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Published: Thursday, 1/13/2005

Reserves running on empty

FILE this one under the heading "Military Intelligence." Just as the commander of the Army Reserve warns that his 260,000 soldiers are rapidly becoming a "broken force," the Pentagon is considering longer and more frequent call-ups of National Guard troops and reservists to help fight the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

As we have pointed out before, the Brass Hats, in their rush to war after 9/11, made a serious mistake by relying too heavily on the citizen-soldiers of the United States. Now, it seems, they're trying to make matters worse.

About 40 percent of the 150,000 troops in Iraq are guard members or reservists. A new rotation now under way will soon bring the proportion to 50 percent. The Army has 660,000 troops on active duty. About 160,000 are members of the guard or reserves.

While the guard and reserve are doing an admirable job on the front lines, it seems foolhardy to depend so heavily on personnel who are not, by definition, professional soldiers. But the Pentagon has little choice under current policy.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld sold the Bush Administration's policy of pre-emptive war as a sound one because it ostensibly would use fewer troops and, by God, Mr. Rumsfeld is sticking with the plan, even as combat deaths mount and loss of U.S. control spreads in Iraq.

The Pentagon's latest plan is to make reservists and guard members eligible for unlimited active-duty call-ups, as long as no individual mobilization lasts more than 24 months. Current policy sets a cap of 24 total months.

Long deployments are one of the chief complaints among reservists, who have (or had) jobs and families at home and whose lives have been turned upside down by the Bush war. They are competent soldiers, but they never expected to be deployed abroad for years at a time.

At the same time, Lt. Gen. James Helmly, who heads the Army Reserve, has written a memo to his superiors, warning of his "deepening concern" that "dysfunctional" Pentagon policies are threatening the reserves' readiness. A key concern, the general said, is that the reserves won't be ready to respond if national emergencies arise.

While there should be grave doubts about deepening the U.S. role in the Iraq quagmire, a better solution than further burdening the guard and reserves would be to add more regular-army troops, if they can be mustered. An extra 30,000 would cost about $3 billion a year, the Army estimates.

While the regular military services are having few problems with recruiting, the guard and reserves both report shortfalls in recruitment and retention of members. It's not surprising, given the promises that have been broken to our citizen-soldiers.

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