• U.S.

DOES THE U.S. NEED THE DRAFT?

11 minute read
Mark Thompson

WITH EXPLOSIONS AND GUNFIRE ECHOING IN THE distance, the Marines in the observation post in downtown Ramadi know they are at war. They’re just not sure who–or where–the enemy is. In restive Iraqi cities like Ramadi, the U.S. campaign to deny sanctuary to the insurgents consists of a daily assortment of hit-and-run exchanges, alleyway gunfights and nighttime raids. “They’ve taken the fight into the neighborhoods,” says Captain Jeffrey Kenney, commander of Golf Company of the 2nd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment. “The hardest thing is to ID where the fire is coming from.” The jarheads long for a pitched battle but know that will never happen because the rebels aren’t suicidal. The Marines must seek out the insurgents and monitor the places where they hide, which is why these Marines are hunkered down in a bullet-pocked building overlooking the Grand Mosque, scanning the streets and rooftops for rebel gunmen. It’s exasperating work. “They tend not to get us because they’re lousy shots,” says Sergeant Jeremy Barone. “We tend not to get them because they run away.”

Peril lurks around every corner. Even in Ramadi, a Sunni town that the U.S. military considers under its control, the Marines are ambushed nearly every day by insurgents firing rocket-propelled grenades. Convoys passing through the city must navigate a minefield of roadside bombs. The violence has made it impossible to carry out missions to win the hearts and minds of the locals, most of whom have never warmed to the U.S. presence. The Marines in Ramadi don’t use tanks and rarely call in air support; instead, they rely on guile, guts and instinct to hunt down the insurgents. Given the task at hand and the large area of operations, units like Captain Kenney’s Golf Company look as if they could use help. But with just 137,000 U.S. troops in Iraq trying to defeat an insurgency that has spread to more than two dozen cities and towns, the Marines know they can’t expect much. “Could you spend more time here and get a better impression of the city? Absolutely,” Kenney says. “Do I need more people? No, I don’t.”

Over the course of the U.S. adventure in Iraq, military commanders and Bush Administration officials have been united in their insistence that they have enough troops to win the war, despite the fact that parts of the country have slipped out of the control of the U.S. and its Iraqi allies as the insurgency has grown in ferocity. The consensus seemed to crumble last week, when L. Paul Bremer III, former top U.S. official in Iraq, told a West Virginia audience that “we never had enough troops on the ground” to prevent the looting and chaos that wracked Baghdad after the U.S. invasion last spring. Bremer later scrambled to amend his remarks, contending that whatever the shortfalls last spring, the U.S. now had sufficient numbers in Iraq. But his comments emboldened critics like Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry who blast the Administration for mismanaging the war, and added to nervousness about the military’s high-stakes offensive to seize control of the Sunni triangle from the insurgents in time for nationwide elections in January. U.S. officials say that as part of the strategy, the interim Iraqi government will try to win over the rebel-controlled towns by pouring security personnel and reconstruction funds into them, hoping to wean local residents from their support of the insurgents. If that doesn’t work–and if the central government is unable to negotiate peace with the guerrillas–the U.S. military and its Iraqi allies are prepared to attack.

The war, in other words, could well get bloodier. The Pentagon is rushing to train 200,000 Iraqi troops to take over combat duties by next August, but meanwhile the U.S. military is trapped in a nation-building marathon that the Army is ill prepared to carry out. Among some Americans, the prospect of an open-ended U.S. commitment in Iraq has heightened anxieties that manpower shortages may lead the Pentagon to reinstitute the draft. The heat of the presidential campaign has kept the rumors alive, which may prove costly to George W. Bush.

In a TIME poll taken before the second debate, 42% of those surveyed said they believe that if Bush is re-elected he will reinstitute the draft, while only 21% believe Kerry would. Pentagon officials, field commanders and both presidential candidates insist a draft is neither necessary nor desirable and that the U.S. can maintain its commitments with an all-volunteer Army. “We’re not going to have a draft–period,” Bush said in last Friday’s debate. Yet speculation about the looming return of conscription has become so rampant that House Republicans last week tried to dispel the rumors by forcing a vote on a no-hope bill to reinstate the draft. (It lost, 402 to 2.) “We’ve got 295 million people in this country,” Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said before the vote. “We don’t need a draft.”

Maybe not, but there is plenty of evidence that the U.S. needs to find more troops. Deployed in more than 120 nations around the world, from Iraq to Mongolia, the nation’s fighting forces are stretched, by all accounts, to the breaking point. Since 9/11, the number of active-duty and reservist troops deployed overseas has shot up from 203,000 to 500,000. All the Army’s combat brigades have been dispatched into war zones over the past two years; some have already gone twice. The demands of war in Iraq and Afghanistan have forced the U.S. to keep some units on a constant combat footing, sharply reducing the recuperation and retraining period that military experts say is essential to maintain a first-rate Army.

There are signs that the strain of long deployments and the danger of serving in Iraq have diminished the appeal of military service. The Army National Guard reported that for the first time in a decade, it fell about 10%–or 5,000 soldiers–short of its annual goal for recruits. The pool of youngsters who have committed in 2004 to join the Army next year is only 18% of the total required, about half what the Army likes to have banked away. Roughly a third of the 3,900 Individual Ready Reservists mobilized for combat–who thought their days in uniform were over–are resisting the military’s call-up. “These are the cracks that are beginning to show,” Senator Jack Reed, Democrat of Rhode Island and a former Army officer, told TIME. “With more deployments, those cracks are going to get bigger. We’re in grave danger of breaking the force.”

What can be done? The Pentagon has applied a host of manpower tourniquets to keep bodies in uniform and on the front lines. For example, the military has issued “stop loss” orders that have prohibited thousands of soldiers at the end of their enlistment obligations from leaving if their units are bound for Iraq, a policy Kerry likens to a “back-door draft.” Kerry wants to increase the size of the Army by 40,000–double the one-year increase authorized by Congress last week. To more effectively hunt down insurgents and terrorists in Iraq and elsewhere, he also proposes doubling the size of Army special-operations personnel. Michael O’Hanlon, a military expert at the Brookings Institution, applauds the Kerry plan. He says it would add $10 billion to the nation’s $450 billion annual defense budget but would provide the military with insurance in case war-weary troops start bailing out in higher numbers. “It just ensures that we won’t break the force by driving people out,” he says.

The Bush Administration has resisted calls for expanding the Army and instead has focused on its goal of “transforming” the military into a more mobile, lethal force. Rumsfeld and his handpicked-from-retirement Army chief of staff, General Peter Schoomaker, have made clear they want no permanent increase in troops for the U.S. Army (although they have okayed a temporary 30,000 hike). They’re pushing a four-pronged offensive designed to give the Army 30% more combat punch without permanently adding soldiers. They are breaking the Army into smaller, more potent units, pulling calcified forces out of cold-war strongholds like Western Europe and South Korea, and shifting military policing and other nation-building skills from the reserves to the active-duty force. They’re hiring contractors to perform many of the noncombat missions now being done by soldiers, so that those troops can put their fingers on triggers instead of keyboards. The goal is to streamline the military’s cumbersome, costly bureaucracy. In Friday’s debate, Bush summed up the rationale for his reform push: “We don’t need mass armies anymore.”

But even if the Administration succeeds in remaking the military, the failure to bolster troop levels carries grave short-term risks. In August, a classified study requested by Rumsfeld concluded that there are “inadequate total numbers” of U.S. troops to maintain the current pace of operations around the world. Some military experts fear that if a crisis erupted with Iran and North Korea, the U.S. would be unable to credibly threaten the use of force because of its obligations in Iraq and Afghanistan. “We can’t respond to another major crisis right now,” says retired Army General Barry McCaffrey. “We have shot our wad.”

The Pentagon believes that in a crunch it can bring in more soldier volunteers by offering new recruits higher salaries and benefits and dangling bonuses as high as $40,000 for highly trained and specialized troops to re-enlist. (The average soldier receives $7,500.) All four active-duty services met their recruiting goals for the fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30. “They see their country under attack,” says Army Lieut. General Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard. “They’re willing to step forward and answer the call to colors.” But given the scale of the U.S. commitment in Iraq and the range of potential conflicts beyond it, a few military experts are beginning to say the U.S. may someday reach a point where–no matter who is elected in November–it will have no choice but to reconsider the draft. General John Keane, who retired last year as the Army’s No. 2 officer, says the continued success of the all-volunteer military is not guaranteed. “The volunteer force was the most significant military event of the 20th century,” he told TIME. “But it’s not preordained that it will always be there or that it is always going to be successful.” Keane has told Congress that adding more than 50,000 troops to the Army would require thinking about a return to the draft. “If you have worldwide military requirements that demand more people but you don’t have enough volunteers,” Keane says, “then you don’t have a choice.”

For the troops on the ground in Iraq and those preparing to head back into battle, relief is still a long way off. Yet military commanders argue that Schoomaker’s plan to remold the Army will soon show results in Iraq. “We’re going to go back with much more capability than we had before,” says Major General William Webster, commander of the 3rd Infantry Division, which will return to Iraq later this year. It will be the first unit retooled by Schoomaker. “We’ll have more brigades, more ground-controlling combat power and more ability to kill and capture the enemy.” But as the Marines in Ramadi have learned, there’s little room for complacency against such an elusive, shadowy foe.

On a recent afternoon, the Marines from Golf Company spot an abandoned car that looks suspicious. It’s in a place where cars don’t usually park, and pedestrians seem to be avoiding it. And it’s on the route the Marines often use to return to their base at the end of their shift. The Marines summon the Iraqi police to take a look, but the cop car passes by several times without actually stopping to check out the vehicle. Frustrated, Lieut. Phillip Downs radios for permission to destroy the vehicle. Once he gets it, one of his men turns the abandoned car into a burning hulk with three volleys from his Mark 19 grenade launcher. Downs is sure he made the right choice, eliminating an unknown before it could do harm to U.S. forces. Whether the U.S. military can repeat that success across Iraq and around the globe with the forces at its disposal is less certain. And the cost of guessing wrong could be much higher. –With reporting by Phil Zabriskie/Ramadi

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