Why Extending Soldiers' Time in Iraq Could Prove Dangerous


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The Pentagon recently prevented more than 40,000 regular  soldiers, reservists and National Guard troops from leaving the service after their terms of enlistment or deployment expired. The military calls the move a"stop-loss order." On April 10, 20,000 more troops were"requested" to extend their tours of duty in Iraq for three months, maybe longer.

The military's desperate grab for able-bodied soldiers invokes a troubling parallel with America's pre-World War II Army. It also makes a strong case for a national draft. As one who lived under the ominous shadow of the draft all through high school, I'd hate to see it come back. But we can't expect a chosen few to fight a war for all the rest of us as we go blithely about our safe, prosperous lives.

In the summer of 1941, with war against Japan and Germany a  growing certainty, the Army consisted of a small cadre of professional soldiers augmented by National Guard and activated Reserve troops. It also had conscripted nearly a million civilians in 1940 -- the first peacetime draft in U.S. history. But the term of conscription was only one year. Thus on the eve of war, Gen. George C. Marshall, chief of staff of the Army, faced a nightmare: in October, when all those draftees went home and the reservists and National Guardsmen rotated back to being civilians, two-thirds of his trained army would simply disappear.

Faced with this reality, and with strong pressure from Marshall and the White House, Congress passed by a single vote the Service Extension Act requiring all those men to remain in the service for six months beyond the expiration of their enlistments. That law operated just like the current so-called stop-loss orders.

The outrage in the ranks was immediate and frightening.  Life magazine reported in August 1941 that the army faced a  crisis of morale -- that if war were declared on either the Nazis or the Japanese, large segments of the United States Army simply would not fight. Worse, they might mutiny or desert. They started chalking"OHIO" on artillery pieces and latrines: Over the Hill In October. Today's soldiers aren't writing subversive graffiti, but some are sending discouraged letters and e-mails home.

Back in 1941, in stepped Arthur Hays Sulzberger, publisher of the New York Times and a stalwart supporter of FDR. He gauged the Life magazine article to be a hysterical overreaction by a reporter unfamiliar with routine barracks grousing. So he enlisted Hilton Howell Railey, a flamboyant reporter who'd turned down an offer to be Hitler's p.r. liaison in the United States. Railey had served as a captain in World War I and whole-heartedly agreed with Sulzberger that the Life story couldn't possibly be true.

But before Railey embarked on his investigation of army morale, Sulzberger set one remarkable condition: If Railey discovered that the crisis in morale was real, the Times would not run the story. Sulzberger wrote later,"I, for one, did not propose to make Hitler a present of the fact that there was bad morale in the armed services." Sulzberger's position seems eerily prescient of some of the self-censoring, cheerleading coverage of the Iraq war, notably by Fox News. It's also like the administration's own stand against allowing pictures of flag-draped coffins on America's TV screens.

Like the 700-plus journalists who covered the Iraq invasion, Railey"embedded" himself with the troops in seven army camps, then took part in large-scale field maneuvers. He interviewed more than a thousand officers and enlisted men and even infiltrated a young assistant into the ranks as well.

Railey found a crisis far worse than Life had reported. Soldiers felt deceived by FDR, betrayed by Congress, and trapped in a dirty $21-dollar-a-month job while their civilian counterparts advanced in real careers and reaped the bounty of their patriotism. Senior officers had no clue what was happening in their own ranks. Like today's Pentagon generals, they painted a rosy picture of happy, patriotic soldiers who would be invincible in battle.

Railey's 72,000-word report alarmed Sulzberger. He hand-delivered it to President Roosevelt and Marshall. In short order, Marshall reorganized the army: older men were discharged, National Guard units were stationed closer to home, key officers were replaced, and in general the welfare of troops became a top priority. Marshall also fought to extend the draft. Within months, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and the crisis broke. Under the newly formulated draft, a regular army of a few hundred thousand grew to more than seven million by war's end, all serving for the duration plus six months.

If only President Bush and Secretary Rumsfeld were as alert to bad news as FDR and Gen. Marshall. But they both consistently deny that there's any problem in the ranks. And then they call for more sacrifices from the same few troops. In Iraq, as those 20,000 troops learned they would not be going home any time soon, even many seasoned veterans felt betrayed. As wives and sweethearts back home got the news, some of them expressed their heartbreak and frustration to national TV audiences.

On the eve of World War II, Gen. Marshall learned the lesson we must learn now: You can't fight a real war with an undersized army of unwilling"volunteers." It was wrong, then as now, to expect an unlucky few to sacrifice for the security of the majority. When the sacrifice is shared by all, so is victory. But  most Americans aren't sharing any sacrifice beyond some inconvenient delays boarding their airliners.

As current National Guardsmen and reservists see their normal  weekend service extended to years, the Pentagon planners would be wise to dust off Railey's old warning about how low morale can ruin an army. No one would argue that our current highly trained and motivated troops will refuse to fight, and Iraq isn't Nazi-occupied Europe. But our military is growing exhausted -- and its morale is suffering. There are limits even to patriotism, even in an"all-volunteer" military -- especially when most American civilians experience the current war only as a blip on the TV news, not a dire national emergency.

Reservists and National Guard troops now make up 40 percent of U.S. fighting forces in Iraq. Many of those"volunteer" reservists and National Guardsmen have effectively been drafted for the duration to fight an overseas war -- not the duty they signed on for. Every day, some of them die, and many more are maimed. Such service inflicts lasting physical, economic and emotional hardship on a disproportionate few and their families. And still we're running out of troops.

It's time to spread the sacrifice around with a general draft of able-bodied men and women from all backgrounds. No deferments. Only then will we discover the true depth of America's commitment to the war in Iraq.

This piece was distributed for non-exclusive use by the History News Service, an informal syndicate of professional historians who seek to improve the public's understanding of current events by setting these events in their historical contexts. The article may be republished as long as both the author and the History News Service are clearly credited.

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Mary Ann C McIntosh - 10/17/2004

Excellant Article.

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