WASHINGTON — The Marine Corps said Tuesday that it would begin calling Marines back to active-duty service on an involuntary basis to serve in Iraq and Afghanistan -- the latest sign that the American force is under strain and a signal that the military is having trouble persuading young veterans to return.
Marine commanders will call up formerly active-duty service members now classified as reservists because the Corps failed to find enough volunteers among its emergency reserve pool to fill jobs in combat zones. The call-ups will begin in several months, summoning as many as 2,500 reservists at a time to serve for a year or more.
The Pentagon has had to scramble to meet the manpower requirements of the Iraq war, which have not abated in the face of a continuing insurgency and growing civil strife. Earlier this year, the military called forward its reserve force in Kuwait, sending one battalion to Baghdad and two to Ramadi. Last month, the yearlong deployment of the Army's Alaska-based 172nd Stryker Brigade was extended by four months to provide extra soldiers to roll back escalating sectarian violence in Baghdad.
For much of the conflict, the Army also has had to use "stop-loss orders" -- which keep soldiers in their units even after their active-duty commitments are complete -- as well as involuntary call-ups of its reservists. Both actions have been criticized as a "back-door draft" and are unpopular with service members, many of whom say they have already done their part.
"You can send Marines back for a third or fourth time, but you have to understand you are destroying their lives," said Paul Rieckhoff, founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. "It is not what they intended the all-volunteer military to look like."
Marines typically enlist for eight years. Most serve four years on active duty and then enter the reserves, either attached to units that have monthly drills or as a part of the "individual ready reserve."
The ready reserve was designed to be a pool of manpower that the Pentagon could draw on in a time of national emergency. But the Iraq war has forced the Army, and now the Marines, to rely on the ready reserve to fill holes in the combat force.
Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) said the Marines' ready reserve call-up was an example of the wear and tear the Iraq war had inflicted on the armed services, a stress that could hurt the military in the months and years to come.
"The right way to address the issue is to increase the size of the military so you do not have to rely on the call-up of the individual ready reserve," Reed said. "We should have raised the strength of the Army and Marine Corps three years ago.... It does underscore the strain that is being placed on the land forces -- the Army and the Marines."
Frederick W. Kagan, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute who has written about what he calls a military manpower crisis, argued that the involuntary call-ups were the latest sign that a larger ground force was needed. The increasing length of combat tours, the extensive use of National Guard combat units and the stop-loss orders all show the military is scrambling to meet the demands placed on it, he said.
"It is one of an avalanche of symptoms that the ground forces are overstretched by operations in Iraq and Afghanistan," Kagan said. "This administration needs to understand this is not a short-term problem, and it really needs a systemic fix in the size of the ground forces."
The announcement by U.S. commanders that they are seeking new sources to meet manpower needs came as British officers told reporters in London that the 7,000-member British force could be cut in half by next year. For months, U.S. commanders also have said they want to shrink the size of their force in Iraq, a move that would reduce the strain on the military and ease the need for involuntary call-ups. But most American -- as well as British -- promises to cut troop sizes have been derailed by the continuing violence in Iraq.
Although the Marines for the most part have avoided forcing reservists to serve in Iraq against their will, volunteers have been harder to come by as the war has dragged on.
"We have been tracking our volunteer numbers for the last two years. If you tracked it on a timeline or a chart, you would see it going down," said Col. Guy A. Stratton, head of the Marine Corps' manpower mobilization plans section, who briefed reporters Tuesday on the reserve plans.
There are 138,000 U.S. troops now serving in Iraq. There are about 24,100 active-duty Marines in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Horn of Africa, although the bulk of that force is in Iraq's Al Anbar province.
Most Marine Corps tours in Iraq are about seven months long, whereas the Army has yearlong stints. But Marines return to combat more frequently, with as little as five or six months in the United States between rotations. The grueling schedule means some Marines already have served three tours in Iraq.