Retention Deficit

Stop-loss in a Volunteer State


A recruiter's lot is not a happy one. You spend all day hounding teenagers to produce their misplaced divorce papers and juvenile criminal records, scrounging up suitable jobs for mediocre ASVAB scorers, hustling to get waivers for nearsighted volunteers. The paperwork and lily-gilding would faze even the most meretricious real estate agent, but you have no prospect of a big commission. Your deskbound bosses and their media cheerleaders cook up far-flung deployments that discourage all but the most foolhardy volunteers, then expect you to answer for it when enlistments drop.

The most recent indignity comes with increasing public awareness of the military's "stop-loss" program, in which service members can be forced to stay in the service even after their contractual retirement dates. If you serve in or know anybody who serves in the reserves or regular military, you've undoubtedly heard a few stop-loss horror tales. The current level of scrutiny of this practice, however, seems to have been sparked by a few stories in the Washington Post detailing how stop-loss orders are affecting American soldiers in Iraq and elsewhere. (Maybe the Graham family is trying to prop up the illusion of an intense Time/Newsweek rivalry by hitting back at Time's selection of "The American Soldier" as its Person of the Year.)

Other media have followed. Stop-loss angles now color the announcement that the U.S. Army is offering $10,000 re-enlistment bonuses to soldiers in Iraq. Proponents of the overstretched military argument, opponents of the Iraq war, and even mass conscription advocates can all find some fuel in the military's involuntary service requirements. "U.S. Army gives new meaning to 'slavery,'" is how the indispensable is characterizing the story today.

But the real advantage of having stop-loss become a news story isn't merely that it provides ample grandstanding opportunities (though it does that). Rather, this is welcome news because it complicates one of the sleazier pieties of foreign policy dialogue: that the armed services are staffed entirely by willing volunteers.

Iraq war supporters who a few years back would have been justly appalled at Madeleine Albright's comment about there being no point in maintaining a splendid military if you don't use it are now quick to stifle any dovish concerns for the welfare of America's fighting forces. It's an easy case to make, since few in policy-making positions, and fewer still in the media, know anybody in the enlisted ranks. It's also an easily supportable case, since all enlistees sign a contract that provides the government with the option of extending enlistment indefinitely. Objections from soldiers or airmen whose retirements are delayed can easily (and to some degree, accurately) be dismissed as the timeless griping of the enlisted. (Stop-loss also applies to officers.) The idea that such treatment has so far created vast morale problems is a stretch.

But fairness demands we recognize another truth: If enlistment is a voluntary process, it's also one of the zanier sales efforts in contemporary American life. Enlistees are routinely kept in the dark about a vast range of issues. These may not include the question of whether you'll be killed (a possibility every volunteer is aware of), but money and personal matters that (since, statistically speaking, your chances of being killed or crippled are fairly low even in Iraq), are in many ways more important: How much of your tiny pay will be extracted to pay for the mandatory and nebulous life insurance policy? If you have dependents, how much housing allowance will you get? Could you lose that allowance if you're activated and thus deemed no longer in need of it (a Catch-22 too complicated to explain here)? How and under what circumstances can you be subjected to a stop-loss order? And why do they keep telling you you'll learn the answers to these questions once you get to Basic?

None of this excuses an enlistee's responsibility to know the rules going in. But the government doesn't operate with the kind of scrupulousness you'd find in, say, a used car salesman. For all the public encomia to our troops and Veteran's Day platitudes about how freedom isn't free, American service people get screwed hard, fast, and often.

The neoliberal solution to this problem is simple and predictable: Don't just screw a few people; screw everybody. In its Person of the Year issue, Time revisits the debate over reviving the draft. The discussion is worth reading. For the most part, opponents of mass conscription (including frequent Reason contributor Doug Bandow) argue that a draft would be wasteful and counterproductive. Supporters are far more fanciful: Senator James Inhofe (R-OK), allegedly a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, distinguishes himself by not putting forward a single argument based on military necessity. (It's worth it, Inhofe believes, to instill discipline in "today's youth.") Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY), on the other hand, is smart enough to have a machiavellian secret plan: He wants to hamstring the Bush Administration by ensuring that even the sons and daughters of the wealthy are called up in a draft that is implemented "fairly" (that is, in a way no draft has ever been implemented in the history of the world).

The odds of mass conscription returning still seem pretty slim, and it's likely that military arguments will continue to be framed in the context of an all-volunteer military. Except that, in a way, they're not really all volunteers, or at least not eager volunteers. One of the arguments against maintaining a large standing military is that this creates an incentive to put the military to use. But lack of a standing army didn't prevent the United States from a disastrous folly like the War of 1812 or an imperial misdeed like the Spanish-American War. In the former case, at least, the government was under extraordinary pressure to keep up its war effort without burdening the citizens. The problem today is that the priorities are reversed: When a free nation can't maintain its foreign adventures with willing volunteers, the rational solution should be to cut down on the adventures, not to fudge the definition of "willing." Stop-loss may not be the worst thing the government is doing to America's troops, but anybody who is seriously trying to estimate the costs of the war in Iraq should be paying close attention to it.