by Tom Philpott
To ease fears fueled by the Internet that the Bush administration has secret plans to reinstitute a military draft after the Nov. 2 election, House Republicans leaders forced a floor vote on the issue on Tuesday. They watched with satisfaction as colleagues rejected the idea, 402-2.
Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y, had introduced HR 163 in January 2003, as U.S. forces gathered on the borders of Iraq. Rangel wanted to underscore the burden of a preemptive war on volunteers, a disproportionate number of whom, he argued, are racial minorities or from lower-income families.
If more American families had “kids going off to war,” Rangel said at the time, the president would be more reluctant to start one.
Before last week’s vote, Republicans and Democrats traded barbs on the floor about playing politics with an emotional issue for the nation.
Army officials, meanwhile, have confirmed that wartime demands prevent the service, for now, from shortening year-long tours of duty for soldiers sent to Iraq and Afghanistan, even with 147,000 Army National Guard and Reserve forces still mobilized to support those wars.
“The Army, after doing its analysis, is looking at the possibility of doing less than 12-months tours, but that’s not something that can be done right now,” said Lt. Col. Gerard Healy, an Army spokesman.
“And it’s not really anticipated to be happening anytime soon.”
The next rotation of soldiers into Iraq, set to occur from January through April, will stay at 12-month tours, said Healy.
Developments that could shorten future tours, he said, include a slowdown in the pace of operations, more non-U.S. coalition forces or “greater participation by Iraqi forces” in securing their own country.
Until some of that occurs, he said, the Army must stay with “12-month boots-on-the-ground rotations.”
Last month, before Army audiences, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had difficulty explaining why soldiers serve year-long combat tours and Marines face only seven-month rotations.
“I say to myself ‘That doesn’t make a lot of sense,” Rumsfeld conceded to soldiers Sept. 14 during a visit to Fort Leonard Wood, Mo.
The defense chief said he has met twice with the Army chief of staff and Marine Corps leaders to discuss tour lengths.
“The Marines argue vigorously that they have many more younger people who come in, serve (an enlistment) and leave. (So) their rotation rhythm is they can get seven months and then have those people go back and end up with 14 months” total deployment.
In contrast, during their first enlistments, soldiers typically will serve only 12 months, Marines argued.
Rumsfeld said he challenged this two-tour versus one-tour argument, suggesting the extra movement of Marines was inefficient.
But Marine Corps leaders countered that soldiers on 12-month tours are sent home anyway, for a two-week respite. Marines are not.
Rumsfeld said he also asked if it wasn’t inefficient to bring Marines home after only seven months and gaining “situational awareness.”
Why not a year? If tours last longer than seven months, Marine leaders maintained, troops lose their focus and become less effective.
Both the Army and Marine Corps are “absolutely convinced” they’re right, said Rumsfeld, “and I am as uncertain of either as I was before.”
To laughter, he added, “Confession is good for the soul.”
But Rumsfeld said he is concerned about the effect on soldiers of seeing Marines rotating out “after seven months and thinking ‘They’re not pulling their oars.’ And so it is that disconnect that worries me.”
Later that day, at Fort Campbell, Ky., another soldier raised the same issue. This time Rumsfeld said that as the demand for U.S. soldiers eases in Iraq, the Army might be able to shift to six-month rotations.
Tom Philpott can be contacted at Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, Va. 20120-1111, or by e-mail at: