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US runs low on soldiers

by PETER HUCK Wednesday, Sep. 22, 2004 at 9:36 AM

A radio is playing Marvin Gaye's What's Going On as the Veterans for Peace create a memorial known as Arlington West on the beach beside Santa Monica Pier. They are placing 1008 white crosses in the sand - one for each US soldier killed in Iraq as of September 12.

Pictures of the dead are displayed in front of a coffin draped with the US flag and topped with a military helmet. Later, their names will be read out. It is a sobering ceremony on this late summer's day.

With the war locked into a bloody stalemate, the veterans are wondering how the military might find replacements to fill the gaps starkly spelled out by their symbolic cemetery. For despite the Pentagon's boast that it can fight and win two conventional wars, US forces are seriously overstretched.

"We don't have the manpower to sustain the war in Iraq," says Eric Ellis, a Vietnam veteran who helped to start Arlington West. "In Vietnam we had 550,000 troops. We rotated them every year. We had to do one combat tour. Now we have 130,000-odd troops in Iraq. They do a tour, come home, then go back."

Where to find the extra troops to fight a seemingly intractable insurgency that echoes Vietnam has become a pressing question. And although you wouldn't hear it from the Bush Administration, the prospect of deploying a draft for the first time in a generation may be edging towards reality.

Since Vietnam the US has fielded a volunteer military. But after a year of bloody combat in Iraq, and to a lesser degree in Afghanistan, its limitations are becoming apparent.

Many US soldiers in Iraq are fighting for a second year. The Pentagon has also deployed about 45 per cent of the 1.2 million-strong National Guard (as against 1.4 million in the regular armed forces), the highest call-up of "weekend warriors" since World War II. Arguably, the move could leave the US more vulnerable to attack.

Other men have been drawn from the Individual Ready Reserve, troops on call for eight years after leaving the military.

The Pentagon has bumped the number of recruiters from 6000 to 7000, and inductees are offered bonuses, scholarships, and various enticements - cosmetic surgery at Government expense is one.

Meanwhile, the war in Iraq bleeds on. Besides the dead, 6690 soldiers had been wounded by September 12.

"We're seeing new types of people going AWOL [absent without leave]," says Steve Morse from the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors. "They've returned from Iraq and are extremely stressed by the war."

Calls to the GI Rights Hotline, run by the committee, have shot up. And a handful of soldiers have deserted, fleeing to Canada.

Can the Pentagon hold the line using volunteers? Or will it to have to resurrect conscription?

"If Bush gets in I think a draft is a distinct possibility," says Ellis. He isn't alone.

Officially, the draft is a non-starter. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has ruled it out. The Selective Service Agency, the federal body that would run a draft (which has to be authorised by Congress and the president), doesn't "foresee anything on the horizon". Neither Bush nor his presidential rival, Senator John Kerry, have mentioned it.

But this could change quickly. Should Washington give the go-ahead, America's 1980 draft boards, staffed by 11,000 volunteers, are "ready to do business", says Selective Service Agency spokesman Pat Schuback.

Certainly, the agency has enough names. Registration with the agency at 18 is mandatory, tied to voter registration, federal loans and jobs, or acquiring a driver's licence. A draft would apply to all males between 19 and 25.

Recruits would be chosen by a national lottery, starting with 19-year-olds and working up. Following a 1981 Supreme Court decision women are exempt, although this could change.

Despite official claims that a draft isn't contemplated, there is growing concern at the grassroots.

"We're getting a lot of calls from people who are worried," says Morse. "Especially from young men. Even from young women."

The last point is possibly prescient. Since the Supreme Court exempted women from any draft, female volunteers have expanded from 3 per cent to 15 per cent of the armed forces. In Iraq, where frontlines are non-existent, everyone is at risk, and women are coming home in body bags.

Currently, there are two private members' bills in Congress, one in the House and one in the Senate, to re-enact the draft.

Democrat congressman Charles Rangel, a Korean War veteran, wants two years of mandatory military or civilian service for all young Americans. A similar bill has been sponsored by Democrat Senator Ernest Hollings, a World War II veteran.

So far, their calls have meet with a tepid response from lawmakers. But this could change quickly in the New Year.

"Once the presidential election is done I think there will be strong pressure on Congress to look at the draft," says Professor Don Zillman, a expert on the subject at the University of Maine in Portland.

"We are not getting the new enlistments. And the need for additional forces is there. If we are simply running out of soldiers where do we find them?"

Ultimately, any decision is political. The Vietnam-era draft, which conscripted disproportionate numbers of poor Americans, attracted widespread odium. Since then, any tradition of public service in the US has atrophied.

But Zillman believes a draft that was levied fairly could win public approval in an emergency. "I think at this stage it would be unpopular. But if we have another terrorist attack closer to home, all bets are off."

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