May 1, 2008  

Not so fast

Milbloggers post mixed reviews for film on stop-loss policy

As dissatisfaction with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has grown, the policy of “stop-lossing,” or the involuntary extension of a service member’s duty commitment, has become a locus of controversy. Although the term has been standard fare in military contracts since the Vietnam War, when the replacement of soldiers whose contracts had expired disrupted unit cohesion, stop-lossing is now a symptom of the military’s lack of manpower during a pair of extended, troop-intensive counterinsurgencies.

The stop-loss question attained national prominence during a series of lawsuits in 2004, as soldiers who had been ordered to Iraq and Afghanistan fought their deployments. Among the most notable cases was that of Sgt. Emiliano Santiago, an Oregon National Guardsman who was ordered to Afghanistan in October 2004 after finishing his eight-year contract in June of that year. Santiago sued the Defense Department for violating his contract and ultimately lost when the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals refused to send his case to the Supreme Court. Although Santiago was sent to Afghanistan, his and similar cases inspired grumbling in Congress, where the stop-loss policy is decried as a “backdoor draft.”

Stop-loss is now the subject of an eponymous film that tells the story of three soldiers who return from Iraq and attempt to handle the burdens of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) while re-entering civilian life as sons and husbands. When Staff Sgt. Brandon King is stop-lossed and told that he will be returned to the war in Iraq rather than be released from the Army, he flees his post in an effort to escape the orders. King’s flight forces his friends and family to choose whether to support him and ultimately brings him face-to-face with the costs of abandoning one’s comrades.

Not surprisingly, the movie has met with an unkind reception among milbloggers. Terri, a blogger at A Soldier’s Mind whose boyfriend has served three tours in Iraq, watched the movie and panned it as “unrealistic,” “inaccurate” and “inconsistent.” She points out numerous factual errors, such as the immediacy of King’s orders to return to Iraq, the film’s treatment of PTSD and the police manhunt for King. Her conclusion: “It’s obvious that this is Hollywood’s latest attempt to make the military look bad and to glorify desertion.”

A more typical response among milbloggers was to pan the movie without having seen it. Both “SSG Thul” at Foreign and Domestic and “Deebow” at Blackfive cheered the movie’s poor takings during its opening weekend, as the film posted eighth at the box office. Thul concludes that the film did poorly because “Americans don’t want to go see a movie that tells them that they are stupid because they are Americans.” Deebow asks why there have been so many movies that criticize the war but none celebrating real-life heroes who fought in Iraq and have died for their brothers in arms.

The one sympathetic milblogger review of “Stop-Loss” that I found was by Carissa Picard, on the Military.com Daily Election Center Blog. Picard, founder of the soldier’s advocacy group Military Spouses for Change, attended the movie’s sold-out premier at Fort Hood, Texas, and interviewed audience members afterward. A notable (and vocal) segment of the audience included members of Iraq Veterans Against the War, which had organized a group to attend the premier and distribute anti-war literature. They agreed with the film’s premises and thought that it provided a fair treatment of what they view as a betrayal of American soldiers. (AFJ staff writer Chuck Vinch reviewed “Stop-Loss” favorably, concluding, “‘Stop-Loss’ is not an anti-war film; if anything, it’s pro-troops.”)

Picard also spoke to a number of soldiers who are supportive of the war in Iraq but nonetheless thought the movie dealt with an important topic that has affected their lives. One noncommissioned officer told her that the movie was sensationalistic and mangled facts about combat and PTSD but still provided a useful reminder that being stop-lossed has a serious impact on families whose plans for deployment end dates and transfers can be put on ice for months. The soldier concluded by mentioning that the policy and its discontents ultimately mean that the Army will “lose retention and then re-enlistment and then enlistment.”

And there’s the rub. Even if one rejects how “stop-loss” has become a mantra of the anti-war left (a Google search for the term combined with “Code Pink” delivers more than 800 results), the use of the policy during the war on terrorism symbolizes a real problem with the size, organization and sustainment of the armed forces. With too few soldiers to man counterinsurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the military has been forced to rely on excessive stop-lossing, especially in vital combat support and combat service support roles such as intelligence, military police and logistics.

Needless to say, the stop-loss policy serves a real purpose. Dismantling and reconstructing units that are engaged in combat is highly disruptive, damages unit cohesion and ultimately results in greater casualties than would otherwise be the case. As SSG Thul asks, would the critics of stop-loss prefer to return to the Vietnam War policy of sending individual recruits to the front rather than keeping veterans in place alongside the friends they have long fought with?


But even if it is necessary, stop-loss under the best of circumstances is a nuisance, even for military administrators. As “Phil” points out at Phil and Becky, the policy presents a mess not just when it holds troops in place, but also creates a dilemma for personnel management “when the stop-loss is removed and the floodgates have opened up for soldiers” to either leave the Army or undertake their permanent changes of station.

Moreover, the stop-loss policy can undermine the unit cohesion and morale that it was intended to sustain. “Daniel” at La Nouvelle Feuille was an Arabic linguist in Iraq whose tour was scheduled to end in March 2005. Because of the demand for his skills as a translator, he was held in country until December of that year, leading to his publicly criticizing the stop-loss policy from Iraq through the anti-war veterans group Operation Truth. Although Daniel ultimately left the Army, it was not until after he had to issue a public apology (appropriately titled “Double Plus Ungood”) and temporarily halt his blogging.

Even when soldiers are not pushed to the extremes of Daniel, Santiago, or the fictional Staff Sgt. Brandon King, demonstrates that an excessive reliance on stop-loss has placed a burden on soldiers and their families. Whereas the anti-war left argues that the solution to this dilemma is to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the nature of the “Long War” against Islamist extremism argues against any such solution. Even after Iraq, America’s next war likely will be similar to the current one — a protracted counterinsurgency against a dedicated foe. Instability throughout the Middle East, the Horn of Africa and elsewhere augur so.

The solution to this dilemma thus lies in better preparing the military for its mission. Although Defense Secretary Robert Gates already has directed American commanders to minimize their dependence on stop-lossed soldiers, the Pentagon must make the shift from personnel triage to preventive medicine. An investment in combat support and combat service support specializations will ease the demand for repeated and extended tours among specialists in those fields. The stop-loss may be a permanent feature of American military life, but its consequences would be alleviated in a better designed military.


A Soldier’s Mind

Foreign and Domestic


Daily Election Center Blog

Phil and Becky

La Nouvelle Feuille

CHRISTOPHER GRIFFIN is a research associate in Asian studies at the American Enterprise Institute.