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We are finding out how difficult it is to fight a long war without a draft. Not only are the extended campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan debilitating to the regular volunteer forces, they have severely damaged the nation’s readiness to meet challenges at home, including everything from natural disasters to nuclear or biological attacks. The potential for failure in the latter category is particularly enormous.
Moreover, the toll on the morale and mental well-being of combat forces faced with long tours and then quick rotations back to action has increased the suicide rate among ground troops and severely jacked up the number of those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, bringing about a sharp uptick in family violence once veterans are mustered out. News reports stated recently that 121 soldiers took their own lives last year, nearly 20 percent over the year before, and there has been a sixfold increase in attempted suicides since the Iraq war began.
The lack of readiness at home, according to the just-released report of a congressionally appointed commission, stems from the pressures put on National Guard and Reserve units who more and more have carried the burden in the Middle East fighting. These units are now facing equipment shortfalls estimated at $48 billion and depleted personnel strengths that have lowered their efficiency to a dangerous level.
“Because the nation has not adequately resourced its forces designated for response to weapons of mass destruction, it does not have sufficient trained, ready forces available. This is an appalling gap that places the nation and its citizens at great risk,” the 12-member commission asserted.
There should be no surprise here. National Guard and Reserve units have been scrambling to fill recruitment quotas since the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns began. Those considering Guard and Reserve enlistments clearly have had second thoughts based on the prospect they will be headed for the desert instead of preparing to meet domestic needs. They have good reason to worry. Since the 2001 attacks on America, almost 600,000 non-regular forces have served in the two battle zones. The congressional report says that is a fivefold jump in the use of reservists.
What’s the answer? The United States must give up other commitments around the globe or dramatically increase the size of its regular forces or both. The impact politically and economically would be major in both instances.
A draft is, politically, out of the question. Adding to the seriousness are reports that President Bush has decided not to draw down the Iraq brigades any further than planned until there is a clear indication of stability there. Five brigades are scheduled to leave this summer, leaving a force of about 130,000. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has said previously that it might be possible to cut that to 100,000 by next year. But military commanders have urged a wait-and-see policy.
Coupled with the enormous toll on morale and mental health and the large increase of those returning without limbs, the entire military situation is close to disastrous if one believes the reports. How much longer the nation’s commitments can be sustained without irreparable harm to its men and women in uniform and to its ability to meet home threats is of major concern. The next president will have to decide that question and a whole lot more when it comes to overall defense.
There seems little doubt that had a draft been in effect at the start of the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns, public opinion would have resolved the question by now. The fact that all those involved in the fighting are volunteers has immunized the politicians from the kind of virulent anti-war protests that took place in the ’60s and ’70s, eventually forcing us out of Southeast Asia.
But if the recent assessments are correct about how vulnerable the homeland has become because of the lack of preparedness of forces here to meet the possibility of mass destruction, the national concern should reach new heights. What it bodes for the future without some serious remedies and policy changes is not pleasant to contemplate.
(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)