Backdoor Draft, by Charles CarreonWhen Chalabi Was Our Guy
Now That Maliki is Our Guy
Posted on Sun, Aug. 27, 2006
'Back-door draft' shakes the military
Iraq, Afghanistan conflicts stretch volunteers thin
By Scott Canon and Rick Montgomery
McClatchy-Tribune News Service
KANSAS CITY, Mo. - This was the plan in 1973: Dump the draft. Count on volunteers. When something big comes up, rely on the reserves and National Guard.
A special commission had told Richard Nixon the country could suffice with a smaller all-volunteer, active-duty military unless something really big came up.
Only in the case of a long-term, large-scale foreign deployment - define that as more than six months and 100,000 troops - would there be any need to bother with a draft again.
Now three-plus years since tanks rumbled into Baghdad, with more than 150,000 U.S. troops deployed to either Iraq or Afghanistan, the Pentagon is making do with thinly stretched volunteers.
Most recently, the Marine Corps announced the involuntary call-up of 2,500 troops in the individual ready reserves - people clearly obligated to fight if called but also expecting that their days in uniform were behind them.
"Up until now the Marines were able to recruit plenty of people and get them to come back just by asking. They're the most gung ho of all the services," said Lawrence Korb, who specialized in manpower issues as an assistant secretary of defense during the Reagan administration. "The fact that they're forcing some Marines back into service is indicative of how military and former military people feel about this war."
In a word, tired.
In service now: Already, the Marines had called some 5,000 troops voluntarily back into service. The Army has called back 5,000 soldiers from the ready reserves, most of them involuntarily, since Sept. 11, 2001.
In addition, so-called "stop loss" policies that protect the Army from losing people in high-demand specialties are freezing more than 10,000 soldiers in the service involuntarily and indefinitely. At times during the Iraq war, that number has risen to nearly 14,000.
Korb and others refer to it as a "back-door draft" - a means of putting enough boots on the ground without having to impose conscription on the general military-age population.
Nor are recruitment targets being increased to account for the 500 or so troops lost to battlefield deaths and injuries every month, he said.
"We can't put in that factor because it would be too hot politically," he said of the casualties. "It's like the draft."
While a few lonely voices call for a draft to spread the burden of military service and to force a national referendum on the occupation of Iraq, conventional wisdom in the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill holds that such ideas will go nowhere.
Some in Congress have pushed to significantly increase the number of active duty troops, which the Bush administration has consistently resisted.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is a forceful advocate for military "transformation," meaning using advances in weapons to rely on smaller and more quickly deployable forces.
The Army Times argued in an editorial this month that the U.S. needs either to beef up its force level or trim back its ambitions in the world.
"If Congress and the White House do not want to expend what is necessary to support America's current global role," the magazine editorialized, "then policy should shift toward an isolationist stance, which is all that declining force levels can support."
To U.S. Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri, ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee and an advocate for a larger military, the Marines' call-up "is yet another reminder" of the Iraq war draining resources and manpower away from the larger struggle against global terrorism.
"We must be open and honest with the American people," said Skelton. "This involuntary call-up serves as a warning that valuable resources are being misspent on the conflict in Iraq rather than being sent to the front lines in the war on terrorism."
The plan: The administration's plan, of course, was to pull U.S. troops out of Iraq as soon as possible, using quickly trained Iraqi forces to replace them.
Even as recently as May, U.S. generals were talking about a drawdown this year. Similarly, politicians in Washington expected it as the November elections approached and the war polled more unpopular. But the insurgency grew ever hotter, civil war threatened between Sunni and Shiite in Baghdad and the Pentagon committed its reserve forces stationed in Kuwait.
Many troops have had multiple tours in Iraq or Afghanistan. Last month, the Alaska-based 172nd Stryker brigade was scheduled to return home after a year in Mosul, Iraq, when it was assigned to four more months in Baghdad in a push to improve security there. Similar stories are repeated in units throughout the military.
"The all-volunteer force is good for fighting short wars ... but this is the long war," said Bob Work, a senior defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington think tank.
"If you consider that the war on terror was declared shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, then this conflict already is longer than World War II, longer than Korea, longer than the Spanish-American War and the Civil War.
"The benefits of going to a small, all-volunteer force (versus the draft) are so great, nobody wants to change the rules and go back. The only danger, however, is having a manpower shortage in a prolonged war. You'll see more of these stresses and adjustments the longer the fighting goes on."
Active and inactive: Meanwhile, the military's current collection of active duty, reserves, National Guard and reactivated troops fills the rotations and plugs the gaps.
For his part, Marine ready reservist Cpl. Anton Petersen, 23, says, "Yeah, it's very possible we could be heading back" to Iraq - even though he already spent seven months in a security patrol there and his active duty ended in May.
"When you agree to four years active duty, followed by four years inactive, you know you're signing an eight-year contract," says Petersen of Grain Valley, Mo., who now helps build homes to support his wife and daughter. "Nobody was forcing me to sign on the dotted line. ... I wanted to be a Marine."
By and large, military recruiting targets have been met, but with increasing difficulty.
The Army has begun to let in more people without high school degrees or who score poorly on aptitude tests. Tattoos that once would keep a young man out of the Army are being tolerated more often. Older recruits are being allowed to sign up.
Meantime, reserves have been called to duty in ways not seen in generations.
"In the past three years we've gone from strategic reserves" - troops called upon rarely in emergencies - "to operational reserves" used to fill ongoing manpower shortages, said David R. Segal, the director of the Center for Research on Military Organization at the University of Maryland. "That's not what they understood when they signed up."