With the "global war on terrorism" in Afghanistan and Iraq now well into its fourth year, the strain is starting to show on US troop levels.
The Marine Corps announced this week that it will involuntarily activate 2,500 reservists.
Briefing reporters Tuesday, Col. Guy Stratton, head of Marine Corps manpower mobilization, acknowledged that "this is going to be a long war" and that there is "clearly a need" for more marines in Iraq and Afghanistan. In essence, Col. Stratton said, there have not been enough volunteers among those in the Individual Ready Reserve (IRR) – marines who served four years on active duty but are eligible for recall for the next four years.
The Marine Corps call-up follows a pattern in military manpower in recent years.
Some of those in uniform are on their second or third deployment to the war zones. From time to time, the Army has had to recruit more soldiers from the "lowest acceptable" category based on test scores, education levels, personal background, and other indicators of ability. Some military recruiters – always under pressure to produce – have been reprimanded for illegally inducing clearly unqualified young men and women into signing up. "Citizen soldiers" in the National Guard have played an extraordinarily large role on the ground in combat areas.
To some experts, the call-up of Marine Corps reservists indicates that the war is likely to last longer and be more hard-fought than earlier official predictions.
"The most significant dimension of this to me is that it says there are no longer any rosy assessments about how things are going in Iraq and Afghanistan," says retired Air Force Col. Sam Gardiner. "The call-up suggests the Pentagon envisions current troop levels in Iraq through the summer of 2008, with these guys going in the summer of 2007 for one year."
Troop strength in Iraq today is back up to 138,000, notes military analyst John Pike of globalsecurity.com, a research and consulting firm specializing in security issues. "All that happy talk earlier this year about getting below 100,000 by the end of this year now seems premature."
At the Pentagon and within the military services, the debate over necessary troop levels in Iraq has raged both quietly and sometimes, not so quietly, with senior officers arguing for a more robust force and Bush administration civilians wanting to reduce American forces there as soon as possible.
Some observers note that calling up marines with their ever-ready image is less politically fraught than activating more National Guard troops, who tend to be older and more established in their communities. Recalled marines are entitled to five months' additional training.
"I would expect our National Guard soldiers and their families are wondering more than ever how soon they may be called up again," says retired Navy Capt. Larry Seaquist, who notes that individuals from the Army and Navy reserves have been recalled to active duty and sent to Iraq as well.
This latest recall of reservists may indicate problems in Marine Corps morale, according to some observers.
"Marine Corps spirit is legendary," says retired Army Col. Dan Smith, now a military analyst with the Friends Committee on National Legislation in Washington. "But ... IRR members probably have been in Iraq or Afghanistan two, three, even four times already, and they feel they have done their duty, taken their share of the risks."
Following a serious shortfall last year, the Army now predicts that it will meet its 2006 recruiting goal. But the Army, too, has had to mobilize several thousand soldiers from its ready reserves. It's also issued "stop loss" orders for several thousand troops, extending their tours in Iraq.
Meanwhile, an Alaska-based Army "stryker" brigade recently was extended for four months in Iraq to address the growing violence in Baghdad.