WASHINGTON -- President Bush's unusual call for people to enlist in the military, made at the end of his speech on the lengthening Iraq war, came amid growing signs that the conflict is taking a severe toll on enlistments, with the Army running behind its quotas for the year despite lowering its standards for applicants.
White House press secretary Scott McClellan said yesterday that the president ''wants to make sure we're doing all we can to meet our recruitment targets." But retired military leaders quickly warned that a protracted fight in Iraq, with no clear timetable for withdrawal, will make it even more difficult to recruit ground forces, especially as the job market provides more alternatives.
Air Force General Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said yesterday that the Army slightly exceeded its recruiting goal for June, ending a four-month streak of missing its targets, including falling 25 percent short in May. But the Army is still about 7,800 recruits behind schedule for the fiscal year.
Bush's comments, including his declaration that ''there is no higher calling" than service, struck many familiar with military recruiting as an acknowledgment of the growing difficulty in signing up new soldiers in wartime.
''This is the first time I have heard [Bush] talk about it in the four years since 9/11," said General John Keane, the recently retired Army vice chief of staff. ''We are not going off the cliff yet. Can the Army continue to sustain our efforts in Iraq? The answer is yes. The issue is how long does it continue. If it goes on for three or four years, that is a real problem. If it continues, it will be a crisis."
The Army has said it will mount a huge push over the summer to try to make up lost ground, adding 500 new recruiters on top of 1,000 extra recruiters it added earlier this year.
The service has also increased financial incentives, raising college scholarships to $70,000 from $50,000 and more than tripling signing bonuses for certain key jobs to $20,000. Last year it also relaxed limits on the number of high school dropouts and poor scorers on a service aptitude test who are allowed to sign up.
Bush's comments were the highest- profile demonstration yet that the administration is worried about the difficulty that US ground forces are having in filling their ranks.
''I thank those of you who have reenlisted in an hour when your country needs you," Bush said. ''And to those watching tonight who are considering a military career, there is no higher calling than service in our armed forces."
Bush also said he would send more troops to Iraq if commanders in the field asked for them, but said they have not done so. Senator Jack Reed, Democrat of Rhode Island, said yesterday that those same commanders have told him they need more troops to secure Iraq's borders, but know none are available. ''I've been over [to Iraq] numerous times, talked to officers in the field, and there's a persistent refrain that we've never had enough resources, both personnel and materiel. You ask yourself why, then, would they not make formal demands on the president?" Reed said. ''The conclusion I reach is that they know the soldiers aren't there, so why ask for something you know doesn't exist?"
Representative Charles Rangel, Democrat of New York, said yesterday that if more countries do not contribute troops to Iraq, the only answer for the United States may be a draft. Rangel has long advocated for the draft, arguing that the burden of national defense should be shared evenly across society.
''We've got a backdoor draft now -- holding volunteers beyond the period they thought they would be in, holding onto reservists, calling up the National Guard two and three times," he said.
But a White House spokesman said yesterday that the Bush administration has no intention of reinstating the draft, saying, ''The president believes in, and has confidence in, an all-volunteer force."
A new Gallup poll last week found that only a ''bare majority" of Americans surveyed, or 52 percent, said they would support their child's decision to enter the military, down from 66 percent in 1999.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told Congress last week that the Army has been moving soldiers out of positions that civilians can fill to increase available troops by thousands. But he downplayed the sense that the service is facing a crisis.
''The idea that the Army's broken or will be broken, I think, is an overstatement," Rumsfeld said. ''I don't think it's going to happen. . . . On the one hand, there are stresses. On the other hand, there's a lot of steps being taken to relieve that stress."
But General Barry McCaffrey, a professor at the US Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., who led the 24th Mechanized Infantry Division in the 1991 Gulf War, wrote an opinion piece for The Wall Street Journal this week that called for Congress to enact greater recruitment incentives, saying the United States is in a ''race against time" in Iraq because of the strains on the military.
''The US Army and the Marines are too undermanned and under-resourced to sustain this security policy beyond next fall," McCaffrey wrote. ''They are starting to unravel. Congress is in denial and must act. In addition, the American people are losing faith in the statements of our Defense Department leadership. Support for the war is plummeting along with active- duty and National Guard recruiting."