Sunday, March 30, 2008

Stop-Loss: A Failed Policy and a Flawed Film

Last evening I went to the multiplex on Boston Common to see the film “Stop-Loss.” It is not a great feat of cinematic artistry, but it is a thought-provoking shot across the bow of the Army’s controversial policy that serves as a de facto “back door draft.” I went to see the film having already been warned of its flaws by Ty Burr, my favorite film critic. In his review that appears in the Boston Globe, his opening remarks are insightful and accurate:

"Stop-Loss" is co-produced by MTV, and the soundtrack consequently works overtime. Heavy metal, alt-pop, southern rock, orchestral swells, wailing Middle Eastern tunes all vie for our attention, but none of this noise drowns out the sound of good intentions twisting themselves into an impotent knot.

The movie's the latest off-Hollywood drama to examine the effects of the Iraq War on the US soldiers fighting it, and like previous films - "In the Valley of Elah," "Home of the Brave," "Lions for Lambs," "Redacted" - it's earnest, outraged, and more than a little confused. Pundits wonder why no one wants to see these movies, and it's true American audiences don't have the stomach for bad news (especially when it's about us), but can't the films themselves be at fault, too?

Seeing this film, with all of its flaws, caused me to think about the issues surrounding the Stop-Loss policy. The comments that follow are admittedly from my limited personal perspective as an outsider. But, I am an outsider with a strong vested interest in understanding all of the ramifications of the Stop-Loss controversy, since I have many close friends who are currently deployed and many more who could be recalled for a second, third or fourth deployment. So, with those caveats laid on the table, let me present the landscape as it looks from my perspective. I offer my thoughts in the hopes that they will generate comments from informed parties to better educate me and the readers of the White Rhino Report.

It appears to me that the Stop-Loss policy, as presently constituted, serves effectively as a “back door draft,” punishing those who have already voluntarily served. The concomitant impact on families of soldiers and on post-military career plans is incalculable. Many brave warriors - who gladly stepped forward to volunteer to fight the war on terror while the dust and debris from the Twin Towers were still settling to earth – too often find themselves disillusioned by the human resources practices of the Army.

There seem to be some built-in inequities in terms of how soldiers are deployed and promoted. Some soldiers are on their third deployment while others who have been in uniform just as long have not yet spent a day in the sand box. One former Army Captain whose opinion I respect, put it to me this way: “It often feels that when you enter a unit, it is like being caught up inside of a tornado. You go round and round and can’t find a way out.” One of the few ways to break out of the “tornado” is to apply for assignments that are not directly combat-related – training or support roles. Soldiers – enlisted and officers alike – who are deployed typically do not have the time, information or resources needed to research all of the available positions for which they might otherwise be qualified to apply, so those positions often go to the soldiers who are already working somewhere other than Iraq or Afghanistan.

Similar dynamics are at work with regard to promotion. The reams of paperwork and support documentation that are needed in order to be considered for promotion are difficult to assemble amidst the pressures of a deployment work schedule. So, against all reason and sense of fairness, promotions have been going inordinately to soldiers with little or no combat experience. The warriors who have put themselves in the most danger are being penalized as a result. It is my understanding that General Petraeus was so disturbed by this built-in inequity, that he recently made a special trip back to the Pentagon to sit in on a promotion board to ensure that those who had served under his command would be given a fair shake at promotions.

One of the disturbing practical consequences of these policies that it is now not unusual for a soldier assigned to a unit that is training to return to Iraq for a second or third deployment may very well be “trained” by someone who has never seen the desert or urban combat in Tikrit or Fallujah. When I asked my friend what kind of morale issues this situation creates, he responded: “We try to be professional, but there is a lot of underlying resentment. It is hard to respect someone who has not put into practice what he is attempting to teach.”

There is clearly a problem here. I am not smart enough or experienced enough to be able to offer suggestions for how to fix the problems, but it is clear to me that the current policies need to be revisited and revised. We are losing far too many of our best officers and enlisted soldiers who are tired of being asked to carry (along with their families) more than their fair share of the burden of fighting this protracted war on terror.

I welcome your thoughts, comments, clarifications, rebuttals and ideas on this issue.



Anonymous said...

White Rhino,
As always you've struck a note that I've been feeling for some time now. A few months ago I was rushed to an E.R.. While on the table a certain(older)nurse did not leave my side. When able to talk I asked why? She said,"My son is about to go on his 6th deployment. Do you've any friends my age in your old job that you could set me up with. I need someone who can help me understand my son." 6th deployment! How about re-addressing troop depleation rates with the New York Times and the stress of a mother or spouse and kids for your next blog.

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Anonymous said...

As usual your thoughts are thorough and thoughtful. As a former soldier that was stop-lossed once for the deployment to Iraq I do have a few thoughts. First, I never personally experienced being trained by those without the proper training to do the job, however I can understand the exasperated feelings from those soldiers that have gone through less than acceptable training. Second, and again let me stress that I was only stop-lossed once for only ONE deployment, I do take issue with those soldiers that are 'disallusioned' about the process, or even the possibility of a stop-loss. While I do agree that this can be considered a back-door draft, I argue that it is a necessary process to keep the most qualified soldiers fighting our nations wars...regardless whether or not popular opinion, or the soldier's own, agrees with the cause.