The war we are in

Posted: Sep 11, 2003 12:00 AM

With this headline on its lead story Tuesday, echoed by The New York Times yesterday, The Washington Post told the troubling tale: "Reserve Tours Are Extended" - with this subhead: "Army Orders 1-Year Stay in Iraq, Nearby Nations."

Conventional wisdom about Iraq and more broadly the Middle East is conventionally wrong. The conventional lines of attack against the Bush administration over the past months have gone like this...

The WMDs never existed; the administration lied. (In England, the government-run BBC assault on Tony Blair has made the government-supported and way-left NPR here seem like a bunch of moderate pikers.) "Let the UN lead in the rebuilding of Iraq (but let's not blame the UN and supercilious European continentals if they demur). Administration postwar planning was as idiotic as its intelligence on WMDs. Even trying to establish democracy in Iraq (or among the Afghans or Palestinians) is naive. Now these jokers want $87 billion more - and for what? With U.S. military deaths in Iraq since May now surpassing the number killed during formal combat, dare anyone utter the dread Vietnam-era word "quagmire"?

Indeed, with the going so tough, let's get out of there - just as we should withdraw, given Challenger and now Columbia, from manned exploration of space."

The Bush administration has done much to maintain its resolve and hold the country on course. The president, the vice president, the secretary of state, the secretary of defense and the national security adviser have noted repeatedly the war on terror will not soon be over - that it is, and long will remain, a difficult task necessary for our own survival and for international stability.

Roger that.

But perhaps the fundamental shortcoming in all this is that too few Americans in this war on terror are being asked - required - to do too much; the converse of that is too many are NOT being asked - required - to do anything at all. If this truly is an enduring war with an enemy unlike any ever seen, then who is really sacrificing beyond those in the military and domestic security? Check-in at airports is more invasive and more of a hassle. That's about it.

Meanwhile, our active duty forces are stretched woefully thin. Recruitment is difficult, retention worse. (So dominant is the mainline press line that even in combat zones morale stinks, major re-enlistments - as in the accompanying photograph - go essentially unreported.) And with the extension of Reserve and National Guard tours, we're shredding the lives of still more in the military business while leaving the everyday rest of us unscathed, verily untouched.

What better time than now - on the second anniversary of 9/11 - to broaden public support for this enduring war against terror while providing a deeper reservoir of partially trained men and women who could be mobilized and quickly revved up for future needs?

Given that volunteer government programs simply don't cut it, why not one year of compulsory universal service for every male and female 18 to 23, with a front-end military basic-training component? Following basic training, the service requirement could be completed by remaining in the military (if the military agreed) or by moving on into an endless list of civilian give-back jobs. Every young American would serve one year; each would spend the beginning of that year in military training - getting discipline, understanding the importance of the military, learning how to fight if fight we must.

Then, when (as now) just three of the Army's 33 active-duty combat brigades are on stand-by and available for duty wherever they might be needed, we would not have to extend the tours of active duty, Reserve and Guard units already on station and in the fight.

It's a freight train roaring at us. "Army Lacks Forces for Iraq Mission, CBO Warns," read a recent headline. From a news report: "For the first time since the Vietnam War, the Army is facing the possibility of ordering back-to-back combat tours. ... Some units that served in Afghanistan, like parts of the 82nd Airborne Division, had only a few months at home before they were sent to Iraq."

Such extensions can kill the morale of the forces we do have. With more of the $386-billion (or bigger) defense budget going to basic training for every American 18 to 23 under a compulsory universal service program, more - everyone - would share the load now unfairly carried by a diminishing few.

If the war we are in is to go on without visible end, then we need to cease niggling about how we got into it and how we can get out of it - and start figuring how we are going to staff the legions to fight it. The best way: sacrifice, and burden-sharing, by all.