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 “stoploss” orders.
This is a welcome idea in that these orders have created something resembling a backdoor draft and have hurt morale. Stoploss orders can be issued to military personnel whose volunteer commitments are about to expire. Service members 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 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. Higher education levels among the troops, swift advances in weapon and equipment technology, and U.S. air power superiority have all contributed to smaller but equally effective fighting forces. 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 our combat operations in Afghanistan, 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.
Gates has wisely directed the military to examine other ways to meet our worldwide commitments without indefinitely compelling our brave volunteers to stay in uniform.
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. Sen. John McCain has suggested the U.S. needs to increase the size of our standing Army, both to bring an end to stop-loss orders and to reduce the burden on National Guard and reserve units that have been called to active duty several times since the Iraq war started.
Bush’s plan to temporarily increase troop numbers in Iraq makes it likely no solutions will immediately relieve the need for stop-loss orders. But the fallout from the Iraq war shows the U.S. needs some better ideas on replenishing our military forces for the current battlegrounds in the Middle East, and for any potential future conflicts.