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Here are a few facts that Americans should consider when contemplating the situation in Iraq and whether they support sustaining this invasion and occupation for the length of time the Bush administration has said it may take to put things on a sound, peaceful footing, if that is ever even possible.
This is the longest war without a draft in the country’s history. It is the longest conflict to be conducted without a tax increase, despite costs that far exceed those of the Korean and Vietnam wars combined. The soldiers and Marines carrying out the fight are being subjected to the shortest of home rotations before returning to combat.
Let’s look first at the fact the war has gone on longer without a draft than both World Wars and Korea and Vietnam. As a consequence reservists and National Guards have had to supplement the professionals who make up the regular armed forces to a greater degree than anyone would like. These “citizen soldiers” often have been under-equipped and poorly trained for the kind of urban warfare that has been the hallmark of this fight. As a result, their casualty rate has been high. The toll taken on their families and their civilian careers has been enormous.
Still, few Americans would support reinstating the draft. Had there been one, however, it is certain that the outcry against this war would have been much louder and possibly violent as time went on without an end in sight. Volunteerism just doesn’t carry the same weight for objection or sympathy as a whole bunch of civilians being pressed into service. The volunteers took their chances when they signed up for the Guard and Reserves, after all.
Fighting a war while at the same time passing out tax cuts is also unprecedented. Lyndon Johnson thought for a time that he could continue to have a “guns and butter” budget but eventually realized that it was necessary to ask the nation’s taxpayers for a one time 10 percent surcharge for Vietnam.
President Bush is seeking another $46 billion for military purposes, a total of $196 billion this year. The Democrats who won back control of both houses last year on a pledge to bring a swift end to the conflict know they are going to have to give it to him or face being accused of abandoning America’s forces. But Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, sees a chance of moving up the timetable for complete withdrawal from Iraq. He wants the supplemental appropriations bill to include only half the funding, requiring the president to come back later for the rest.
The 51 Democratic votes in the Senate aren’t enough to do much more than apply mild pressure to a White House apparently determined to spend without concern to support its Iraq agenda. Bush is bolstered by the knowledge that it takes 60 votes to cut off debate, allowing Republicans to defeat most efforts to impose a timetable for withdrawal and providing no chance for overriding a veto, which requires two-thirds in both houses. In the meantime, new natural disasters like the horrendous California fires and the lingering aftermath of the hurricanes of two years ago stretch the budget. Legislation for a war tax has been introduced but is receiving little attention at this point.
Probably the most dangerous threat to the U.S. military is the damage to morale. A policy of 15 months of combat-zone duty and only 12 months at home before rotating back to Iraq or Afghanistan has caused veteran officers and enlisted ranks to rethink their careers. In a tour of important stateside military bases, the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Michael Mullen, reportedly found anger and tough demands from the mid-level officers, mainly captains and majors, who are crucial to any Army. They have begun to seriously question not only the fairness of this policy but also to reassess their commitment to the service.
The drain on men and material caused by Iraq and Afghanistan has been enormous. Taking on other global responsibilities requiring U.S. forces is practically impossible at this time without a draft or a huge increase in volunteer forces not to mention billions more for equipment.
Putting this all together, one comes away with the thought that if we are to have any chance to extricate ourselves from this no-victory situation, it will take a lot more pain. Are we willing to endure it and if we aren’t then what?
(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)