Voluntary No More?

Lawrence J. Korb
Lawrence J. Korb

The war against Iraq will cause several long-term problems for the nation. Some of these problems are obvious, a growing budget deficit and lasting damage to such long-standing international organizations like the United Nations and traditional alliances like NATO.

But often overlooked is the damage that the Bush administration's approach to the war has caused to the all-volunteer military (AVF).

The military that the Bush administration inherited and that performed so well in Afghanistan and in major combat in Iraq was the highest-quality, best-trained, and most professional military that this nation has ever fielded.

But creating this military on an all volunteer basis did not happen overnight, nor did it happen by accident. Over the past three decades, since the war in Vietnam forced an end to the draft, civilian and military leaders have sent forces into combat with the best training and equipment and clear objectives. They applied overwhelming force and had clear exit strategies. When reserves had to be activated they were given adequate notice and were not called up more than once every five or six years. Finally, and most importantly, when an administration used the military improperly, as the Reagan administration did in Lebanon and the Clinton administration did in Somalia, the Presidents admitted their mistakes and withdrew the military before more problems were created for the military and the country.

As a recent survey of U.S. troops in Stars and Stripes, the Pentagon-funded newspaper, Iraq makes clear, the Bush administration's approach to waging war in Iraq risks severe damage to the all volunteer military. In the survey of nearly 2,000 troops, approximately one-third complained that the war in Iraq was of little or no value and that their mission lacked clear definition. And 40 percent said that their goals had little or nothing to do with their training.

Most ominously, about half of the soldiers indicated they would not re-enlist when their tours end and the Pentagon lifts the "stop loss order" which prevents them from getting out any earlier. If that occurs it will take at least a decade to bring the military back to its prewar readiness standards.

These findings should not come as a surprise to anyone who is familiar with the administration's handling of the military during this war. Despite warnings to the contrary from the then-Army Chief of Staff, Gen. Eric Shinseki, the administration argued that it could stabilize post-invasion Iraq with 30,000 American troops rather than the 160,000 which remain in Iraq and Kuwait today.

Most of the troops still in Iraq understandably, but mistakenly, assumed that they would have been home by now. The administration also assumed that others in the international community, despite the tensions that marked UN debates about Iraq before the invasion, would rush in to send troops once the war was over.

The administration compounded the problem by not sending in the right kinds of forces to Iraq in March and April. It assigned front line combat troops the duties of military police and civil affairs specialists after it failed to deploy specialized troops in a timely manner. Moreover, since the Pentagon did not plan for the number of troops that were, in fact, required to stabilize Iraq, it failed to order enough ceramic body armor for the troops and so few telephones that there are credible reports of soldiers paying out of their own pockets to call home.

The administration's underestimation of the post-invasion phase of the war has also required the Pentagon to activate National Guard and Reserve units without reasonable notice. Some of these units have been have been activated three times in the last two years – far more frequently than the norm.

The administration has made this situation worse by its handling of quality of life issues for active duty and reserve personnel, military retirees and veterans. For example, in the past year, the Bush administration tried to reduce funding for military housing by 15 percent, proposed cutting by 30 percent aid to schools that educate the children of military families, and attempted to roll back the recent increases in imminent danger and family separation pays. Moreover, it has threatened presidential vetoes of defense bills that would expand health care for reservists and would enable disabled retirees to collect both their disability and retired pay.

Secretary Rumsfeld seems completely oblivious to this situation. In his now-famed memo of October 16, he blames the military for the problem, saying that it has not changed fast enough to successfully fight the global war on terror. If anyone needs to change it is Rumsfeld and the President. In the short term, they must level with the troops about why we went to war, why we cannot find weapons of mass destruction, how long they will remain in Iraq and internationalize the military part of the reconstruction. In the long term they need to restructure the military so that the troops that are deployed most frequently are moved from the reserve to the active component and to pay more attention to the needs of the men and women who so ably serve their nation.

Lawrence J. Korb is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.