Publicly, the Pentagon insists it's getting the manpower and money it needs for Iraq and Afghanistan. But as those conflicts drag on, Army planners are privately growing more worried about a looming crisis. The problem is not quantity--the Pentagon says recruitment remains steady--but a loss of quality. Green Berets, for instance, are now considered trained after four years instead of seven. Some officers say the biggest worry is a mass exodus of experienced mid-level officers and, especially, noncommissioned officers (NCOs) who are fed up with all the time they're spending in theater. And once the "third rotation" of troops into Iraq begins in 2005, more careerists may call it quits. "I'm afraid that between April and September of 2005, we'll break the Army," says one Army general involved in logistics.

NCOs are mainly the career sergeants who make the military work--and can have a far-reaching effect. A professional officer corps can be the difference between a well-run unit and the kind of chaos and laxity that helped produce the Abu Ghraib abuses. Now that NCOs are getting sent on new tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, often after serving yearlong stints in Korea or Germany, many are angry. "If you lose the NCO corps, you're done," says the Army general. "You'll need two decades to get it back."

The Army is trying to ease the pressure on career NCOs by relying more on reservists. Last week the Pentagon announced a call-up of 5,674 former soldiers in the "individual ready reserve," with more to come, from a pool of 111,000. An Army source says the call-up was intended partly to fill out the new command headed by Gen. George Casey, who took over for Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez as the senior U.S. officer in Iraq last week. So deep is the Army reaching into its NCO bench that it's even calling up reservists like Mike Medeiros. He's a 56-year-old vet who 35 years ago served in Vietnam on Swift Boat PCF 94 for a skipper named John Kerry. Says Medeiros: "I'd rather be on the campaign trail."

Kerry himself calls these efforts a "backdoor draft." In truth, there's no plan for an actual draft. But some on Capitol Hill and inside the military say the latest efforts to add new troops without formally expanding the Army are only part of a larger effort by the Bush administration to hide the longer-term costs of the war--especially until after the election. Among those unbudgeted costs: replacing desert-ravaged equipment like Bradley Fighting Vehicles and tanks and a coming surge in veterans' benefits (nearly one in five soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from posttraumatic stress and other disorders, says a new study). Experts say the final tally is likely to amount to hundreds of billions of dollars over the current $400 billion annual defense budget.