Sgt. Thomas X. Hammes knew that, unlike some bad Hollywood movie, the band of thieves, social misfits, even murderers under his leadership would not transform into perfect Marines through some magic formula of tough love and fatherly motivation. Half the men in his platoon needed a swift kick out of the service, not more time in it.

“We kind of got the worst of the guys at the time,” said Hammes. “Probably the worst in the history of the Marine Corps.”

The year was 1976. Young T.X. Hammes was a platoon leader at one of the most inglorious times in the Corps’ proud tradition. The Vietnam War had just decimated the nation’s Armed Forces, the draft was gone, and the fabled Third Battalion, 3rd Marines was being infused with new recruits brought in under dramatically reduced standards.

“All the other units dumped their problems on us,” Hammes said, recalling the junkies and drunkards, the frequent attacks on officers, even riots. “All that came together primarily because we went to low-quality recruiting. You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear now matter how hard you try.”

For Hammes, now a retired colonel, and others with long memories, today’s military looks a lot like that of 1976. Even more alarming, contrary to predictions that the Army is breaking under the strain of protracted war, most experts say it can continue operating as is—though it will resemble no military we might recognize or be proud of.

In January 2007, the Bush administration announced a new strategy, a “surge” of troops into Iraq, following a well-circulated counterinsurgency template by American Enterprise Institute fellow Frederick Kagan and now-retired Army Gen. Jack Keane. There were assurances that more “boots on the ground” would lead to some stability in insurgent enclaves, an independent Iraqi national defense, and new legitimacy for the central government—at least enough to justify the phased withdrawal of combat brigades all but mandated by American voters in the 2006 midterm elections.

As Gen. David Petraeus shifted into his role as Olympian front man, the administration did nothing to discourage the emerging “six month” script, known on snarky blogs as “a Friedman,” after columnist Thomas Friedman’s many declarations that a critical turn in Iraq is just six months away.

First, Petraeus had six crucial months to create “a space” for the surge to work before returning to Congress with a report in September 2007. After those anticlimactic fall hearings, administration cheerleaders like Roll Call editor Mort Kondracke said the stainless general had “bought President Bush an additional six months of running room in Iraq.” Then, six months later, the April hearings emphasized the surge “success” narrative and drawdown, by Aug. 1, to about 140,000 troops—just above pre-surge levels.

But the real news was the announcement of a “pause” in further force reductions. Meanwhile, no less than 13 National Guard brigades have been called up for deployment in Iraq and Afghanistan from the end of this fiscal year through 2009, ostensibly to replace active combat and noncombat brigades.

Surge supporters say the strategy accomplished its goal of reducing violence. To what end is still unknown. Stateside, the surge provided the Bush administration and its Republican foot soldiers with a valuable grace period, perhaps until the fall elections. For now, Americans are preoccupied with mortgages and miles per gallon.

But a growing chorus from the highest echelon of the military suggests the surge was an elaborate farce that stuck a multi-billion-dollar Band-Aid on a gaping wound while escalating the disintegration of the Armed Forces.

“The surge, although good for field commanders in Iraq, was a disaster for the Army and Marines, which could only sustain the full increase for about three months,” retired Brig. Gen. Kevin Ryan, now a fellow at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, wrote in the Orlando Sentinel. “That’s when the realities of 15-month deployments forced a decision to end it.”

He told TAC more recently, “We cannot replace them out there without a full mobilization, without total access to the reserve and the National Guard. In the situation now, we cannot do that … we either have to change our strategy or make our Army bigger.”

Lawrence J. Korb, former Reagan defense official and retired Navy captain, is less diplomatic. “[Petraeus’s] main concern is his strategy,” he told TAC. “He is putting his interest, which is the battlefield, before the long-term interest of the Army and of the country.”

There is little or no flexibility in today’s operational force, which leads many to question what would happen if the global war on terror really went global. At Slate, Fred Kaplan recently took inventory of the Army’s 43 combat brigades. He counted 16 currently in Iraq and Afghanistan, 20 in “dwell time” between deployments, one in Korea, one in transit, another doing global defense, one for “homeland defense,” and the rest unavailable.

“The Army is in a zero-sum state: No more soldiers can be sent to Afghanistan without a one-for-one reduction in Iraq,” Kaplan wrote last month. He was responding to talk about sending more troops to Afghanistan to help beat back the Taliban—an idea the Pentagon swiftly kyboshed. (Some 3,200 Iraq-weathered Marines were sent this spring, bringing the total American forces in Afghanistan to 35,000.)

“We really have to get down in Iraq below 15 brigade combat teams for us to consider adding multiple additional brigades to Afghanistan,” Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said on May 6. “The president … would consider the prospect of plussing up in Afghanistan beyond the 34,000 troops that we have there right now, but … in all likelihood that’s going to come… very late in his tenure, if it comes at all under his tenure.”

Meanwhile, critics charge that the rigid deployment tempo could be the Army’s physical and emotional undoing. The current target for brigade rotations is a 1:2 ratio—one year on, two off. (1:4 is healthiest.) While experts say 1:2 is the dividing line between force sustainability and a force “killer,” all accounts put the current scheme closer to a dangerous 1:1 ratio. For the Marines, it’s closer to seven months on, seven off.

“Given the current theater demand for Army forces, we are unable to provide a sustainable tempo of deployments for our soldiers and families. Equipment used repeatedly in harsh environments is wearing out more rapidly than programmed … overall, our readiness is being consumed as fast as we can build it,” Gen. Richard Cody, Army Vice Chief of Staff, told the House Armed Services Committee in April. “I’ve never seen our lack of strategic depth be where it is today.”

Cody plans to retire this summer. He joins a growing line at, or already out, the door. In March, Adm. William Fallon, head of U.S. Central Command, was reportedly nudged into retirement after crossing the Golden Circle too many times. “Fallon has reportedly argued with Petraeus over the issue of how many US troops should remain in Iraq and for how long, citing other threats as a reason to lower troop levels in Iraq and accept an elevated level of risk there,” Alex Koppelman wrote for Salon.

Moreover, an “identity crisis” in the field is taking its toll. The National Guard and Reserves know all about “cross leveling,” the practice of plucking troops from different units to fill gaps in active-duty missions. They also know about being deployed to Iraq to do jobs they were never trained for—like guarding prisoners. “There was no discussion at all. They said move ’em and we moved ’em,” said retired Col. Janice Karpinksi, who commanded a National Guard brigade providing security for Iraqi prisons in 2003. She insists that none of her units—one of which was implicated in the Abu Ghraib abuse scandal—was trained for the mission.

In a recent clarion call, The King and I: The Impending Crisis in Field Artillery’s Ability to Provide Fire Support to Maneuver Commanders, Army Cols. Sean MacFarland, Michael Shields, and Jeffrey Snow are blunt: using field artillery to plug holes in non-artillery missions has left the FA “a dead branch walking”—diminished and possibly unable to engage effectively in the “next war” without immediate intervention.

“If not for stop move/stop loss, attrition for FA Captains would top 17%,” the colonels wrote. “The rationale that we heard most often in our discussion with our own departing officers is a lack of job satisfaction. In other words, they didn’t sign up for motorized infantry, transition team membership, ‘in lieu of’ transportation units, detainee camp guards, or any other of a number of hole-filler duty descriptions. They wanted to be artillery officers and ended up being anything but.” This frustration only compounds the stress from the force-wide problem of “repeated deployments,” they added.

“[The tempo] is continuing to wear down the Army to the point of exhaustion,” said Lt. Col. Gian Gentile, who during his second tour in Iraq commanded a cavalry squadron in the 4th infantry division. That’s why a disproportionate number of junior and field-grade officers have been leaving the service, he told TAC. Despite steady retention figures on the books, he said, the Army’s best and brightest—particularly junior and field-grade officers—are quitting out of weariness, disgust, or desire to raise families. After two or three combat tours, he added, “you can’t question their patriotism.”

An annual shortfall of 3,000 captains is expected as the Army and Marines ramp up with new personnel over the next few years. Furthermore, “very good people” are leaving, according to Hammes, and the Army has had to rush promotions to compensate. Non-commissioned officers—men and women who work closest with soldiers in training, discipline, and on the battlefield—are being ripped from that invaluable role and hurried through Officer Candidate School. “It means people with combat experience but with no broader experience are being promoted very rapidly just to fill the gaps,” said Hammes. By April 1, 610,877 of the 1.7 million military personnel who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan had done more than one tour. Korb points out that all but one combat-ready Army brigade have been deployed at least once, while 13 have been deployed twice, 19 have done three tours, and six have gone four times.

In his outline for the surge strategy, “Choosing Victory: A Plan for Success in Iraq,” Frederick Kagan dismissed suggestions that the surge would break the Army. “Losing now will certainly break the force,” he wrote. “Victory increases the morale of the soldiers and officers.”

But what if there is no victory and no defeat, just a protracted peacekeeping mission requiring at least 10 to 15 combat brigades at a clip? Kagan had plenty of answers. Need more troops in the field? “Ground forces must accept longer tours for several years. National Guard units will have to accept increased deployments during this period,” he wrote, calling for the addition of 60,000 soldiers and Marines over the next two years. Shortage of equipment? Transfer it from the non-deployed active duty National Guard and Reserve units. Apparently nobody told him that these sources had already been picked over.

While 12 percent of the Guard and Reserves are currently activated, some soldier-supplying states have been hit harder than others. For example, only 36 percent of Guard troops are available to the governor for civil defense in Mississippi. At the same time, 49 percent of total Guard equipment is being used overseas, while 44 percent of “dual use” equipment—things that can be used in a hurricane as well as the battlefield—has been shipped out.

The Guard and Reserves once made up nearly half the forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Guard currently follows a one year on, three and a half years off balance, but military policymakers have been talking about tapping further into these resources. John Goheen, spokesman for the National Guard Association of the United States, said there hasn’t been an exodus of part-time soldiers from the ranks yet. But, “in terms of response … some units would have a difficult time.”

President Bush’s answer was to authorize the Army and Marine Corps to add 92,000 new personnel by 2012. This phantom surge may eventually resolve short-term manpower issues, but it breeds an entirely new set of problems for recruitment. Back to 1976.

“It got really bad. It takes a relatively small number to tie it all in knots,” Hammes said, recalling the “trash” that ended up on his doorstep. Are we headed there now? You bet, he says—if we aren’t there already.

The Army, Marines, and Reserves have been hitting their annual recruitment and retention targets since 2006, but attempts to recover from a disastrous recruiting year in 2005 may have damaged the long-term health of the services.

Lowering standards across the board has opened the gates to people who would previously have been rejected from duty. In 2007, the Army accepted 511 applicants with felony convictions out of a total of 12,057 criminal waivers. The Army is also accepting more recruits with physical waivers and more high-school dropouts—about 25 percent of its annual enlistments, the highest number since the 1970s. In 2005, the Army also started enlisting more men and women who scored in the lowest third of the service aptitude test. Studies show that recruits with lower scores and disciplinary waivers are likely to drop out early or perform poorly.

To entice even these lackluster enlistees, the Army has found that cold cash goes a long way. New recruits can expect more than $40,000 for just signing up. High-school seniors who enlist early can make $28,000 and get an additional $20,000 if they promise to ship out within 30 days of graduation. The Pentagon spent more than $1 billion in 2006 on enlistment bonuses alone. Meanwhile, college benefits are being underplayed in order to keep soldiers on active duty longer. The Pentagon is backing a new GI Bill that would only offer full college tuition after six years of service.

As for retention, there is the stop-loss policy, which has kept some 58,300 soldiers from leaving the Army since 2002 and currently affects about 12,235 troops. (Army leaders don’t expect the policy to be lifted until at least 2009.) And there are hefty re-enlistment incentives: Special Forces get upwards of $150,000 to stay on, while captains are being enticed to stay with a new $35,000 bonus package. Of the 18,000 eligible officers last year, 67 percent took part.

In 1976, Gen. Louis H. Wilson Jr., head of the Marine Corps, came in and cleaned house. At least 25,000 Marines were discharged for disciplinary problems or substandard performance. Hammes was able to get rid of half of his platoon. It was the first step in a 10- to 15-year rebuilding of the nation’s Armed Forces.

That was peacetime; today we fight “a long war.” While generals sound the alarms for the health of their ranks, last year’s surge promised more serial deployments. Some think the Army is about to break, others think it can limp along indefinitely as it is. Neither prospect is very promising.

But as long as there isn’t a draft, Americans don’t pay much attention to how our warrior class changes—whether it’s ceasing to be a corps of citizen-soldiers, defined by duty to family and community, and is becoming instead a repository for low-performing misfits or turning into a lusty Roman legion held together by enormous cash incentives.

“It’s already looking very different than our ideal military,” said Hammes. He would know.

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Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter.