself: not at all incidental to the thing, but a rehearsal for the real-world war plan when the day came. The plan, such as it was, was simple. The forces in West Germany would hold as best they could, inevitably ceding ground by the blood-soaked foot, until the full might of the Americans — transiting the gauntlet of an ocean, long-range Soviet interdiction, and the Soviet submarine force — arrived upon the scene.
Until that happened — well, take it away, Admiral Joshua Painter.
REFORGER kicked off in early 1969, with the transit of a single mechanized division plus two cavalry squadrons to Europe. By the mid-1970s REFORGER regularly involved multiple divisions. In 1975 it returned the Marine Corps to Europe for the first time since the glory days of Belleau Wood. By the mid-1980s REFORGER involved multiple divisions plus integration with National Guard and Reserve units, as the exercise born in the circumvention of the Army’s institutional depth finally incorporated it. The 1988 REFORGER achieved a truly epic scale: one hundred twenty-five thousand soldiers on the move, the largest group of forces in action in Europe since May 1945.
That was the apogee. The armies of REFORGER won without a shot, and within half a decade of the 1988 chapter, the epic show of force and readiness came to an abrupt end. REFORGER 1992 was the last to see an American division cross the Atlantic. REFORGER 1993 involved no Atlantic crossing at all: far from a return of forces to Germany, it was an exercise of forces already in Germany. There was no REFORGER 1994, nor thereafter.
No one could think of any reason America might ever have to fight in Europe again.
It is coming on to thirty years since the Americans rehearsed the armed redemption of Europe. In all that time, it scarcely occurred to anyone that there would ever be a need to. Imagination fails as easily as a false economy sells itself. But today comes the news that the United States may rush forces to the “Eastern Front” — an Axios headline invokes the term without thinking through its connotations — although the number suggested, a mere 8,500 at most, is a minuscule portion of an ordinary REFORGER. The sharp end is still there, but the sinews are attenuated. It has been more than a generation since this particular problem set, once upon a time the only problem set, was worked out. For nearly a full century the contestation of Europe was the very lens of American understanding of itself abroad. It would surprise that century’s Americans to know how swiftly we forget it.
It would not surprise them how swiftly we need it back.