- The Washington Times - Monday, December 6, 2004

No one ever said military life was easy or predictable, and Iraq and Afghanistan have only made it harder. Still, it was only a matter of time before someone sued the Pentagon over it. This week, that’s precisely what happened.

Eight servicemen filed a lawsuit yesterday in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to challenge the Pentagon’s stop-loss policy. The Pentagon, which has been using stop-loss to retain enlistees beyond their intended periods of service, defends the policy as a means of keeping unit cohesion and maintaining overall manpower levels. But the servicemen are saying stop-loss violates their enlistmen contracts and deprives them of liberty without due process. The plaintiffs are David Qualls, a 35-year-old Guardsman from Arkansas and one-time Army enlistee, and seven servicement identified only as John Doe. All eight are posted overseas. Six of them, including Mr. Qualls, are in Iraq.

Legal experts say the case has little chance of succeeding, just as in the Vietnam era similar suits challenging the Pentagon’s deployment decisions failed. In the most significant of these, the 1968 Supreme Court decision Morse v. Boswell, the court handed down an 8-1 decision against plaintiffs from a Vietnam-bound Army reserve unit who claimed the Pentagon had not trained them adequately for service. That suit, like most of the era, was largely symbolic.

Experts say Qualls v. Rumsfeld is much the same: a symbolic strike against a war and the policies that underwrite it. To judge by the suit’s pushers, that’s probably correct. Among the plaintiffs’ lawyers is Jules Lobel, vice president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, a left-wing outfit that is also scurrilously seeking to label Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld a war criminal for the abuses at Abu Ghraib. Clearly the suit means more than servicemen’s rights to the people financing it.

Still, it’s worth reflecting on what the suit means both for manpower and for the state of the military culture, because on both accounts it portends ill. On the manpower issue, it’s yet another reminder that the services are stretched too thin. There are currently about 145,000 reservists on active duty. That’s too many. It’s estimated that the stop-loss policy has kept several thousand of them from coming home as they were originally scheduled to. We rarely hear from these soldiers. Most of them serve with pride and committment. Some hunker down and serve as requested. They all deserve our gratitude, but they also deserve a Congress and president who will fix the problems they’re putting in overtime to allay. The permanent expansion of the Army ranks by 20,000 being discussed in Washington this week is a good start, but it’s nowhere near enough.

Then there is the question of military culture. What the lawsuit demonstrates is that in some respects even the military can’t escape the country’s increasing litigiousness. It’s hard to imagine that World War II-era GIs ever thought to sue the government over unexpected service. These days, servicemen are still mostly proud to serve when they sign up for the military. But the minority who isn’t is increasing, and seems unlikely to go away.

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