Forcing volunteers to serve isn’t shortage solution

By Freedom Newspapers

Defense Secretary Robert Gates has asked the chief of each service branch for a plan by the end of February to minimize the number of “stop-loss” orders. This is a welcome idea in that these orders have created something resembling a backdoor draft and have hurt morale. But fixing the more fundamental problem will require more fundamental policy changes.

Stop-loss orders can be issued to military personnel whose contracted hitches in the service are about to expire. Service members whose volunteer commitments are about to expire can be forced to remain until their overseas deployment ends and up to another 90 days after returning home. Some military people have been kept on duty for 18 months beyond when they had planned to leave or retire.

This isn’t a breach of contract, since the possibility of such orders is understood to be part of the deal when people enlist. But it does violate the spirit of a volunteer military, and it has caused some morale problems. The Christian Science Monitor estimated a year ago that stop-loss orders had been used on more than 50,000 U.S. troops who were planning to leave or retire.

The courts have backed the military in the few cases that have come before them. So stop-loss is not illegal. However, as Secretary Gates seems to recognize, it is not a sustainable practice over the long haul.

We have had an all-volunteer military since 1973, and in most respects it has been a remarkable success. The stop-loss power was used rarely until the first Persian Gulf war, when authorities used it to keep some units together for combat duty. It has been used more extensively since 9/11, and especially since the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

The problem, as top officers have recognized since the United States went to an all-volunteer military, is that people who don’t want to be there do not always make the best soldiers, sailors, pilots and Marines. The invasion of Iraq, however, not only created a perceived need for more service personnel, it has not made it easier to recruit new people.

The Pentagon can and no doubt will tinker with incentives — larger signing or re-enlistment bonuses, compensation for stop-loss orders, better benefits for families. But the longer-term problem lies in foreign policy itself.

The Iraq war was a war of choice, not necessity, in that even if Saddam Hussein had possessed WMDs his regime did not pose an imminent threat to the United States. It has not turned out as initially advertised, and nobody seems to know how to end it gracefully.

Americans will volunteer when they believe the country is in danger. It will be more difficult in the future to get them to volunteer for wars of choice, where the survival — or even the core interests — of the country are not at stake. The only real solution to the problem of using stop-loss orders to the point that they become self-defeating is a more modest foreign policy.