On Sept. 23, Lt. Col. Mike Jones, the deputy division chief of recruiting and retention for the Army National Guard, announced that the guard had missed its 2004 recruiting target for the first time in a decade, falling 5,000 recruits short of its goal. Jones’ announcement exposes the most serious dilemma facing the winner of November’s presidential election. Due to the occupation of Iraq, the military faces two deeply interconnected crises – a recruitment and personnel shortage coupled with deteriorating morale among active-duty personnel in Iraq.
The incoming president must face the apparent catch-22 of recruiting additional forces to fight an increasingly unpopular war without fueling the erosion of morale among those serving or inciting increased public opposition to the occupation. The government has attempted to address the inefficacy of recent recruiting efforts with a combination of incentives and coercion.
The Army has increased bonuses offered to soldiers who re-enlist after completing their initial eight-year military service obligation. The bonuses – up to $8,000 for a six-year enlistment and up to $4,000 for a three-year enlistment – are the largest in the Guard’s history. The Army also announced it was considering shortening the length of tours of duty in Iraq.
These much heralded payouts contrast sharply with the experience of soldiers at Ft. Carson in Colorado. The Rocky Mountain News reported that hundreds of soldiers from the 3rd Brigade Combat Team were given a stark ultimatum: “Re-enlist for three more years or be transferred to other units expected to deploy to Iraq.”
According to one soldier, the threat “outraged many soldiers who are close to fulfilling their obligation and are looking forward to civilian life.”
THE BACKDOOR DRAFT
The military issued a “stop-loss” order days after the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Affecting more than 160,000 military personnel, it forces those whose volunteer commitments expire to remain in the military for 90 days beyond the length of their overseas deployment and up to a year beyond their enlistment.
The other order, instituted in June 2004, activated the “Individual Ready Reserve,” a group of 110,000 former soldiers who have already met their service obligation. The order means that they can be called back into service at any time.
Both have come under withering attack.
In an Army Times interview, Col. Kelly McKeague, executive officer in the National Guard Bureau, blamed the stop-loss order for the personnel shortage that has befallen the reserves. “The stop-loss policy, which prevents eligible soldiers from leaving the active ranks, has the trickle-down effect of keeping them from joining the Guard when they leave the regular Army.”
On Aug. 17, a decorated member of the California National Guard filed the first court challenge to the “stop-loss” order. The man, who remains anonymous for privacy reasons, argues that since the invasion of Iraq has no connection to the rationale of the order, invoked to address “the continuing and immediate threat of further terrorist attacks on the United States,” it should not be used to keep personnel in or send personnel to Iraq.
Many soldiers called up from the Individual Ready Reserve have simply refused to report for duty. USA Today reported Sept. 28 that in South Carolina, “fewer than two-thirds of the former soldiers being reactivated for duty in Iraq and elsewhere have reported on time, prompting the Army to threaten some with punishment for desertion.”
The strains felt by military recruiters and service personnel reflect the current state of affairs in Iraq. On Sept. 24 Esther Schrader wrote in the Los Angeles Times that “the Guard is struggling to recruit people in large part because active-duty soldiers are aware that an increasing number of Guard units are being sent to Iraq and Afghanistan, so they no longer see the Guard as a safe alternative to total retirement from the military.” Lt. Col. Jones shares this view. “The highest success in recruitment comes… from members in service just getting out and talking to people where they live. These days they’re not there.”
BLEAK PROGNOSIS FOR THE OCCUPATION
The Financial Times published several pages of a report leaked by the Pentagon appointed Defense Science Board. The bleak findings of the report demonstrate the strained position of the armed forces in Iraq. “The U.S. military,” the report states, “will not be able to maintain its current peacekeeping commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan without a significant increase in the size of the armed forces or scaling back the objectives of the stabilization missions.”
Both President Bush and Senator Kerry have pinned their hopes for averting a military mutiny on the ability of Iraqi proxies to combat the insurgency quickly. But with Iraqi troops plagued by desertion, incompetence and guerilla attacks, the idea of mobilizing a reliable Iraqi army under U.S. command seems divorced from reality. An Agence France-Presse report on Sept. 28 citing Pentagon documents revealed that “of the nearly 90,000 [Iraqis] currently in the police force, only 8,169 have had the full eight-week academy training.” The article continued, “It will be July 2006 before the administration reaches its new goal of a 135,000- strong, fully-trained police force.”
Another way that U.S. policymakers have hoped to avert a major crisis is to “internationalize” the occupation troops in Iraq. John Kerry claims that as president, he can re-establish alliances that President Bush broke in the lead-up to the March 2003 offensive. Recent statements by policymakers in France and Germany indicate that this belief, too, is illusory.
NO REALITY IN SIGHT
With a burgeoning crisis in the military developing, with little help coming from Iraqi forces in the near future and with even less help coming from abroad, there is a vital need for the incoming president to have a realistic strategy in mind to face the occupation of Iraq.
John Kerry announced in a Sept. 24 speech at Temple University his plan to “expand our Army by 40,000 troops so that we have more soldiers to find and fight the enemy.” Though Kerry has repeated this figure of 40,000 troops often, he has never explained how he plans to accomplish this without a draft.
President Bush, too, has rejected the suggestion of a draft, making clear his desire to preserve the “all-volunteer” armed forces. But unlike Kerry, Bush’s surrogates have begun to intimate that the best option in Iraq may be to scale back the American presence.
In a stunning interview with the Toronto Globe and Mail, defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld said that “some U.S. troops could be ordered home even if they fail to quash the mounting insurgency in Iraq,” adding that “U.S. troops might be part of the problem, rather than the solution.”
Though it is unlikely, the possibility exists that Rumsfeld’s apparent about-face is an election-year ploy to position his boss to the left of his Democratic contender on the war. But an equally likely possibility remains – that even Bush’s hawkish defense secretary, after reading the latest news from the Pentagon, sees the worsening situation in Iraq as being detrimental to larger U.S. foreign policy objectives.