March 1, 2006  

The war at home

Recruiters struggle to keep the Army from breaking

As the U.S. enters the third year of its war in Iraq, there is mounting concern about its impact on the health of the American armed forces. In late January, The Associated Press leaked a November report that military affairs analyst Andrew F. Krepinevich prepared for the Pentagon which warned that “the Army simply cannot sustain the force levels ? needed to break the back of the insurgency movement.” Unless the stress on the “thin green line” is relieved, Krepinevich warned, Iraq risks “breaking” the Army.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld denied the Krepinevich report, stating “the force is not broken” and a “battle hardened” military was “enormously capable” to tackle its missions in the war on terrorism. “I just can’t imagine someone looking at the United States armed forces today and suggesting that they’re close to breaking,” Rumsfeld argued. “That’s just not the case.”

This wrangling about troop levels has migrated into the blogosphere, as soldiers, veterans and analysts debate the impact of recruiting and retention on the strength of the Army.

“Greyhawk” at The Mudville Gazette (www.mudvillegazette.com) points out that, while the press focused on the Krepinevich paper, more optimistic reports on re-enlistments have gone unnoticed: “Army re-enlistments in 2005 were the highest they’ve been in five years. The Army met its recruiting objectives for the last seven months, and the number of recruits who have signed an enlistment contract to date is almost 25 percent higher than it was at the same point a year earlier.”

The general tone of high morale across most war-blogs echoes Greyhawk’s assessment, but the assessments by recruiters at home is more negative. Reflecting on the shortfall in 2005, Army commander for recruitment Maj. Gen. Thomas P. Bostick recently told The New York Times that the Army “has to work harder” to recruit soldiers.

Indeed, blogs produced by Army recruiters provide a fascinating window into the professional and ethical dilemmas they deal with on the home front, where they face an increasingly reluctant pool of potential recruits, opposition from anti-war protesters and perennial bureaucratic inefficiency in the recruitment system.

At Adventures of a Detailed Recruiter (http://detailedrecruiter.blogspot.com), “SFC B” (John Bradshaw, an Army reservist) describes his ongoing struggle to avoid being “the world’s worst recruiter.” As SFC B fights to meet his monthly quota, he works through the Military Entrance Processing Station (MEPS) — or as he terms it, Military Entrance Prevention Station — process that appears designed to lose papers, harass recruiters and fail recruits over technicalities.

SFC B is able to meet his monthly quotas based on luck as much as skill. (Is a translator in Monterey available to grade the skills of a Dari-speaking applicant?) As potential recruits come and go, he is able to meet his monthly quotas on a hit-or-miss basis. But the essential challenge of his position is that it depends less upon his recruiting abilities (despite the long days he devotes to canvassing and mentoring potential recruits) than the interest of a given individual in joining the military. He writes, “No matter how I initially meet someone who eventually joins, the person wanted to join before I met them.” And the opposite holds, as the success of a recruiter ultimately depends on the pool of those willing to serve.

The anonymous author of Confessions of a Military Recruiter (http://recruiterconfession.blogspot.com) tells a more disturbing story, grousing that “I felt like I couldn’t get an enlistment even if I offered free [oral sex].” When a potential recruit reveals on the way to MEPS that he had a “minor” problem that would prevent him from processing, “I told the kid just to keep his mouth shut. I told him to lie. I told him to do something that I’ve personally seen other recruiters ? do many times.”

The recruit later confesses during his pre-enlistment interview that he had not only lied about the problem during a medical screen, but that his recruiter had instructed him to. The author of the blog then realizes that not only is he in trouble for the sworn statement that accuses him of illegal behavior, but that, “I am in even more trouble because I’m not going to make mission now!”

Does this struggle to gain recruits matter to the Army’s war-fighting ability? It will soon. Although the Army achieved its recruitment goals in the last quarter of 2005, 10 percent of admitted recruits were graded “Category IV” — scoring at the bottom of the Army’s aptitude test. As Fred Kaplan recently wrote in Slate, this category of scorers collectively perform essential tasks — firing a tank cannon, setting up a communications post, targeting a Patriot missile — with up to 20 percent less efficiency and accuracy than their colleagues at just the next higher score level.

Of even greater concern is the question of whether this divergence between recruiting and retention data represents a deeper split between the citizen and the soldier in American society. What does it mean if the military can’t win the home front and rebuild its junior enlisted corps?

On one level, this question involves a microeconomic calculation regarding bonuses and salaries offered to U.S. troops compared with the danger, hardship and inconvenience a military career entails. Army recruitment efforts focus on this level, as bonuses have jumped up to $40,000 for certain specialties, and the Army has enlisted online chat rooms and million-dollar tractor-trailers to advertise.

Simultaneously, it is not clear that all the recruiting effort in the world can counteract shortfalls that will accrue as the level of daily interaction between soldiers and civilians declines. Defense Department efforts to shift bases — and with them, civilian interaction with soldiers and veterans — to several regional concentrations, increasing distrust between the media and the military, and the continued decline of U.S. ROTC programs will all hurt civilian-military relations for the foreseeable future.

Unfortunately, none of these factors is under the control or influence of America’s recruiters.