During the fall of 1999, George W. Bush, then the governor of Texas and a leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, introduced what would become a staple of his stump speech over the following year. Appearing at The Citadel military academy, Bush painted a grim picture of the U.S. armed forces under Bill Clinton. “Not since the years before Pearl Harbor has our investment in national defense been so low as a percentage of GNP,” Bush told the crowd that day. “Yet rarely has our military been so freely used.” Bush accused the Clinton administration not only of underfunding the military–a perennial conservative complaint–but also of overburdening it with unnecessary deployments. “Resources are over-stretched,” he charged. “Frustration is up, as families are separated and strained. Morale is down. Recruitment is more difficult. And many of our best people in the military are headed for civilian life.”

There was an element of truth to his charge. By the late 1990s, the number of active-duty men and women under arms had decreased from more than 2 million during the Gulf War to just under 1.4 million, much of it due to planned post-Cold War drawdowns begun under Bush’s father. Yet during the same period, the military had faced a major new deployment roughly every six months–most of them operations, like Haiti or Somalia, that were layered on top of the post-Cold-War requirement that the Pentagon be able to fight two major regional wars at once.

All these deployments profoundly changed the lives of tens of thousands of soldiers, including Brian Wells, a staff sergeant with the 10th Mountain Division. Wells joined the 10th Mountain in 1998, moving his family to the division’s home base at Fort Drum, N.Y. The following year, as U.S. forces bombed Kosovo, he spent a month away from his family at Fort Polk, La., participating in the arduous war games that bring soldiers to peak preparedness. Immediately after, he was deployed to Bosnia for four months; on his eldest son’s first day of kindergarten, Wells was on peacekeeping duty outside Tuzla. A year later, he headed back to Louisiana for more exercises. Like most soldiers, Wells enjoyed being in the military. But between his deployment, exercises, training, and time spent at battle schools, military life was becoming grueling. His wife and two sons, now aged 2 and 6, didn’t see him as often as they’d like. “With all the different situations around the world with different countries,” Wells told me last January, speaking in the clipped cadence of a 10-year military veteran and the flat vowels of his native Chicago, “it just kept adding on and adding on and adding on.”

Bush gained office in part by pledging to relieve soldiers like Wells from the onerous burdens the Clinton administration had imposed by, among other things, reconsidering the U.S. presence in the Balkans. Yet military life hasn’t gotten easier since Bush took office; indeed, it’s gotten measurably harder. For Wells, the war on terrorism has meant “more frequent deployments, less time at home”–not just more missions, but more time training for them and the constant pressure of being on a permanent war footing. “Since the war on terrorism has expanded so quickly and so vastly, you never know when, or where, you’re going to go,” he says. Wells spent five months in Afghanistan after September 11 and did yet another stint in Louisiana this past fall. “I missed all four of our birthdays, the anniversaries, major holidays. 2002–gone. No birthday parties, no Christmas, nothing.” Orders to deploy to the Middle East could come any day.

More military spending, it turns out, hasn’t made life any easier. The extra $70 billion a year the Bush administration has pumped into the Pentagon has bought more smart bombs and slightly fatter paychecks. But it hasn’t bought a much bigger military force. There are only about 27,000 more active-duty troops today than in 2000–and even with those additions, the military is more overstretched now than it was when Bush took office. During the first three months of this year, the United States had more than twice as many troops on overseas missions at any given time as it did in 2000. It’s getting harder to recruit new soldiers, and, on the whole, harder to keep the ones we have. The Army is so short of some specialties that it has imposed stop-loss on about 50,000 troops–that is, refused to let them retire or resign–while in January, the Marine Corps imposed a 12-month stop-loss order on the entire service. Large swathes of the U.S. military thus no longer meet the definition of a volunteer force. Nor, increasingly, do the reserves. Since September 11, thousands have been serving for long stretches, far from home, to meet the country’s growing homeland-security requirements and to fill in the gaps left by active-duty soldiers deployed elsewhere in the world. Their employers are grumbling, and their families are griping.

The average man in uniform, in other words, is more frustrated and overburdened today than he was two years ago–affecting not just the soldiers themselves, but their ability to protect the rest of us. “The great majority of Army combat units are not ready for combat without significant additional training,” wrote Lt. Col. Tim Reese, a respected commander who led a U.S. tank battalion in Kosovo, in Armor magazine last summer. Our capability and security has already begun to suffer. Because Army troops weren’t able to deploy quickly enough, the first ground forces in landlocked Afghanistan last year were Marines, specialists in amphibious assault. During the U.S.-led battle at Tora Bora and Operation Anaconda, the brass was both unwilling and unable to deploy enough troops to encircle the enemy, allowing hundreds of Taliban and al Qaeda fighters to escape to neighboring Pakistan, including, possibly, Osama bin Laden.

Things are about to get much worse. During the last two months, President Bush has ordered some 87,000 of America’s overstretched soldiers to the Persian Gulf, where they joined a force of roughly equal magnitude already preparing for war in Iraq. As many as 250,000 U.S. troops will take part in an eventual invasion of Iraq, on top of those already peacekeeping, battling terrorism, and guarding American interests around the world. Fighting a war, of course, is the military’s primary purpose. But when the shooting stops, about 75,000 of those soldiers will need to stay behind–twice as many as are currently stationed in South Korea to deter an invasion from the North, and more than 12 times the dwindling number serving in Bosnia and Kosovo.

That can only mean decreased readiness, shrinking re-enlistments, lower morale, and, quite possibly, more mistakes like the one at Tora Bora. Today’s military is “like a football team playing back to back games in overtime with no practice or rest time,” says Maj. Donald Vandergriff, an ROTC instructor at Georgetown University and a leading expert on the military’s personnel crisis. “They may win one week, but they can’t win the next week because they’re exhausted.” Today’s force, say reformers, needs a top-to-bottom change in the way it recruits, structures, and deploys its men and women in uniform in order to meet new threats. Anything less puts those troops, and the rest of us, in danger. Yet the Bush administration has so far avoided the tough internal battles that will be needed to remake America’s overstretched military. Instead, the president is poised to use America’s overstretched military to remake the world.

For most civilians, the notion that a military with 1.4 million full-time men and women under arms is unduly burdened might seem counterintuitive. But of that number, only a fraction are what are known as “trigger-pullers”–that is, front-line troops in combat divisions. Of the Army’s 460,000 soldiers, for instance, only about 120,000 are part of the service’s 10 active-duty combat divisions. And only about one-third of each 15,000-man division consists of actual combat troops. Of the rest, most are part of the military’s vast overhead and logistics apparatus, from mechanics to quartermasters to secretaries.

In part this is the price the United States pays for global reach; deploying all around the world takes up more resources and man hours than staying at home. (During the Gulf War, according to one estimate, there were more signal troops and truck drivers in Saudi Arabia than there were combat soldiers.) And in part, it’s the military’s increasing reliance on high-tech equipment, which speeds up the tempo of battle by allowing forces to operate under nearly any conditions and requires a longer logistical “tail” when deployed. Today, the military’s overall “tooth to tail” ratio is about 1 to 7–one of the lowest in the world, and getting lower.

That makes it hard to solve the current overstretch problem in what would seem to be the logical way: increase the number of soldiers. Add a few thousand trigger-pullers, and you have to add seven times that number, on average, in support personnel. Recruiting so many qualified candidates would not only be expensive, but would challenge the current all-volunteer force, already struggling to meet its recruitment goals. (They’ve done so, but only by spending much more money per recruit than in years past, making it easier to get through basic training, and accepting more convicted felons.) In any event, the Bush administration has refused to approve all the additional manpower the services have requested. The president has never once publicly called upon young Americans to join the military, an omission that has caused some amount of grumbling throughout the ranks. After all, when the Pentagon can’t bring in more recruits, those who’ve already signed up pay the price.

When the weather cooperates, Fort Drum, home to the 10th Mountain Division, is a little over an hour’s drive north of Syracuse, just east of the Adirondacks. During most of the winter, though, storms over Lake Ontario dump loads of snow onto the region, and when I arrived there in the middle of January, the base was a few feet deep in powder. A public affairs officer met me at the front gate–like all U.S. bases, Fort Drum has been a “closed post” since 9/11–and escorted me around in a big SUV, proudly pointing out the video store, on-post schools and playgrounds, and most importantly, rows of tidy family sized houses. The growing number of “enlisted marrieds” in the ranks was an unintended consequence of the military’s move to an all-volunteer force in 1973, and the Pentagon has been playing catch-up ever since. Since the early 1990s, millions of dollars have poured into better housing, family services, and especially child care–important when more and more of the country’s married soldiers are married to each other.

Better housing and pay certainly make military life easier, and the Bush administration has made a point of putting more money into each than the previous administration. But as one recently retired soldier joked to me, a bigger apartment for the family doesn’t do you much good if you’re never around to see them. Too much time away from home, not low pay, are what usually drive people out of the service. As Wells told me, “This past year, not that I have any gripe, but being married, you get it from your wife.”

The pace is easier on soldiers who aren’t married, like Ron McGirr, a tall, soft-spoken military police sergeant I met at Fort Drum. But McGirr has another problem: As an MP, his specialty is among those most heavily in demand in the military today, which means he gets deployed again and again. Starting in 1998, McGirr was assigned to a military police company based in Germany; in the middle of his tour there, he spent six months in Kosovo policing Muslim neighborhoods and providing base security for U.S. forces. “When I first came in, it took three years before you deployed for anything other than exercises,” he said, as winter-camouflaged troops tramped through deep snowdrifts outside. But now, he pointed out, frequent deployments–sometimes averaging more than one a year–are the norm for new enlistees. September 11 has only quickened the pace; McGirr, whose responsibilities as an MP include on-post security, was especially busy after U.S. bases abroad went into permanent lockdown. Then, a few months after the attacks, he was reassigned to the 10th Mountain Division, arriving at Fort Drum in late January. Just 10 days later he was deployed to Afghanistan to build bunkers and guard Taliban prisoners of war.

The problem is not just the increasing number of missions, but the decades-old system by which soldiers are organized and deployed. Since before World War I, the military has used a centralized personnel management scheme, known as the individual replacement system, originally designed to fight what military wonks today call “second-generation” warfare–wars of attrition between industrial nations. Since those conflicts tended to have long lead-ups, what mattered most was how many guys you could get to the front line, rather than how fast you could get them there. Consequently, readiness was primarily measured by a given unit’s “fill”–how many troops it could deploy–instead of how much time those soldiers had spent training together. Soldiers, in turn, were viewed as interchangeable cogs in a machine, to be replaced as needed like spare parts. And to make it easier to organize and administer those modern armies in garrison, units were kept “branch-pure;” that is, tanks in one battalion, infantry in another, engineers in still another.

The system came in for criticism almost as soon as it was inaugurated, but though warfighting has changed dramatically since 1917, the individual replacement system remains in place today. If the 3rd Infantry Division is assigned to deploy, say, a brigade combat team–usually three battalions of between 500 and 900 men each, plus headquarters and support assets–to the Middle East, that team is built essentially ad hoc, from the ground up. To fill the units being deployed, the Army cannibalizes other units for personnel–often from other bases around the country or around the world. Ideally, such a formation would have months to train together as a team and learn to fight as one, since experience shows that formations that train together for long periods before deployment, developing cohesion and trust, are far more effective in combat. But in the post-Cold War world, most deployments happen on a moment’s notice–sometimes a month or two, sometimes less. “When you get down to the unit level, what it means is that for the most part, the formations you are deploying on any given day consist of strangers,” says Col. Douglas A. Macgregor, a research fellow at the National Defense University and author of Breaking the Phalanx, a bible for military reform advocates.

The more missions the military has, the more it has to move around, reassemble, and retrain its soldiers. And instead of fighting one big war or two medium-sized wars, today’s military has lately been charged with lots of minor operations, known as small-scale contingencies, and the occasional medium-sized one, like the upcoming war in Iraq. Even the small-scale contingencies are no picnic. As a 2001 RAND study noted, “Even relatively small operations require large amounts of leadership time, cause turbulence from cross-leveling and tailoring of the force, and require specialized training.” It doesn’t help that most of the military is still arrayed to fight World War III. A large fraction of the United States’ manpower is deployed to permanent garrisons in Germany, South Korea, and Japan. That doesn’t mean these troops sit on their hands. (Most of the peacekeeping soldiers in Bosnia and Kosovo, for instance, rotate out of bases in Germany.) But it does mean that many soldiers are primarily trained and organized for battles that will never occur, which means that they must constantly be trained for their actual missions as well, like patrolling Croat neighborhoods in Brcko, and then trained back again to prepare for their theoretical missions, such as battling hordes of Soviet tanks smashing through the Fulda Gap. Perversely, the current system produces units that simultaneously train more and are less ready.

It also disrupts soldiers’ lives constantly, as they are moved around the world at the last minute to fill out units scheduled for deployment. Some researchers estimate that, in any given week, as many as 60,000 soldiers are in transit from one place to another–three times as many soldiers as the Army puts into the Balkans in a given year. (This high “personnel tempo” also adds to the training tempo; since the troops in a given unit constantly turn over, the unit as a whole must train that much more in order to perform well together.) The burden doesn’t fall equally, though. Since most of the military is structured to organize over months, for a predictable war, few units are capable of deploying on very short notice. So while the bulk of our heavy, active-duty units are rarely deployed to places like Afghanistan, light units that are rapidly deployable–such as the 10th Mountain division, today the most frequently deployed in the Army–get sent to hotspots over and over again. The same goes for individual soldiers: Those with specialties in high demand for peacekeeping and nation-building, including MPs like Ron McGirr, get used more often than they normally would.

All of this goes a long way toward explaining why the same military that won the Gulf War without too much trouble gets stressed out keeping up a few peacekeeping and antiterrorism deployments that take up a fraction of its manpower. But when the dust settles, occupied Iraq will require more of what Bush’s advisers once derided as “social work” than the Balkans and Afghanistan combined. If putting a few thousand U.S. troops into Bosnia every six months is difficult, imagine the strain of keeping tens of thousands of personnel in an occupied Iraq, year after year.

The most visible symptom of overstretch, however, is its effects on the Guard and Reserves, who make up a little less than half of the Pentagon’s available personnel and two-thirds of the Army’s. In daily life, reservists (the term applies to members both of the Guard and the Reserves) are civilian citizens, many of them doctors, police, firemen, or nurses. When the military can’t meet deployments with active duty personnel, they call up reserve units and individual reservists, who must take leave from work and family at a moment’s notice. Three-quarters of U.S. Special Forces in Afghanistan today are National Guardsmen, for instance, in part to free up active-duty troops to prepare for war in Iraq.

Most of the reserves, however, consist not of combat troops but of logistics and support soldiers who undergird the big combat deployments–from engineers and MPs to civil affairs officers and truck drivers. Indeed, nearly all of these specialties are concentrated in the part-time reserve forces, rather than the active duty force. Unfortunately, those are the same specialties most needed in peacekeeping and humanitarian deployments, where the bulk of the work isn’t duking it out with enemy infantry but establishing constabulary forces, providing clean water, and fixing bombed-out power grids. So, ever since the Persian Gulf War, the Pentagon has leaned more and more heavily on the reserves–using them as a crutch to avoid reconfiguring the active-duty force away from the heavy divisions that remain the Army’s pride and joy. Today, the reserves are increasingly indistinguishable from the active-duty force, with a growing number of reservists and guardsmen serving for months at a time. “The National Guard and Reserve did not sign up with the idea that they would be fully integrated into the active Army,” says Ramon Nadel, a retired Army colonel who now teaches combat leadership. “And the more operations other than war that we have, the more the reserves get pulled away.”

“We call up the reserves basically because we can,” says John Tillson, a researcher at the Institute for Defense Analyses who studies the effects of operations tempo on soldiers. “Since we have all these tempo problems, we need to find some way to mitigate them. It’s easier to call up the reserves than to change the personnel system.” Even before September 11 the reserves were overstretched; since the early 1990s, the number of reservist “duty days” has nearly tripled, from more than 5 million to around 13 million per year. But the situation has gotten drastically worse since September 11. Pentagon officials estimate that since then, reservists have served between 30 and 40 million duty days, about what they contributed at the height of the Gulf War. By the beginning of this year, more than 124,000 reservists had been called up for duty during the course of Operation Enduring Freedom–nearly as many as have cycled through Bosnia, Kosovo, and the post-Desert Storm operations combined. “You will find reservists, particularly Army reservists and National Guard guys, who have served in Somalia, Haiti, Kosovo, Bosnia, Afghanistan, Kuwait,” says G.I. Wilson, a recently retired Marine colonel.

Pretty soon, they’ll be able to add Iraq to that list. The active-duty force has, for instance, exactly one civil-affairs battalion–that is, the specialists who set up courts and train police forces in the wake of a conflict. The other 97 percent of the Army’s civil-affairs specialists are in the reserves. Once the shooting stops, these and other elements of our already overstretched reserve force will bear the brunt of rebuilding, caring for, and policing Iraq. And when they get called up for duty, they’ll leave behind understaffed police stations and fire departments. A survey conducted by the Police Executive Research Forum found that half of all law enforcement agencies in the United States have already lost personnel to reserve call-ups since September 11, while another, conducted by the International Association of Fire Chiefs found that more than 70 percent of fire departments have members in the reserves. “We have only two paid firefighters,” noted one response to the latter survey. “Both have been called.”

Of course, police and firefighters are also the front-line responders in case of terrorist attacks on American soil (attacks that will be more likely, according to recent CIA reports, if U.S. troops invade Iraq). Therefore, stretching the already overburdened reserves to fight Saddam might not only increase the danger to U.S. soldiers, but to the rest of us at home.

Today’s military is at the breaking point. Active-duty troops have fewer opportunities to build camaraderie with their fellow soldiers, spend less and less time at home, and have more and more unpredictable schedules. Reservists suffer trouble at their daytime jobs, lose employment opportunities, and endure deployments away from home far longer than the ones they expected when they signed up. It’s a downward spiral; soldiers driven too hard and deployed too often will eventually choose not to re-enlist, compounding the personnel shortage and increasing the burden on those who stay. And there are only three ways to fix it.

One is to rapidly pull back our overseas commitments, as Bush promised to do during the 2000 campaign. The fact that we still have troops in Bosnia and Kosovo indicates not only that Clinton was right to put them there in the first place, but also that peacekeeping in the Balkans, Afghanistan, and elsewhere is likely to remain a big part of the Pentagon’s mission for the foreseeable future. The United States can’t stop fighting the war on terrorism, either. Since 9/11, in addition to Afghanistan and the Middle East, we’ve deployed troops to Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, the Philippines, Colombia, and several other terrorism hot spots. And whether or not one supports the idea of a war against Iraq, the United States needs a military capable of combating terrorism, meeting its peacekeeping commitments, and fighting a major regional war all at the same time. (If not in Iraq, then perhaps on the Korean peninsula.)

That leaves two other possibilities: Increase troop levels, or use the soldiers we have more efficiently. So far, the former has been a wash. But at the prodding of Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), President Bush recently signed into law a provision for shorter enlistment terms to attract more college students. That could help reverse the decline, since what’s killing the recruiting offices right now is college. The Pentagon rightly doesn’t want recruits without at least a high-school education; the problem is that a rapidly growing percentage of high school graduates are going on to become college students, who in turn are increasingly unlikely to enlist. Unless the military can recruit more college grads, its manpower crisis will continue. Research by Charles Moskos, the eminent military sociologist, suggests that shorter enlistment terms appeal to college graduates, who tend to marry later than the high-school grads (which means they will be less prone to family pressures while in service) and are typically better-educated than the current recruit (which means they can be trained faster). To get maximum benefit from the new short enlistment option, John Tillson suggests grouping cohorts of college students from the same region or university, who would train and deploy together overseas on short-term enlistments. Such groups could provide cohesive, highly motivated units for many of the military’s undermanned specialties. They could even form the basis of a new U.S. force dedicated exclusively to peacekeeping and nation-building abroad, relieving soldiers with perishable combat skills from the work.

And what if recruiting more college students on a voluntary basis doesn’t provide a substantial number of new enlistees–as is very likely? Then the Bush administration might want to consider a more radical approach: Draft them. Every year, a million young adults begin attending four-year colleges. As a condition of admission, those students could be required to serve their country for up to two years, in civilian national service programs like AmeriCorps, or homeland security efforts such as guarding nuclear plants, or in one of Tillson’s cohort units in the military. Some percentage would choose the latter, especially if they were to receive more G.I. Bill-type college aid as a reward for higher-risk duty.

If the Bush administration can’t find a way to increase the number of personnel, they’ll need to try the last solution: Change the way the military is organized so that it can commit more of the men and women we have in uniform to the right kinds of jobs, while utilizing them more efficiently and effectively than before. Fixing this problem may be the hardest battle of all, but it’s not impossible. Pulling most of our troops from Germany, for instance, would free up perhaps 40,000 soldiers for work elsewhere; as it is, says Douglas Macgregor, “You have commitments that are strategically irrelevant competing with commitments that are strategically unavoidable.” Shifting at least one of the Army’s heavy combat divisions to the reserves, and replacing it with more active duty service support troops like MPs, would help lessen the burden on reservists.

More fundamentally, say reformers, the World War I-era individual replacement system must be scrapped. In his widely read book of last year, The Path to Victory: America’s Army and the Revolution in Human Affairs, Vandergriff recommends replacing that system with what’s known as unit-manning. Under this system, units would be kept intact, with the same personnel and officers, for a three-year life cycle consisting of training, deployment, and rest phases. A unit-manning system would give soldiers more predictable lives, since they’d know well in advance when they’d be deployed and when they’d be at home. The units produced would be more cohesive, and thus more flexible, requiring less time to train up to specific missions and having a higher overall readiness level. And they wouldn’t look anything like today’s units. Macgregor’s book, Breaking the Phalanx, recommends replacing divisions and brigades with 5,000-man formations designed to deploy quickly and fight as a module. Instead of today’s branch-pure units, which must be assembled, like Legos, into a given formation, you’d have a range of set formations designed and trained to field certain capabilities rather than specific troop types.

Many of these reforms have been attempted at one time or another in the past–and snuffed out by the existing military bureaucracy, since those who have successfully navigated to the top of the existing system oppose changing it. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, to his credit, has advocated unit manning and more flexible formations in speeches and reports during the last two years. In reaction to Vandergriff’s book, the Army, under the direction of Secretary of the Army Thomas White and the Vice Chief of Staff, Gen. John Keane, has formed a Unit Manning Task Force to study how to move away from the individual replacement system. Unfortunately, the head of the task force was recently transferred to a new post, leaving it “effectively dead,” according to John Tillson. The Army’s Chief of Staff, Gen. Eric Shinseki, discussed the zero-defects culture at an Army conference in April 2001, and has been a vocal supporter of the need to shift the service to smaller, more flexible units. But these moves haven’t yet blossomed, in part because the resistance is so stiff, and in part because Rumsfeld’s office has focused most of its political capital on the so-called Revolution in Military Affairs–that is, machines, not men. “We say it stands for ‘Raging Military Acquisition,’” says G.I. Wilson. “I applaud Rumsfeld for trying to do transformation, but we’re not looking for tactical or operational solutions. We solely rely on technological and acquisitions solutions, because that means more money for Boeing, TRW, SCIC. We seek solutions that generate profit, income, or contracts in congressional districts. We’re more worried about the hardware, than having people to operate it.”

And it’s people who win battles, not just hardware. Bush didn’t create the military overstretch, but he did campaign on fixing it, and instead has allowed it to worsen. The soldiers at Fort Drum, like American soldiers around the world, didn’t join the military to stay at home; they will deploy willingly, even gladly, wherever and as often as their commander-in-chief asks them to. But driving men and women in uniform to the breaking point isn’t leadership–it’s a way to get them killed. Three years ago, candidate Bush charged the preceding administration with wanting things both ways: “To command great forces, without supporting them. To launch today’s new causes, with little thought of tomorrow’s consequences.” He should heed his own warning.

Nicholas Confessore

Nicholas Confessore is a New York–based political and investigative reporter at the New York Times and a staff writer at the New York Times Magazine. He was an editor at the Washington Monthly from 2002 to 2004.