That policy, known as "stop-loss," is now being legally challenged by a U.S. Marine. The soldier says he was kept in Iraq longer than his scheduled tour of duty. Later, he was allowed to resign from the Marines in exchange for a year of service in the United States as a member of the Army National Guard. But now his National Guard service is being extended by as much as two years. Moreover, he could face another tour of duty in Iraq. The Marine has filed a lawsuit in California.
The Pentagon says the "stop-loss" policy is an important way to ensure that it has enough experienced personnel to handle difficult duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Michael Sorgen, a lawyer for the U.S. Marine who has filed the lawsuit -- whose name has not been released -- says the administration of President George W. Bush is improperly applying the policy. Sorgen says it would be appropriate during a time of war or a national emergency. But, as he points out, Congress has not declared either.
So how does the U.S. military ensure it has sufficient personnel without policies like stop-loss? One way is to reinstitute the draft, which was abolished in 1973 toward the end of the Vietnam War. Many analysts say the draft would be a bad idea, because it would mean a lower-quality fighting force than America's current voluntary military.
"You know, in World War II, the United States suffered about 310,000 combat losses. So it's not the absolute numbers. It's more the illegitimacy of the cause. For an illegitimate cause, even one death seems to be far too many." - Kuznick
Some cite other reasons to be skeptical of the draft. Professor Peter Kuznick specializes in the politics of war at Washington's American University. He told RFE/RL that the social egalitarianism of the draft system -- with young men of every class being selected to serve in Vietnam -- eventually made it a political liability.
That, Kuznick said, is something the current administration wants to avoid. "The draft wouldn't solve the problem," he said. "The draft could be more egalitarian than it has been in the past, except there's a good reason for the political leaders to try to avoid that [egalitarianism in the draft]. In Vietnam, when middle-class kids were being drafted and being killed, then the middle-class parents -- who have a lot more political clout than the poor do in the United States -- started to denounce the war in Vietnam. The government started to pay a lot of attention and ended the draft."
Kuznick said the current controversy over the stop-loss policy is growing simply because an increasing number of soldiers and other Americans are beginning to question U.S. military strategy, particularly in Iraq.
Mounting U.S. casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan are to blame for some of those doubts. But, Kuznick said, for many Americans, the more urgent issue is whether the Bush administration had a legitimate argument for going to war.
"I think that the American people, in a just cause, would be willing to accept 1,000 deaths and many more. You know, in World War II, the United States suffered about 310,000 combat losses. So it's not the absolute numbers. It's more the illegitimacy of the cause. For an illegitimate cause, even one death seems to be far too many," Kuznick said.
Christopher Preble, who studies international affairs at the Washington-based Cato Institute think tank, said stop-loss is needed, because the U.S. armed forces are getting smaller, even as the number of foreign engagements is rising. Even before the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, there was the first Gulf War, the Somalia intervention, and NATO action in the Balkans.
Preble said even if Bush were to lose this November's presidential election, there is no reason to expect a major shift in military policy. He cited a degree of "continuity" in presidential policy during the past 15 years, regardless of whether a Republican or a Democrat was in the White House.
"There is a very important continuity in terms of their [U.S. presidents'] conception of what our military is supposed to be for. They, I think, have concluded that it is for doing allegedly good things all over the world. I believe that our intentions usually are good, but I'm not surprised if others don't see it the same way as I do -- those who know the United States military only at the receiving end of a rifle," Preble said.
Still, the question of who is in the White House will have some impact on military strategy. The president, as commander-in-chief of the U.S. military, has broad war-making powers. Under George W. Bush, the powers of the executive branch of the U.S. government have grown even stronger.
Policies like stop-loss illustrate this change, Preble said. Bush has freely extended the terms of military service -- even without a formal declaration of war by Congress.
"A formal declaration of war does set in motion certain legal and constitutional issues. I do think that we've certainly eroded the concept of war-fighting and war-making, assuming that the president, with his powers as commander-in-chief, is essentially empowered to wage war whenever he deems it necessary," Preble said.