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Living in a Twilight Zone

by Col. DAN SMITH

Near the very end of his June 28 speech to the nation on Iraq, President Bush, spoke directly to the assembled military audience of some 850 paratroopers stationed at Fort Bragg, NC: “I thank those of you who have re-enlisted in an hour when your country needs you.”

He then spoke to those across the nation who had tuned in on their televisions, radios, or computers. “And to those watching tonight who are considering a military career, there is no higher calling than service in our Armed Forces.”

Whether or not one agrees with this assertion, the statement ­ “those who are considering” ­ indirectly confirmed once again this administration’s aversion to a new military draft and its determination to rely on volunteers (recruits and re-enlistees) to meet personnel requirements. This will relieve many people while troubling many others.

Of course, one sure way to test the administration’s faith that reality won’t swamp its rhetoric is to end “stop-loss” rules holding people in uniform and to abolish the Selective Service System (SSS). The latter would, incidentally, save $24 million, not much perhaps, but $24 million here and $24 million there soon adds up to real money.

At the same time, there already lurks behind Bush’s rhetoric a certain defensiveness arising from a real world disconnect. He wants and expects young men and women to commit up to eight years of their lives to fight a diverse, unending war (anti-terror) that is perpetuated by a war of choice (Iraq) while refusing even to ask for some national sacrifice, let alone requiring participation in an extended armed conflict of a significant segment of the draft-age population.

Consider again the extract from the Fort Bragg speech. The first spotlights a critical “need” for military personnel, a message reinforced five days earlier by top field commanders who conceded, in testimony before a U.S. Senate Committee, that the Iraq insurgency was not diminished from where it stood six months earlier. But the tone of the second is the “voluntary” nature of military service which somehow, in this war, is ennobled because it is not compelled by government.

These contradictory currents swirl even within the Pentagon. The civilian and uniformed leaders insist that putting more people into uniform, voluntarily or involuntarily, will only complicate ongoing programs to reshape ground forces and redistribute and retrain those already in service. Yet monetary incentives offered by the Army and Marine Corps are at their highest level. Moreover, the Pentagon has contracted with a private sector marketing company to build a data base on an estimated 30 million high school students as young as 16, all college students, and all up to age 25 who have registered with Selective Service. The data go well beyond the information (name, address, and telephone number) that schools must provide military recruiters under the “No Child Left Behind” Act unless a parent or guardian objects in writing to releasing that information. As it is, Pentagon spending for recruiting is running about $14,000 per recruit ­ more than $3 billion a year.

Congress is beset by the same cross-currents. On April 6, Rep. Major Owens (NY) introduced legislation (H.R. 1495) that would cancel the requirement for all males to register for the draft upon reaching their 18th birthday. On May 18, Rep. Ron Paul (TX) went a step further by introducing H.R. 2455 calling for the complete repeal of the Military Selective Service Act, the dismantling of the Selective Service bureaucracy, and the termination of any punishments and sanctions still in effect when the bill becomes law. H.R. 2455 also forbids re-establishing the Office of Selective Service Records, a provision that really buries the system.

Then comes Rep. Charles Rangel’s proposed Universal National Service Act of 2005 ­ H.R. 2723which he unveiled May 26. (This version is very similar to his 2004 proposal, which was pulled from certain “death by indifference” in committee and brought to the House floor for a truncated debate and a certain “death by vote” ­ 402 to 2.) Under this legislation, both young men and women would be required to perform 15 months of either military service or “in a civilian capacity” that contributes to “national security” in a broad sense. The president would have the authority to postpone or suspend inductions into military service once the military training base reaches its maximum capacity. No similar provision exists for civilian national service, although the bill recognizes conscientious objector status. Rangel also amends the Military Selective Service Act by requiring both men and women to register upon attaining age 18.

The House approved and sent to the Senate the Transportation, Treasury, Housing and Urban Development, the Judiciary, the District of Columbia, and Independent Agencies Appropriations Act, 2006, which includes $24 million for salaries and expenses for the SSS bureaucracy. (Until this year, SSS appropriations were included in the Veterans Affairs and Housing and Urban Affairs legislation.) This is actually a reduction of $2.3 million from Fiscal Year (FY) 2005, $2.308 million from FY 2004, and $2 million from FY 2003. And although the bill forbids ­ as it does every year ­ spending any of this appropriation “for or in connection with the induction of any person into the Armed Forces of the United States,” the ground services are pouring more than a thousand new recruiters into the fray ­ another clear cross-current.

In fact, according to the military-oriented publication Inside the Pentagon, in the two fiscal years following September 11, 2001, the three lowest Army ranks went from 33 percent of the active duty enlisted ranks to 27 percent. The decline, that is to say, started well before planning even began for the Iraq invasion in March 2003.

So, how does this add up? Instead of (or in addition to) concentrating on re-organizing itself into 43 brigade-size (roughly 3,800 troops) “units of action,” the Army should make a hard-headed assessment, based on historical data and conditions, of the numbers of fully qualified recruits it can realistically expect to attract rather than set an artificially high quota.

Practically, without a draft, even the approved “temporary” increase in Army and Marine Corps end-strengths (30,000 and 9,000, respectively) will be difficult if not impossible to meet. Yet, in what can only be described as “living in a twilight zone,” some in Democrats in Congress, including presidential aspirant Hillary Clinton and Joseph Lieberman, are floating proposals to increase Army authorized end-strength by 80,000 over the next four years.

What keeps formations going today are re-enlistments. But these are also a finite number that can be renewed only a finite number of times, each time at an increased cost. The portents, reflected in the steep declines in the lowest enlisted ranks, are clear ­ and they all point to a force that is fatigued: too many deployments to too many wars with too many dead and wounded at too great a cost to civil liberties and democratic ideals at home.

Fewer forces would have one benefit: it might rein in both the dollars spent on personnel (averaging $99,000 per soldier per annum) and, perhaps, the propensity of politicians to send troops on new “Iraqs.”

Col. Daniel Smith, a West Point graduate and Vietnam veteran, is Senior Fellow on Military Affairs at the Friends Committee on National Legislation, a Quaker lobby in the public interest. He can be reached at: dan@fcnl.org

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