The Volunteer Check on an Imperial U.S.

For the first time in six years the Army is likely to miss its annual recruiting goals. The Army National Guard is facing its worst personnel shortages in a decade. An unnecessary and badly managed war based on false claims is sapping the willingness of young Americans to enlist.

So far the Pentagon is rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. The Army is hiking benefits for priority jobs and bumping up the age limit for enlistees. The Army Guard is adding recruiting centers and recruiters.

But "all of the services are competing for the same pool of people," admits Guard spokesman Lt. Col. Mike Milord. And none of these palliatives address the primary reason enlistments are falling: a growing reluctance of young people, reinforced by their parents’ fears, to serve in Iraq.

Naturally, war supporters are taking cover behind scapegoats. Hindering prosecution of the war are critics who "work to undermine American support for our troops and the missions they serve," complains Melanie Morgan of the group Move America Forward.

Morgan recently directed her ire at anti-war artists whose work was promoted by California state Attorney General Bill Lockyer. These people "do the bidding of terrorists," she declared.

Columnist Thomas Lindaman rails against those who claim to support the troops but who criticize the war or even the president. The job of each citizen, he explains, is "to get your fellow citizens behind the efforts in Iraq, even if you disagree with the reasons for the war."

So much for principled dissent in a democracy. If the conflict in Iraq worsens, it is the fault of those who oppose it, not those who foolishly inaugurated it.

Some war advocates spotlight the ongoing recruiting crisis. For instance, Hollywood’s Ben Stein blames the media.

"Why would anyone join the Army if he reads the newspapers and watches TV?", Stein asks. It would be different if "the media showed the military building schools, saving little children’s lives, feeding families, getting sick people medical care" instead of "the military getting killed."

Alas, ignoring the consequences of the war won’t make the deaths and maimings go away. And ignoring the consequences won’t reverse the administration’s blundering, such as failing to provide adequate body armor and armored vehicles to protect the troops.

The lowest circle of hell is reserved for those who are impeding military recruiting efforts. The Center for Security Policy declares: "Those who oppose our armed forces recruiters’ visits to schools and universities or otherwise interfere with their activities will not prevent us from waging the war we have no choice but to fight. They may, however, require us to do so with forces that are obliged to serve rather than those who do so freely."

America’s military commitments are seen as fixed, perhaps by a peculiar conjunction of the sun and moon. Thus, the Iraq conflict must continue, even if it entails sending press gangs across the land.

But the refusal by those with the most at risk to implement the administration’s counterproductive foreign policy should cause officials to reconsider America’s course.

Why is Washington wasting tens of thousands of troops defending populous and prosperous allies like Japan and South Korea? Why does the United States man antiquated garrisons in Britain and Germany? Why are there still American troops stationed in the Balkans patrolling Europe’s backyard?

If Iraq is a "must war," then the Pentagon could concentrate its limited personnel on that conflict. Let wealthy allies and friends start carrying the burden of their own and their respective regions’ defenses.

But Iraq is not a must war. From the beginning it has been a war of choice, based on false premises and pursued by officials with hysterically optimistic expectations and criminally incompetent preparations.

Even if the invasion was necessary, the occupation is not. There are sound reasons to avoid a precipitous withdrawal. But those reasons are not important enough to justify a return to the draft if that’s the only way to stay.

Indeed, the military’s recruiting difficulties illustrate an important virtue of the volunteer military. Average people can resist – and eventually shut down – an unpopular conflict by simply refusing to join.

In contrast, a draft ensures a steady source of manpower, allowing the government to pursue an unpopular war. Although opposition might eventually force a change in policy, this process took years in Vietnam’s case.

Military service is honorable and necessary. It is President Bush’s misguided war that is causing increasing numbers of young people to tell Uncle Sam, "No thanks." That’s yet another good reason for the administration to begin planning America’s exit from Iraq.