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Published: Tuesday, 10/5/2004

The back-door draft

ONE of the unintended public policy side effects of the war in Iraq is that the United States no longer has an all-volunteer military force.

The volunteer force, fruit of the bitter experience with the draft during the Vietnam War years, was abrogated in June when the Pentagon issued what's known as a "stop loss" order. The order, necessary to ensure sufficient troops for the continuing war in Iraq, is forcing many members of the military to remain in service after their contractual enlistment runs out.

Some in Congress, including Republican Sen. John McCain, are referring to "stop loss" as a synonym for "back-door draft," and that's really what it amounts to. News reports indicate the action is dragging down military morale, especially among National Guard and Reserve troops, who are playing a bigger role than ever in fighting a foreign war. Many of those troops have families and children back home.

Being able to keep volunteer soldiers in uniform is, for the Pentagon, the next best thing to reinstating the draft, which was abolished in 1973, near the end of the Vietnam War. Reviving Selective Service, as it was known, has been a non-issue in the presidential campaign because of its perceived unpopularity with the general public.

What's being ignored is the toll taken on those troops who expected to serve out their enlistment and leave the service. The longer "stop loss" is in effect, the more likely it will become for weary personnel to refuse to re-enlist when they finally do get a chance to make a break.

The result down the line is almost certain to be significant personnel shortages.

As one former Army captain who served in Afghanistan told the Chicago Tribune, "In a year and a half or two years, there are going to be huge shortages. You can't keep these guys in for good."

Already, one member of the California National Guard is challenging the stop loss order in federal court on the grounds that such orders can only be issued when war has been declared by Congress. As with Vietnam, Congress gave the President authority to use military force but did not declare war.

At present, the U.S. military is stretched thin around the world, a reflection of the lack of foresight and planning on the part of President Bush and members of his administration who pushed so hard for the war.

Short of bringing back the draft, it is hard to see where sufficient troops will come from to protect against all the dangers Mr. Bush has identified in the world. One thing is certain, though: Continuation of the stop-loss order will only make matters worse.

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