Backdoor Draft Winding Down -- For Now
Don't call it an all-volunteer army.
Over the nine years and counting that the United States has been at war, about 145,000 members of the military have had their service extended against their will. About 4,000 are still serving involuntarily, mostly in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Pentagon's "stop-loss" authority lets the armed services extend the enlistment of service members beyond their contractually agreed-to separation date during wartime. Its use became common after former president George W. Bush dramatically over-extended the nation's armed forces by choosing to invade Iraq when he wasn't even done in Afghanistan yet.
Stop loss is now winding down. Of the three services, only the Army is still using it and the last soldiers held back against their will are scheduled to finally go home in March 2011. The Pentagon now uses the Deployment Extension Incentive Pay program to encourages soldiers to voluntarily extend their deployments.
But there's no telling when stop loss might get used again -- and at least one member of Congress, Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.), wants to make sure that if there is a next time, it only happens with explicit congressional authorization.
Jones, one of a small but growing group of prominent, anti-war Republicans, said he thinks it's not fair to take advantage of a contractual clause most young people don't even notice when they're signing up for military service. Furthermore, he notes, the stop-loss clause specifies that it can only be exercised during a "time of war" -- and Congress never actually declared war against either Iraq or Afghanistan.
"If we're going to give the president the option of going to war -- but we don't declare war -- then I think there ought to be some provision in the law that says: If you have not declared war, then you must come to Congress for the authority to stop loss," Jones told HuffPost. "You must have a debate about the stop loss," he said.
Jones said he considers stop loss a "backdoor draft." And indeed, if its goal was to augment the volunteer forces without alarming the citizenry, well then mission accomplished.
The backdoor draft has never sparked any kind of widespread opposition, even though it has affected so many people.
By comparison, the draft during Vietnam was one order of magnitude bigger -- but the reaction to it was many orders of magnitudes more intense. The draft, during the nine years of the Vietnam war, conscripted some 1.9 million Americans, or about 12 times as many as stop-loss has dragooned.
It generated massive, ongoing antiwar protests and spawned a social movement.
But that draft, of course, affected the general public. This one was limited to service members -- part of that small community of Americans, many of them living in remote areas, who were already bearing the brunt of the wars.
Jones said his concerns about stop loss date back to 2006, when he and another congressman were visiting wounded soldiers at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
"We go into this room, and I will never forget it as long as I might live," Jones told HuffPost. "As we look to the right, there's a mom and a dad who are in tears.... And on the other side of the room, there's a young sergeant from Florida. He is propped up on the bed, with pillows behind his head, and there's an attractive young lady at the foot of the bed. As we're talking, he introduces the young lady as his fiancée."
The sergeant asked who was responsible for the stop loss program. The congressmen replied that it was the Pentagon's call.
"Then he said, 'Well, I want you to know that my very best friend was killed after he was stop-lossed,'" Jones recalled "Then he said, 'I was stop lossed myself, and in the second month after I was stop lossed -- '
"Then he pulled the sheet down," Jones said. "Below his knees there was nothing but bed."
It is with that young, legless soldier in mind, Jones said, that he intends to introduce a bill next year insisting that Congress -- not the Pentagon -- decide whether or not soldiers should be forcibly re-enlisted. That way, Congress can either block the program -- or, alternately, take responsibility for it.
In the meantime, the Pentagon is trying to make amends to the 145,000 service members who were forced to serve extra time. The 2009 War Supplemental Appropriations Act established a retroactive stop loss payment of $500 for each month served involuntarily. The deadline for applications is December 3, and so far only 59,000 of those eligible have submitted claims. The average benefit is $3,800 and the program's website has all the details.
Dan Froomkin is senior Washington correspondent for the Huffington Post. You can send him an e-mail, bookmark his page; subscribe to his RSS feed, follow him on Twitter, friend him on Facebook, and/or become a fan and get e-mail alerts when he writes.