Backdoor Draft? Reservists May Face Longer Tours of Duty

Reservists May Face Longer Tours of Duty (Bradley Graham, WaPo, A01)

Army leaders are considering seeking a change in Pentagon policy that would allow for longer and more frequent call-ups of some reservists to meet the demands of conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, a senior Army official said yesterday. Reservists are being used heavily to fill key military support jobs, particularly in specialty areas, but Army authorities are having increasing difficulty limiting the active-duty time of some normally part-time soldiers to a set maximum of two years, the official said. He described the National Guard’s 15 main combat units as close to being “tapped out.”

To avoid pushing reserve forces to the breaking point, the official also said, a temporary increase of 30,000 troops in active-duty ranks that was authorized last year will probably need to be made permanent, especially if U.S. troop levels in Iraq remain high. He said significant troop levels may be required in Iraq for four or five more years.

The official declined to be named because of the political sensitivity of the troop issue and the lack of decisions. But he said that the Army probably will ask Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld in the next several months to change the policy on mobilization of reservists. “It’s coming,” he told a small group of Pentagon reporters. “I think we’re going to have this discussion this spring.”

The news comes as the Bush administration confronts rising controversy over the shape and size of the U.S. military, particularly whether the active-duty and reserve forces are robust enough to meet the many demands placed upon them. Soldiers and their families are also expressing frustration at repeat deployments to Iraq and tours of duty that have already been extended.

About 40 percent of the 150,000 troops now in Iraq have come from reserve ranks. That number will grow to 50 percent in the fresh group of forces deploying at the moment — the third rotation of troops since the invasion in the spring of 2003. But with this rotation, the official said, the Army will have used all of the National Guard’s main combat brigades.

Kevin Drum and Jeralyn Merritt dub this a “backdoor draft.” Says Kevin, “If this happens, it’s for all intents and purposes a draft.” Jeralyn adds, “After the reserves, who do you think will be left?”

Well, no.

Within the present context, a “draft” may be defined as “(1) a system for or act of selecting individuals from a group (as for compulsory military service) (2) an act or process of selecting an individual (as for political candidacy) without the individual’s expressed consent.”

The proposed plan fails this test because

  1. People who have joined the Reserve Component have done so voluntarily.
  2. The raison detre of the Reserve Component is to provide a pool of people who may be drawn from in time of war.
  3. We are currently at war.

Whether the policy is a wise one is debatable. But it certainly does not constitute a draft.

Update: I’m planning a longer piece for publication elsewhere addressing the “Whether the policy is a wise one is debatable” aspect.

FILED UNDER: Afghanistan War, Iraq War, Military Affairs, , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. DC Loser says:


    Thank you for the lawyerly interpretation. But reality for reservists is that their lives have been turned upside down with no relief in sight. The Reserves are indeed reaching a breaking point. Who will sign up or re-up their contract knowing full well their potential to be called up and deployed? They might as well join the active duty military and get the benefits that come with it.

    Rummy had this grand scheme of reducing the Army to 8 active divisions and now that’s pretty much shot. If this is indeed an indefinite war we’ll need the manpower to support it. An increase in the active duty manpower is definitely needed to cover the gaps.

  2. Chip says:

    It seems more accurate to call it a substitute for a draft.

  3. Silent Majority says:

    One thing I just can’t seem to understand is what do reservists think they have signed up for? I think that a great many of them signed up for the free college tuition and a chance to make some extra money without really believing that something could happen. Now that they’re being asked to do their JOBS, there’s an uproar. Well I’m sorry, I know it’s dangerous work, but you VOLUNTEERED. The time for regret is not AFTER you cashed the checks.

  4. I think that a great many of them signed up for the free college tuition and a chance to make some extra money without really believing that something could happen.

    I’d wish to submit that the numbers who did signed up so blindly are few and far between. These are fine professionals in the reserves, and while there are more than a few who saw the free tuition alone, I think the overwhelming majority understood the risks when they signed up.

  5. Scott says:

    “It seems more accurate to call it a substitute for a draft”

    Bollocks. The reserve component, national guard included, is just that, a “reserve” component. Enlisting for the reserves, national guard or ANG is *exactly* the same as enlisting for active duty with just one caveat: you don’t have to be at the 0600hrs formation 5 days a week until Uncle Sugar calls you up. Everything from basic training to AIT/A School/Tech School to NCO and Officer Development courses to friggin’ grooming standards are exactly the same in the reserve component as they are in the active duty military.

    More importantly, reservists *should* know that they have at least a 6 year commitment (and often an 8 year commitment) the military… and at no time is a reservist ever told that his/her activation will never exceed X-number of days. Hell, 90 percent of the officer corps are commissioned as part of the Reserve component (that’s where the “R” in “ROTC” comes from)!! And no one seems particularly bothered when an officer completes a 20 year career of ACTIVE military duty despite being commissioned in the RESERVES.

  6. Jim in WA says:

    It is only being referred to as a “DRAFT” because that has bad connotations in the US psyche. If enough people are made to believe that what is going on with the reserve components of the US military is a draft and not exactly what the reserves were designed for, then there will be more and more pressure on politicians to drawn down the number of deployed reservists.

    What torques my jaw is the reservist that whines because “I didn’t think I’d actually have to fight”, and goes to court to prevent deployment. Well what did you think the military was for? Paying for your college degree? Well, they’ll do that, but in return you are expected to become proficient in your job and if called upon to deploy with your unit wherever the Army/Navy/Marines/Air Force decide your unit would best fit in the task it has been given by your government.

    I did my 10 years (active) during the Cold War and was never deployed to a war zone. Would I have went, hell yes. That was my job, when the US went into Panama and Grenada, 100% of my unit was volunteering to go. Would I go now, hell yes. Better me than my sons. This situation needs to be dealt with so that future generations of American men and women do not have to make the same sacrifices as our men in uniform are doing now.

    If you’re in the reserves now and disagree with the current policies, you are more than welcome to not re-enlist when your commitment is up.

    I say, quit whining and do your job. You have America’s deepest respect for the work that you are doing to protect our way of life. Be proud of what you are accomplishing and keep up the good fight.

  7. DC Loser says:

    Jim in WA,

    That debate is over. Look beyond that and see where the reserves and guard will be in a year or two. Realistically what will be left of those units after repeated deployments? No sane person with a decent civilian job or career will want to subject his or her family to that uncertainty.

    If this is indeed a long duration war then we need an active duty military to reflect that reality. We now know that the reserves can’t be permanently integrated into a long duration war without seriously damaging it as an institution. All this talk about new deployment plans for it are just band-aid solutions. A real solution will come when the intestinal fortitude arrives for a larger fulltime military

  8. Jim in WA says:


    That’s exactly what is being proposed right now. There is an ongoing debate about increasing the active Army by 30,000 troops. Initially, some thought that the increase was only needed for a couple of years, but now I think that they are leaning towards making it permanent.

    As for the reserves, I think they’ll always be around. Either, of individuals who have separated from active duty and stay in the reserves to get to retirement years, or people who go straight into the reserves for the benefits. But, I do believe that the numbers will be greatly reduced after this particular conflict is over and the taxpayers will have to foot the bill for a larger active force. Which won’t last long and we’ll go through force reduction again, to reduce the financial burden of maintaining a viable fighting size active duty force.

    Can you say, deja vu? 🙂

  9. Stephen says:

    I first joined the National Guard/Reserves in 1972. I have my “Twenty good years” and am still in the Reserves. I was first activated in Aug 1972. I spent 4 years on active duty 1973-1977. I was last activated in Feb 2003.

    I just re-enlisted. I expect to be activated within the next few months. Last time I had 3 days notice.

    I make $133,000.00 per year in my regular job. I make $40,000.00 per year when I am activated. My civilian job does NOT make up the difference. I have a wife and two children.

    So why, my fellow employees ask, do I stay in when I could retire from the Reserves (I’m 52 years old)?

    I don’t do it for the money. I, and my fellow service members, do for our country!

  10. Matt Currie says:

    So tell me, if we’re at war what the hell is the full time military for? Sure the Reserves should be in the mix, BUT, we’ve probably got some primary combat-capable Army and USMC units Stateside that have not been to Iraq yet. Why multiple Iraq tours for Reserves and no tours for the Regulars? What are they waiting for? Is it still necessary to defend Germany from the USSR? Why can’t the 2nd ID rotate out of Korea and let another unit watch the DMZ for a year or two? Where’s the logic? I’ve been a Rumsfeld fan, but the active military is too damn small, and what we have is not sharing the load.

  11. DC Loser says:


    I salute you for your patriotism. But I’m afraid many more in your shoes can’t afford the loss of income, especially business owners. But if we’re to expect guard and reserve members to make the sacrifices you’re making, then the government need to be vigailant in fighting for the rights of those members that have faced the loss of jobs upon their return. They need to aggressivly go after those employers that unfairly terminated their employees who were deployed and to follow up to ensure all employers are complying with the law. I don’t know the status of the Soldier and Sailor’s Relief Act. Is it still in effect for activated reservists?

  12. anjin-san says:

    (01-05) 16:17 PST WASHINGTON (AP)—
    The Army Reserve, whose part-time soldiers serve in combat and support roles in Iraq and Afghanistan, is so hampered by misguided Army policies and practices that it is “rapidly degenerating into a ‘broken’ force,” the Reserve’s most senior general says.

    Lt. Gen. James R. Helmly, chief of the Army Reserve, wrote in an internal memorandum to the Army’s top uniformed officer that the Reserve has reached the point of being unable to fulfill its missions in Iraq and Afghanistan and to regenerate its forces for future missions.

  13. LJD says:

    2nd ID has been to Iraq, as have the others. We are at war in Iraq and Arghanistan, yet have international responsibilities, and our national defense to secure. In no way are Reservists being sent in place of active duty members.

    Yes, the S&SRA is in full effect. I took advantage of it while I was overseas. Further there is USERRA, Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act.

    You just wouldn’t know it from watching network news.

    What has happened to a great number of part -timers is that they never expected to be called up- the first mistake.

    The well-paying jobs they got through their military funded education opened some doors for them: new expensive cars, houses, affording a family. Some extended themselves to a place where they could not maintain the same standard of living with military pay. The second mistake.

    They voluntarily signed the contract, and then made the choice to do all of those civilian things while they were still “on the hook”.

    I am building a house this spring. With my luck, I will get the foundation in the ground and receive a Western Union from HRC. I will make less money. I will suck it up and go do my duty. Because I believe it is important.

    Jim is right on. I wish there were more like him, for it is his attitude that will secure the future of this country, not the political whiners.

  14. LJD says:

    Meant to say Stephen, also. Huah!

  15. Jim in WA says:

    LJD, actually there are millions like me. The problem is that until just recently we’ve been the silent majority. They’ll be hearing the new roar shortly, if not already.

  16. I certainly tip my hat to our reserve forces. I was a member of the Army National Guard. I was fortunate to have served and not been activated for anything. That being said…I knew what the potential consequences of my enlistment were. The military reserve components do offer some good educational benefits…at the price of serving your country.

    There is no doubt that it is hard on the reservists’ families. However, this is not a reason to keep them out of the fight. When you enlist, who have made a committment and should honor it willingly.

  17. Craig Clemens says:

    To Matt Currie.
    The rest of our forces (Marines, etc) are being saved for Korea, Syria and Iran. Don’t you know what’s happening?

  18. Stephen says:

    Thanks for the comments, but I’m just doing what I said I would do.

    In December when I re-enlisted, I had to renew my ID card. There were 5 servemembers there who were also getting updated ID cards for themselves and their families due to their activation. I did not hear one complaint! There was a nurse who was leaving her 14 year old son and husband to go to Kuwait for 1 year. There was an officer who had gotten out 5 years earlier (but remained in the Individual Ready Reserve) who was going to Afganistan.

    There were too young Navy Reservists who had volunteered to go active duty for at least one year each.

    Yet no one was complaining. These people are real heros in my book. Has anyone seen any figures on AWOL Reservists/National Guardsmen?

    If it were any significant numbers (are there any?) then the media would be making an issue of it, but they are not.

    Just like in the Revolutionary War and almost every war since, the Reserve/National Guard service members are doing what they agreed to do and more.

    Sure there might be a few who do complain, but that is a soldiers right as long as they do what they agreed to do, then they are heros in my book!

    And even though I am a Reservist, I still thank my fellow service members when I see them (I also thank my fellow veterans – you should see the appreciation in their faces!).

    The nurse became emotional as no one had ever thanked her for her service before.


  19. Kelly says:

    After I finished my 8 years on active duty, returning from Desert Storm, I had zero zip nada incentive to join the reserve or guard. The equipment I used in DS was practically obsolete at the time, and the reserve folks who were activated didn’t even have the skills to use it – the reservists assigned to my ship spent their time painting. From the reports I read today, our Reserve and Guard units are still under equipped and under trained for the missions they are assigned.

    If this change is approved, the reservist’s gamble of *some* active duty time in exchange for *some* benefits will change to *guaranteed* active duty time for the same benefits as before, for at least five years and probably longer. If you know you’re going to go to some nasty place with people trying to kill you, why would you choose to do it with an under equipped, under trained unit?

    If you think the FY2005Q1 recruiting results for the Guard and Reserve were sad, just wait.

  20. Chip says:

    ” “It seems more accurate to call it a substitute for a draft” ”

    “Bollocks. The reserve component, national guard included, is just that, a “reserve” component. Enlisting for the reserves, national guard or ANG is exactly the same as enlisting for active duty with just one caveat: you don’t have to be at the 0600hrs formation 5 days a week until Uncle Sugar calls you up. …”

    Right. And if they didn’t have the reserves and all the related options, the remaining option(s) available to increase (or maintain) force levels would be?….

  21. Dan says:

    Okay, I’m a lieutenant colonel in the army Reserve. I have 14 years of active duty and 8 of reserve duty.

    During Desert Storm, we heard Reservists say, on TV from the desert, “I never expected to go to war!” Too bad. It still says US Army on our uniforms. Every conflict of any length since I enlisted in ’82 has caused stop-loss or something like it. Oh, well.

    Maybe college money gets some in, but we stay because we have a calling. Don’t hear the call? Then bugger off.

  22. Don says:

    United States Code
    TITLE 10 > Subtitle A > PART II > CHAPTER 39 > § 671 Members: service extension during war

    Unless terminated at an earlier date by the Secretary concerned, the period of active service of any member of an armed force is extended for the duration of any war in which the United States may be engaged and for six months thereafter.

  23. Ryan Terry says:

    “Within the present context, a “draft” may be defined as “(1) : a system for or act of selecting individuals from a group (as for compulsory military service)…”

    Zbig? Zbigniew Brzezinski, is that you?

    In a geo-political content, as Zbig would say, this is bs. This too-lawyerly voyage through the dictionary points, again, to the glossing over reality: the military is far too small, or the war is too big.

    The Reserve and the Guard are citizen-soldier forces, and were not intended to be converted to career status. It isn’t like this is an emergency — the war is nearly two years old,and the need for far more troops in Iraq is not a surprise.

    It baffles me — how can this be seen as anything other than a way of temporarily boosting troop levels without doing what is needed: restoring the draft.

    Yes, this is a backdoor draft, and were I a student of 18 or 19 years of age, I’d be reconciling myself to the very good possibility of serving America in Iraq, whether I wanted to or not.

    – RT

  24. Don says:

    “The Reserve and the Guard are citizen-soldier forces, and were not intended to be converted to career status.”

    The Guard and Reserved served many years of constant active duty in WWII and Korea. Its what it is intended for. When both the Democrats and Republicans gutted the Gulf War I era Army from 750K active to under 500K, that made both the Guard and the Reserve part of any sustained commitment.

    BTW, how did we sustain a 750K army all through the 80s without a draft? And with a smaller population base at that. Somehow magically, now it can only be achieved with a draft. Heh! You can fill body bags in 90 days, it takes over a year and nearly two to build a major formation that is trained, integrated, and cohesive to operate with the modern doctrine the Army has evolved.

    As the guys in the front say now, they don’t want draftees coving their backs. No thank you. They desire someone who wants to be there with them.

  25. IRR Soldier says:


    Nonsense! By your logic, the entire history of the 2ID in Korea has been a failure. That is a division where over 90% of the personnel have rotated in and out on an annual basis for 40 years. Were units like the 1/506 and the 1/503 ready to go to Iraq – you bet your ass they were. These fomations were only “together” for a short while.

    You are blind to reality.

    Several Guard/Reserve battllions deploying in OIF 3 are comprised of 60% or more IRR recalls and cross-levels. Somehow, our national leadership feels that 2 months of “check the block” training is all that is required to kick these ad hoc units out the door. What about the 5 weeks of “quickie MP” training given to FA batteries headed to Iraq for a year. So much for the “1 1/2 years to 2 years” to master doctrine myth you assert.

    “The guys at the front” have no historical benchmark for assessing the many contributions that draftees have made to our Army. I think if the question was posed to Guardsmen: “Draft and no deployment for you for five years” or “No Draft and constant sword of Damocles (deployment)”, most would say draft.

    You pimp the all-volunteer force but gloss over that MANY don’t “want to be there”. Pre-War (’01-’02) the Army attritted 39% of enlistees before scheduled ETS and among white women that number was 58%.

    Last Thing: don’t compare this to WWII. It really diminishes our national sacrifice in WWII. That was a national mobilization where a nation 1/2 our current size put 16 million men in uniform. I and many other potential victims of the “backdoor draft” would be cool with a recall if other citizens shouldered their share in this “emergency.” They aren’t and rhetoric is cheap to those who have honorably served.

  26. IRR Soldier says:


    If you’re going to cite U.S. Code, ask yourself, is this a war? Is this a national emergency? If it is, why has the President never asked for a voluntary “call to service” despite well-documented knowledge that recruiting and retention are rapidly heading downward?

    FYI, in a legal sense this is NOT a war. The “national emergency” part could be argued, but it would be a tortured argument given that there are 300 million U.S. citizens, millions of whom are men between 18-26. We have had 3 years since 9/11 and almost 2 years since OIF kicked off. It didn’t have to come to this.

  27. IRR Soldier says:


    Don’t preach to us about callings. I have over 10 years of service (enlisted and officer, Guard, Active and IRR). This is not analogous to ANYTHING we have encountered since 1982. This is not a stop-loss to stabilize forces for initial entry ops, but a continued war “waged on the cheap” with sacrifice borne on those that enlisted pre-2001 and officers commissioned before even that.

    I’d love to know which fantasy-USAR world you are living in. If even the majority of reservists agreed with your sentiments, why the IRR Recalls, Stop-Loss, Denial or resignation requests, mercenary bonuses paid to “volunteers”, declining enlistments and skyrocketing attrition? The USAR only made 43% of its quarterly enlistment goal for the 1st quarter of FY ’05. They only made 45% their ludicrously low OCS mission in FY ’04. The USAR is 5,000 CAPTAINS SHORT!!!

    You represent an extreme minority opinion by being one of those rare souls that 1) denies the enormity of the personnel/recruitment situation and 2) by being one that espouses such “pie in the sky” opinions AND serves in uniform.


  28. Jimmy T. says:

    Don, you wrote: “As the guys in the front say now, they don’t want draftees coving their backs. No thank you. They desire someone who wants to be there with them.”

    WWII? There was a draft in WWII as I recall, and there was a draft in Korea, and in Vietnam. Are you sayng Americans are not patriotic about serving?

    Like it or not, we are at war — if undeclared — and Bush says it won’t end anytime soon. Better to start now than not start at all.

  29. Pragmatic GI says:

    I understand the legal obligations many former service members have to endure when they’re being recalled to active duty. Whether the average civilian wants to admit it or not there is an unprecedented practice (but as already mentioned a legal one) of recalling discharged service members to meet the troop requirements needed for Iraq and Afghanistan. This “policy” is not something any of us expected when we enlisted, did our time honorably, and then chose to get out.
    I understand the ignorance of many civilians when it comes to military matters, their inexperience coupled with a lack of knowledge about the military (except what they hear on the news or watch in movies) is usually not their fault. I would recommend to all those out there who say, “Too bad, you signed up for this, you took the money, etc, etc…” Thanks for your comments and thanks for your concerns, but leave the warfighting to those of us who have the courage to serve and endure what is considered by most an unfair practice of recalling discharged troops. We are in a quagmire in Iraq and the end is no where in sight, but never fear our civilian masters in D.C. learned the lessons of Vietnam well. As long as this war doesn’t impact the average civilian (i.e. a draft, increased gas prices, or interrupting evening television entertainment) than they can continue to prosecute this war for as long as they want, because until this war effects U.S. citizens on a large scale (much like Vietnam did through the draft) then most people are happy to allow those patriotic few to go forward and do the fighting.
    I would ask everyone to look at the premise that took us into Iraq — the alleged WMD. While I spend my time getting ready to deploy (which I volunteered for according to several of you on here…), why don’t you informed types who like to think of us in uniform as whiners when it comes to going off to war but we’re more than happy to take all the $$ during peacetime (as was alluded by another writer on here), go write a letter to your Senator or Congressman demanding a full accountability as to why our country was led us down this primrose WMD laden path. I also challenge you to ask them why we allowed our senior civilian leaders to ignore our senior military leaders who recommended against a war in Iraq. If you’re so concerned and you have the time to sit on here and cite legal reference and question the willingness of those who did their time and now want to be left alone, why not spend that time being a little more productive and ask some really hard questions of the decision makers in Washington? Why sit on here and question those who served? They’re allowed to feel this practice is unfair and they are justified in feeling slighted by their government.
    Anyway, I am proud to serve alongside all of you who choose to put on our country’s uniform and I am equally proud to risk my life to preserve the rights and freedoms of those of you who will sit at home in the relative comfort provided by us in uniform. Enjoy it…it came at a cost and all we ask for in return is support. Don’t question us when we feel something is unfair, why does this upset you? Do you fear this policy will get the media attention it deserves and will force us into a draft where you might be called upon? Don’t worry about that…again, if you have the time maybe you should write those same civilian leaders and thank them for learning the political lessons of Vietnam so well because they sure didn’t learn the military ones…