PRESIDENT Bush's decision to mobilize nearly 50,000 military reservists and members of the National Guard dramatically illustrates the magnitude of the crisis in the Persian Gulf, but it should not send out panic waves or provoke astonishment here at home. It is worth recalling that along with the ending of the draft in 1973, came the "total force" policy to assign additional responsibility to the armed forces reserves for missions in peacetime and in times of crisis. With the projected deployment to the Gulf of at least 135,000 troops and dozens of warships and fighter aircraft, the president believes that now is the time to call up citizen soldiers to support that mission. There seems to be no reason to quarrel with his decision.
The minimal reaction from Capitol Hill can be largely chalked up to the congressional recess. But as Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) observed, the Iraqi invasion is exactly the kind of situation Congress had in mind when it gave the president authority in 1976 to activate as many as 200,000 reservists at any one time for as long as six months without congressional approval. Understandably, the president used that authority and not the authority he already has under a national emergency declaration, because use of the latter -- which allows him to mobilize as many as 1,000,000 reservists for one year -- would imply that the 200,000 force he may mobilize now cannot be expected to get the job done, and the time isn't ripe for that call.
Contrary to earlier speculation, it now appears that most of those called up will be sent to the Middle East. The transition from civilian life to uniforms and military duties far from home and families will not be easy, either for those who must leave or for those who must stay behind. Reservists are making it clear, however, that they never expected reserve status to be a meaningless honor. They recognize and seem prepared to honor their commitments.
Employers, creditors and others who will find their lives and activities disrupted by this crisis have legal and moral responsibilities to honor as well. The law is clear on one score: upon their return, activated reservists must be given back their old jobs or offered equivalent work with their previous employers with the same pay and seniority they would have received were it not for the call-up. But the law's protection has its limits. A good many reservists are going to take sharp pay cuts the day they don their uniforms and take up their military obligations, and their legal obligations to creditors and the mortgage company will not change.
An old law -- the Soldiers and Sailors' Civil Relief Act of 1940 -- will allow reservists to negotiate interest rate reductions on home mortgage and car payments and other consumer loans, but experts in these matters suggest a dialogue between the creditor and the reservist on this score might be worthwhile. That's well and good. And while affected creditors and employers make their own plans to sort this out, they might bear in mind who will be stuck in that brutal Saudi desert protecting their interests.