Army Stop-Loss Program Forces 50,000 into Extended Duty

The AP has discovered the Army’s Stop-Loss policy, which is hardly news to those who have been paying attention. The sheer scope of the program might be somewhat surprising, however.

The U.S. Army has forced about 50,000 soldiers to continue serving after their voluntary stints ended under a policy called “stop-loss,” but while some dispute its fairness, court challenges have fallen flat. The policy applies to soldiers in units due to deploy for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The Army said stop-loss is vital to maintain units that are cohesive and ready to fight. But some experts said it shows how badly the Army is stretched and could further complicate efforts to attract new recruits.

“As the war in Iraq drags on, the Army is accumulating a collection of problems that cumulatively could call into question the viability of an all-volunteer force,” said defense analyst Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute think tank. “When a service has to repeatedly resort to compelling the retention of people who want to leave, you’re edging away from the whole notion of volunteerism.”

When soldiers enlist, they sign a contract to serve for a certain number of years, and know precisely when their service obligation ends so they can return to civilian life. But stop-loss allows the Army, mindful of having fully manned units, to keep soldiers on the verge of leaving the military. Under the policy, soldiers who normally would leave when their commitments expire must remain in the Army, starting 90 days before their unit is scheduled to depart, through the end of their deployment and up to another 90 days after returning to their home base.


Congressional critics have assailed stop-loss, and 2004 Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry called it “a back-door draft.” The United States abolished the draft in 1973, but the all-volunteer military never before has been tested by a protracted war.

A report commissioned by the Pentagon called stop-loss a “short-term fix” enabling the Army to meet ongoing troop deployment requirements, but said such policies “risk breaking the force as recruitment and retention problems mount.” It was written by Andrew Krepinevich, a retired Army officer. Thompson added, “The persistent use of stop-loss underscores the fact that the war-fighting burden is being carried by a handful of soldiers while the vast majority of citizens incur no sacrifice at all.”

Stop-loss certainly does undermine the voluntary nature of military service and it is no doubt unfair to force those who have already sacrificed to give even more. There is, however, no ready alternative. Sending units to war shorthanded or with last-minute replacements is too big a risk.

Further, there are two categories of people involved: those who have completed their entire service obligation and thos who have not. While soldiers enlist for periods of two, three, or four years of active duty, all thereby commit to eight years of total service. During ordinary circumstances, those remaining years can be served in the Reserve Component, including the non-drilling Individual Ready Reserve. While unfortunate, forcing those who still have several years’ obligation to stay on active duty is not “a back-door draft.”

The Army has, however, tried to stop-loss people in beyond their eight years. That is unconscionable in an all-volunteer force.

Elsewhere: “Backdoor Draft?” TCS, 11 January 2005.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. LJD says:

    When you sign up for the military, you’re saying, ‘I’ll give you, say, six years and then after six years I get my life back.’ And they’re saying, ‘No, really, we can extend you indefinitely.

    Actually, ‘they’re’ not saying that. The enlistment contract says that.

  2. Jonk says:

    When you sign on the dotted line, you belong to Uncle Sam until he says otherwise, contract or no…this is a fact of military life. There are many “rights” you give up once you take on the honor of military service. Those who are serving or who have served understand, though they may not like it.

  3. legion says:

    Like Jonk says, I don’t have to like it, but I fully comprehend it (and did when I came in). But can your average 17-18 year old (or below average, if you want to be snarky about current enlistment standards) be expected to grasp the ramifications of their enlistment contracts?

  4. >There is, however, no ready alternative. Sending
    >units to war shorthanded or with last-minute
    >replacements is too big a risk.

    Perhaps not now, but if Bush had, shortly after 9/11, increased the number of activity duty divisions, we might have more to work with right now. It was pretty easy to seem at the time we were entering a period of drastically increased military operations, and the failure to increase the size of the military to meet this need borders on incompetence.

  5. James Joyner says:

    SD: The problem is that 1) it is incredibly difficult to radically upscale the Army in short order, since you need sergeants and senior officers, not just privates and lieutenants and 2) the Army is having enough trouble recruiting for its current size.

  6. G A PHILLIPS says:

    Jonk is right, James is right, John Kerry is a jackass in more then ways then one. And why does that war criminal get to run for Prez. anyhow, oh yes, I forgot, he’s a liberal. I say start the Draft, or let our military fight the war to win.example)you dont go into Iraq and and play peacekeeper with terroist strongholds, you LEVEL them. then you only need a couple soilders to guard the ruble! Please stop with the “If Bush did this, If Bush did that” it don’t help. If you what to help write to your liberal friends, leaders, and media and tell them to stop crying and holding vigils every time we kill some of our enemy.IT EMBOLDENS THEM!

  7. Anderson says:

    Okay, I refuse to take the Iraq War seriously. It’s not needed. It’s irrelevant to our national security.

    I know this because that’s also what the President thinks.

    If it were so g.d. vital, we’d have the draft, rather than dragging people back into the service and wearing out our Reserves and NG.

    What a sorry excuse for a Commander-in-Chief.

  8. LJD says:

    Andersen, for a seemingly educated person, you say some really stupid things.
    So, you would prefer to wage a war with untrained, inexperienced, and unmotivated draftees, rather than an experienced, well trained volunteer soldiers in year five or six of an eight year contract?
    Also, I wouldn’t count on much support for a draft from your liberal counterparts. They usually only say such things for sensationalism, not because the support the draft, the military, or even their country.

  9. James, didn’t the IRR part of the enlistment get dropped not very long ago? As I recall reading somewhere, it wasn’t working and IRR recallees weren’t showing up and many who did were no longer qualified for active duty for various reasons.

    I might be mis-remembering what I read, though.

  10. >SD: The problem is that 1) it is incredibly
    >difficult to radically upscale the Army in
    >short order, since you need sergeants and
    >senior officers, not just privates and

    Agreed, but it’s been nearly five years since 9/11. So if we had started upscaling back then, we’d have fresh division available by now.

    >and 2) the Army is having enough trouble
    >recruiting for its current size.

    Agreed as well, but again, that’s now. It would have been far easier to recruit right after 9/11, and if the army hadn’t been worn down by the subsequent five years of undermanning, it might not be so hard to recruit now.

  11. Anderson says:

    So, you would prefer to wage a war with untrained, inexperienced, and unmotivated draftees, rather than experienced, well trained volunteer soldiers in year five or six of an eight year contract?

    I was referring mainly to JJ’s point about the past-8-years folks, plus the NG and Reserve.

    Yes, I would rather see this war waged by a draft army. I would even like to see a constitutional amendment that the draft start up anytime there’s a declaration of war or its functional equivalent.

    Then maybe we would see a little less enthusiasm for feel-good warfare.

  12. LJD says:

    While we’re dealing in hindsight, why couldn’t we have completed the mission in Desert Storm? Why couldn’t Clinton have dealt with Bin Laden when he had the chance? Then there might not be a need for that extra division…