U.S. Military: Help Wanted

by Jeff Fleischer

(Mother Jones, October 13, 2004)


George Bush and John Kerry have both publicly repudiated calls for a military draft, but the subject remains a hot topic largely because American forces are stretched thin by the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. And that situation isn’t likely to improve anytime soon.

Last week, Paul Bremer, former head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, admitted the U.S. didn’t have enough troops to control the widespread looting and violence that “established an atmosphere of lawlessness” after the fall of Baghdad. That was just the first of many cases in Iraq where needed troops haven’t been available, as we know from reporters on the ground, who continue to find examples of understaffed missions. Wednesday’s Chicago Tribune includes a report from the largest U.S. support base in Iraq, where the commander has twice asked for and been denied reinforcements despite daily attacks that have wounded more than 100 troops.

As Time points out, the U.S. needs to get more troops on the ground. The problem is where to get them:

“Deployed in more than 120 nations around the world, from Iraq to Mongolia, the nation’s fighting forces are stretched, by all accounts, to the breaking point. Since 9/11, the number of active-duty and reservist troops deployed overseas has shot up from 203,000 to 500,000. All the Army’s combat brigades have been dispatched into war zones over the past two years; some have already gone twice. The demands of war in Iraq and Afghanistan have forced the U.S. to keep some units on a constant combat footing, sharply reducing the recuperation and retraining period that military experts say is essential to maintain a first-rate Army…

“The Pentagon has applied a host of manpower tourniquets to keep bodies in uniform and on the front lines. For example, the military has issued ‘stop loss’ orders that have prohibited thousands of soldiers at the end of their enlistment obligations from leaving if their units are bound for Iraq, a policy Kerry likens to a ‘back-door draft.’”

In a report released Oct. 1, the Century Foundation took a look at how stretched American forces are, and the results aren’t pretty. The share of all active U.S. forces (including the Navy, Air Force and Marines) deployed overseas has doubled since before the invasion of Iraq. Twenty-six of the 33 active army brigades will deploy at least once in 2004. The foundation reports more than 40 percent of forces in Iraq are National Guard, while the number of reservists deployed passed 150,000 as far back as April.

Once active troops end their commitments, the situation becomes increasingly problematic. According to a Stars and Stripes survey cited by the foundation, only about a third of troops surveyed in Iraq say they are “likely” or “very likely” to stay in the military past their current obligations. Meanwhile, the National Guard has fallen short of its recruiting goals for the first time in a decade. As Time reports:

“The Army National Guard reported that for the first time in a decade, it fell about 10% — or 5,000 soldiers — short of its annual goal for recruits. The pool of youngsters who have committed in 2004 to join the Army next year is only 18% of the total required, about half what the Army likes to have banked away. Roughly a third of the 3,900 Individual Ready Reservists mobilized for combat — who thought their days in uniform were over — are resisting the military’s call-up.”

Military recruiters are breaking out new incentives to try filling those shortages, including bonuses up to $8,000 for those with previous military service and a campaign to shift downsized Navy and Air Force personnel to the Army. According the Associated Press:

“[The Army] is putting more recruiters on the streets. And it is spending $180 million on promotions that include sponsorship of a rodeo cowboy, ads on ESPN, and a Web site that allows users to chat with recruiters at scheduled times 24 hours a day.”
Some troops at Fort Carson, Colo., claim the Army has gone so far as to threaten them with deployment to Iraq if they don’t re-enlist, a charge the Army denies.

Naturally, the prospect of heading into war makes the prospect of joining the military less appealing for many. The question becomes whether “stop-loss” measures, recruitment incentives and shifting forces from stations like South Korea and Europe will produce enough troops to meet U.S. needs in Iraq and Afghanistan. And in a “global war on terror,” what happens if world events require another shift to an additional theater? Both candidates might abhor the draft, but the rumor will likely continue until another concrete solution is found.

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