Donald Rumsfeld and the not-so-volunteer military

The Marines prepare to call up 2,500 reservists.

Published August 23, 2006 4:17PM (EDT)

Time was, Donald Rumsfeld didn't think much of the idea of forcing people to serve in the U.S. military. When Charlie Rangel proposed reinstituting the draft back in 2003, Rumsfeld dismissed the suggestion as unnecessary and unwise. "The disadvantages of using compulsion to bring into the armed forces the men and women needed are notable," he said.

But that was then, back when Americans were going to be "greeted as liberators" and the war in Iraq was going to last weeks rather than months. Now that the administration's "day at the beach" has stretched into what the president has vowed will be at least six years of war, the secretary of defense is apparently having a change of heart. At the Pentagon Tuesday, the Marine Corps announced that it will begin ordering as many as 2,500 Marine reservists back into active duty because it doesn't have enough volunteers to serve in Afghanistan and Iraq. "We have been tracking our volunteer numbers for the last two years," explains Marine Col. Gay A. Stratton. "If you tracked it on a timeline or a chart, you would see it going down."

The Marines pressed back into duty won't be the first service members shipped off to serve in the president's war. Through "stop-loss" orders and involuntary call-ups, the Army has required thousands upon thousands of soldiers to stay in Iraq long after their active-duty commitments have ended. As the Los Angeles Times reports today, it hasn't always worked so well: "When its involuntary call-ups began in 2004," the Times says, "the Army encountered problems when some mobilized ready reserve members failed to appear and others were disqualified from service for medical reasons."

Those are exactly the sorts of problems Rumsfeld anticipated back in 2003. Will the Marine Corps have a similar experience when it starts sending out call-up letters in the coming weeks? It's too soon to tell, but the Marine Corps' decision bears watching anyway. Jon Soltz, an Iraq war veteran who runs, says the call-up is "one of the last steps before resorting to a draft."

While he apparently won't go quite that far, Sen. Jack Reed tells the Times that the call-up is a sign that the military is stretched too thin in Iraq and Afghanistan. "The right way to address the issue," Reed says, "is to increase the size of the military so you do not have to rely on the call-up of the individual ready reserve." That's the supply-side solution, of course. There's another way to get at the problem, but it's the one the president and his party continue to reject: Reduce the need for the troops in the first place.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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