WASHINGTON -- The US Army defended its plan yesterday to mobilize involuntarily 5,600 retired or discharged soldiers as nothing "new or unusual," but critics said it undermines the concept of an all-volunteer military.
The soldiers -- about 300 of whom come from New England -- will be summoned from the Individual Ready Reserve, a seldom-tapped pool of 111,000 people who remain eligible to be called to active duty for eight years after completing their voluntary Army service commitment.
Army officials said these soldiers will be deployed this year to Iraq and Afghanistan to fill shortages in specific jobs such as military police and civil affairs.
"It's a management tool which we've always had available to augment our forces when we need additional personnel in a time of war," said Lieutenant Colonel Pamela Hart, an Army spokeswoman at the Pentagon. "This is nothing that's new or unusual."
The move is the latest sign of the strain on the military as the Pentagon struggles to maintain a larger-than-expected force of 138,000 in Iraq through the end of 2005 amid a fierce insurgency.
Hart said the last such involuntary mobilization came during the 1991 Gulf War. Such a deployment also occurred in 1968 during the Vietnam War.
The Army has previously said it would prohibit tens of thousands of soldiers designated to serve in Iraq and Afghanistan from leaving the service when their volunteer commitment ends.
This "stop-loss" order means soldiers who otherwise could have retired, starting 90 days before being sent, will be compelled to remain to the end of a yearlong deployment and up to another 90 days after returning to their home base. Some may remain in the Army up to 18 months beyond their original departure date.
Rand Beers, national security adviser to Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, said: "The fact is that this involuntary call-up is a direct result of the Bush administration's diplomatic failure to get real international help in Iraq." Kerry has called the stop-loss order a "backdoor draft."
Retired Army Colonel Andrew Bacevich, a Boston University international relations professor, worried about damage to the concept of a volunteer military.
"These are people who used to be soldiers and no longer are," Bacevich said of those called from the Individual Ready Reserve. "The informal contract -- the one as understood by soldiers regardless of what they actually signed -- is that I have volunteered for a certain period of time. And once that time is up, then the choice returns to me to decide either to continue my service or to opt out. What the Bush administration is doing is just shredding that informal contract."
Bacevich said current service members may feel as though they have been treated unfairly and potential volunteers may have second thoughts.
Bryan Bender of the Globe staff contributed to this report