About eight months ago, I wrote a post about the army and reserve's recruiting problems. I wrote then:
"One of the interesting things about being involved with the Clark campaign was getting to talk to the various military people who were involved. The ones I met were generally retired career officers, mostly quite senior; and most of them were people who not only served in Vietnam but stuck with the military afterwards, when it was, as they saw it, broken: demoralized, dispirited, with huge problems with discipline, readiness, and retention, especially in the army. The army officers I met were some of the people who stuck with the army through its worst period in living memory and worked their hearts out to put it back together again. And one of the things that really terrified them about the Bush administration and its war in Iraq was the thought that the institution they loved might be about to be broken again."
Eight months ago, I didn't think we were there yet. We're a lot closer now. The Pentagon has delayed releasing its recruiting figures for last month, citing the need to scrutinize the information and explain it to the public. Why either goal requires delaying the figures' release is unclear, which has prompted widespread speculation that the numbers are very, very bad. They'd have to be, since the numbers the Pentagon has released in earlier months were quite bad enough. From the same story:
"The regular Army missed its recruiting goals for three straight months entering May, falling short by a whopping 42 percent in April. The Army was 16 percent behind its year-to-date target entering May, with a goal of signing up 80,000 recruits in fiscal 2005, which ends Sept. 30.
The Marine Corps missed its goal for signing up new recruits for four straight months entering May and was 2 percent behind its year-to-date goal. It hopes to sign up 38,195 recruits in fiscal 2005."
But there is more bad news. Phil Carter and Owen West report the following, in an article in Slate:
"Now comes a new Army directive that attempts to alleviate the personnel crunch by retaining soldiers who are earmarked for early discharge during their first term of enlistment because of alcohol or drug abuse, unsatisfactory performance, or being overweight, among other reasons. By retaining these soldiers, the Army lowers the quality of its force and places a heavy burden on commanders who have to take the poor performers into harm's way. This is a quick fix that may create more problems than it solves. (...)
Make no mistake, however—these are not soldiers who field commanders want to retain. One lieutenant colonel currently commanding a civil-affairs battalion said these troops were the ones "who eat up my time and cause my hair to gray prematurely." A former infantry officer said he could "not recall a single soldier chaptered for the reasons identified ... that I would have wanted to deploy with."
This new retention directive represents a regression by the Army, from the vaunted all-volunteer force of today back in the direction of the all-volunteer force of the 1970s, when drug use, race riots, and AWOL incidents were common among all services. The Marine Corps Historical Branch traces its own severe spiral to "the end of the draft and the pressure of keeping up the size of the Marine Corps. In the process, a number of society's misfits had been recruited." By 1975, the corps had so decayed that newly appointed Commandant Lewis Wilson sought permission from Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger to implement a radical personnel proposal: Push the authority to discharge unworthy Marines down to the battalion level. Under the "expeditious discharge program," commanders quickly cut 6,000 undesirables, sending a message that reverberated throughout the military, paving the way for the subsequent military performance surge credited to President Reagan.
Now the Army intends to reverse the policy, implying that battalion commanders are not able to weigh the needs of the total force against those of their units. By the time a soldier reaches the discharge point, the officers above him have already invested a great deal of rehabilitative effort. Forcing units to keep these troops—and indeed, to take them to war—puts a very heavy rock in the rucksack of any field commander who must now balance managing these subpar performers with his mission and the needs of his unit."
(The full list of reasons for discharged covered by the new policy is: "FAILURE TO MEET PROCUREMENT MEDICAL FITNESS STANDARDS (PARAGRAPH 5-11); PREGNANCY (CHAPTER 8); ALCOHOL OR OTHER DRUG ABUSE REHABILITATION FAILURE (CHAPTER 9); ENTRY LEVEL PERFORMANCE AND CONDUCT (CHAPTER 11); UNSATISFACTORY PERFORMANCE (CHAPTER 13); SELECTED CHANGES IN SERVICE OBLIGATIONS (CHAPTER 16, PARAGRAPHS 16-4 THRU 16-10); AND FAILURE TO MEET BODY FAT STANDARDS (CHAPTER 18).")
So: in order to minimize the effect of recruiting and retention problems, we are going to make it harder to discharge soldiers who have failed drug or alcohol rehab, performed inadequately, or who fail medical fitness standards. This just raises the odds that a soldier who is fighting his* heart out in Iraq will find that the person next to him, on whom his life may depend, is incompetent, medically unfit, an alcoholic or a drug addict. It also raises the odds that commanding officers will be dealing with intractable personnel issues when they could be trying to keep their troops safe. All in all, a great way to support the troops.
Carter and West propose a variety of better ways to keep numbers up; their discussion of how this might be done is very much worth reading. Unfortunately, all of them would take a fair amount of time to implement, and one, which I wholeheartedly support, would probably make things worse initially:
"The Pentagon must stop the proliferation of its private army. Today there are as many as 30,000 private military contractors serving in traditional military billets. They are paid up to five times as much as soldiers performing the same duties. Encouraging the privatization of soldiers when there is a severe shortage of riflemen is circular reasoning. While the Army and Marines struggle to increase their infantry ranks, the DoD is paying private companies lucrative contracts to act as personnel brokers. Where do these firms find the recruits? The military. So the government is paying hefty finders' fees to locate quality soldiers it recruited in the first place. Far from being castoffs, they are among America's best, mostly senior soldiers lured by pay and flexibility. They belong in the ranks of the Army and the USMC, not the NYSE."
In the meantime, the army is breaking. We need to stop this, and we need to stop it now. I do not know what the answer is -- a draft is the obvious answer, but since I don't know the answers to such questions as where we'd find the people to train a lot of draftees, I don't feel comfortable actually endorsing it. But we need to do something quickly. And I see no sign that our government is even beginning to consider taking any serious steps to address this issue.
* Pronoun reflects current restrictions on women in combat.