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Washington faces an overstretched military
Feeling a draft?

January 21, 2005 | Pages 4 and 5

ACCORDING to the White House spin, everything is just fine with the U.S. military. Morale is high, troops are well-trained and well-equipped to fight the war in Iraq, recruiters are meeting their targets.

And the last thing on anyone's mind is a military draft, they say. "We're not going to have a draft, period," said Bush in his second debate with John Kerry during last year's presidential campaign.

But there's more to this picture than the administration is willing to admit. Any honest assessment of today's military reveals that Pentagon officials are scrambling to keep enough soldiers in the field--while confronting the challenge of recruiting to the military during wartime.

BOB QUELLOS and ERIC RUDER look at the growing pressure on Congress and the White House to bring back the draft for the first time since the 1970s.

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AT FIRST glance, it might seem outlandish to believe that the U.S. military could be overstretched. Its size boggles the mind. There are 1.4 million active-duty soldiers, with an additional 865,000 National Guard members and reservists.

But these troops must hold down military bases and installations across the globe. Today, the U.S. has a military presence in 153 of the 189 countries represented at the United Nations. There are 280,000 U.S. troops stationed in Europe, 150,000 in East Asia and the Pacific, and 30,000 in the Middle East (not including Iraq).

Only 150,000 U.S. soldiers are stationed in Iraq at present. But having that many fresh troops in the field means that some troops have just been rotated out, and others are preparing to rotate in. In addition, these troops must have an entire network of people behind them to provide field support and training.

So despite the military's large size, the Pentagon has only a relatively small number of troops available to serve in a war zone at any given time.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his fellow neoconservatives made the problem worse because their pre-war planning anticipated that a grateful Iraqi population would meet U.S. troops with flowers and candy--not improvised explosive devices and an armed rebellion.

Rumsfeld's plan had assumed that the U.S. could begin drawing down its troop commitments in Iraq by now--and turn over security operations to a pro-U.S. puppet regime. Instead, the U.S. has had to increase its troop commitment to try to impose calm in the run-up to Iraq's January 30 elections--despite clear signs that the U.S. military is under intense strain.

Already, National Guard members and Army Reservists--people with civilian lives who generally don't expect to be deployed overseas in a war zone--make up 40 percent of the "boots on the ground" in Iraq. They are often put in the field with inadequate training and inferior equipment compared to their full-time counterparts--something that has bred a great deal of resentment and put further strain on the force.

The truth was bluntly acknowledged by Lt. Gen. James Helmly, the commanding officer of the Army Reserve, in early January when he said that long deployments and rising anger about poor training mean that the Reserve is "rapidly degenerating into a 'broken' force."

There have already been many examples of this trend--most famously, the refusal of 18 reserve soldiers last October to obey a direct order to transport fuel because their commanding officers wouldn't provide them with adequate armed escorts or well-maintained vehicles, even though they would be traveling along a 200-mile route known for heavy fighting.

In addition to using reservists to make up for shortages of full-time soldiers, the U.S. has implemented a series of "stop-loss" orders--which allow military brass to extend the commissions of soldiers beyond their discharge dates if their unit is currently deployed or about to be deployed. "Perhaps over 100,000 servicemen have been subjected to 'stop-loss' since the program started," said Joshua Sondheimer, a lawyer representing a soldier with 12 years of service who is suing the military for trying to force him back to Iraq on a second tour of duty.

The only measures--short of a draft--that the military can now resort to are more aggressive recruiting and bribery.

Both the National Guard and Army Reserve fell short of their recruiting goals in October and November --by 30 percent and 10 percent respectively--mainly because discharged active-duty soldiers are refusing to sign up, for fear that they'll end up back in Iraq. For its part, the Army has managed to meet its recruitment goals, but only by calling up troops who had deferred entry for a year--meaning that meeting next year's goal will be that much harder.

To deal with this looming shortfall of warm bodies, the Army has added 375 more people to its existing stable of 5,654 full-time recruiters. The Guard is adding 1,400 to its force of 2,700, and the Reserve is increasing its staff by 400 from 1,040, according to a recent report in Time magazine.

And the Army has increased its promise of college benefits for new recruits--from $50,000 to $70,000--though few soldiers ever find themselves able to take advantage of this money, given the various restrictions.

To lure in new recruits, the Guard and Reserve both increased signing bonuses in late December to $15,000--if soldiers agreed to commit to six years of service--up from $5,000 and $8,000 respectively. Plus, reservists who reach the 24-month cap on their deployment receive a $1,000 monthly tax-free bonus for staying on.

"In outlays that won't show up as costs for the Iraq war, the Army is rolling out more than $1 billion in bonuses and benefits this year to induce young Americans to enlist and to entice those already in uniform to extend their service," according to Time. "There are premiums to be pocketed for signing up for certain jobs--infantry, military police, transportation--as well as for agreeing to ship out quickly to train, and then, probably, go to Iraq."

All these "incentives" bother the Army Reserve's Helmly. "We must consider the point at which we confuse 'volunteer to become an American soldier' with 'mercenary,'" he wrote.

The "financial inducements" to "volunteer" acknowledge that even without a formal draft, there's already another kind of draft going on--a poverty draft. Military recruiters across the country fan out looking for people who have difficulty finding a job or coming up with money for college--and lure them with a simple message: join up, get a signing bonus or money for school, or learn a skill.

For those who already have such skills, the military has no appeal, which is why a Defense Department paper--obtained by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer through a Freedom of Information Act request--suggests that a skills and medical draft may be needed more urgently than a combat draft. The military is hard-pressed to fill critical shortages in highly skilled fields, such as nursing, computer networking and foreign languages.

But a combat draft could be just as urgent a priority if the situation in Iraq deteriorates.

Already, more than 20,000 troops have been transported out of Iraq for medical treatment--and more than half of those are too seriously injured to return to the field. More than 1,300 soldiers have been killed in action. Combined, this means that the war in Iraq has left roughly 10 percent of current troop strength unfit for combat--in less than two years.

Add to this the assessments of former national security advisers Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski that the U.S. would need to elevate its troop levels in Iraq to 500,000 to have any chance of achieving its goals, and it's obvious that the Bush administration could be left with no choice but to try to reinstitute the draft.

That would be a politically explosive move. During the Vietnam War, the draft was a lightning rod for people beginning to question the war, becoming a major target of demonstrations and resistance.

The antiwar movement should be preparing now to fight any attempt to bring back the draft. "The only way to defeat the draft before it begins is to build a broad antiwar movement now, one that unites students, workers and soldiers in solidarity with the working people of Iraq," Justin Akers wrote in a recent issue of the International Socialist Review. "Under circumstances of widespread active discontent over the war, the Pentagon may be forced to think twice about enacting legislation that will import and encourage even greater levels of discontent in the armed forces."

Would a reinstated draft be fairer?

REP. CHARLES Rangel (D-N.Y.) is planning to reintroduce legislation calling for reinstatement of the draft, according to antiwar activists who met with Rangel's staff. Rangel introduced similar legislation in the last Congress, arguing that the draft would compel the sons and daughters of the wealthy to experience the burden of military service that now falls on the shoulders of the poor, who are disproportionately Black and Latino.

At a December 21 meeting with Rangel's legislative director, Emile Milne, members of the Center on Conscience and War were (CCW) told that Rangel would "probably introduce similar legislation" in 2005, according to a memo by CCW's Bill Galvin.

To score points against Bush during the presidential campaign, John Kerry said in one debate, "With George Bush, the plan for Iraq is more of the same and the great potential of a draft." But the Republicans called his bluff, allowing Rangel's proposal to come to a vote in the House. It went down to defeat 402-2--including a "no" vote from Rangel.

If Rangel does reintroduce the bill, he will again give it a progressive gloss with the argument that if the children of the rich were to face the possibility of going to war, politicians would be less likely to start them.

When Rangel talks about the inequalities in today's "volunteer" army, his argument has the ring of truth. Minorities account for more than one-third of the military's 1.4 million troops. In the first Gulf War in 1991, more than 25 percent of combat troops were African American, about twice their number in the population as a whole. Meanwhile, the children of the rich are few and far between in the military--except as the officers who give the orders.

The reality is that there is a draft operating in the U.S.--the "poverty draft." But Rangel is wrong that a reinstituted formal draft will make things fairer.

The draft during the Vietnam War era didn't force the children of the wealthy to face combat--as Bush's own personal biography makes clear. Bush used his family's connections to get a place in the Texas Air National Guard to avoid service in Vietnam. And Black soldiers served disproportionately in combat units in Vietnam. Likewise, high school dropouts were three times more likely to serve in the combat units that took the casualties than college graduates.

Today, the rich would have all sorts of ways to get cushy assignments or avoid service altogether--by using their connections or hiring doctors who will give them medical excuses.

The draft also won't make future wars less likely, as Rangel argues. The last draft in the U.S. was initiated in 1930 and ended in 1973. During those years, more than 10 million young men were drafted--and the U.S. fought the Second World War, the Korean War and the Vietnam War, along with several smaller-scale interventions, such as the occupation of Haiti and the toppling of the Dominican Republic's democratically elected president.

Rangel portrays his legislation as a deterrent that will somehow frighten the Bush administration into abandoning its plans for a string of pre-emptive wars. But the evidence suggests the opposite--that Bush would owe a debt of gratitude to Rangel for providing a liberal justification for the draft.

In fact, Bush began filling vacant offices in the Selective Service System--the institution that organizes the draft--more than a year ago. So if Congress does approve a draft, implementation can proceed on a lightning-fast timetable.

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