Washington Post, and then the
New York Times, reported a top-secret assessment by the Marines'
chief of intelligence that focused on the catastrophic situation of his undermanned
Corps in the heartlands of Iraq's Sunni insurgency. He concluded, according
to the Post's Tom Ricks, that "the prospects for securing that country's
western Anbar province are dim and that there is almost nothing the U.S. military
can do to improve the political and social situation there."
Couldn't get much worse, you'd think. Then, Maj. Gen. Richard C. Zilmer, the
senior Marine commander, decided to "dispute" both news accounts. His argument,
according to Michael
Gordon of the Times, was that "he had sufficient forces to carry out
his mission but that the mission did not include defeating the insurgency."
Come again? Fortunately, in a front-page piece, "Growing Concern: Terrorist
Havens in 'Failed States'" on the possibility that Iraq, Lebanon, and
Afghanistan might all turn into the kinds of terrorist safe territories that
only Afghanistan had been prior to Sept. 11, 2001, the Wall Street Journal's
Yochi J. Dreazen and Philip Shishkin sum up the latest "desired
endstate" of the Bush administration this way: "U.S. officials acknowledge
their main goal in Iraq now is to prevent it from turning into a place run by
fundamentalists who export terrorism to the region."
Um, come again? That's the "strategy for victory"? Well, what can you expect
from an overstretched empire enmeshed in a grinding, hopeless set of wars, with
increasingly strained ground forces? The
U.S. Army, its equipment wearing down and with almost no nondeployed combat-ready
brigades at hand, now has "fully two-thirds" of its active forces officially
classified as "not ready for combat." (And that's considered good shape, compared
to the state of the completely overstressed National Guard.)
With military stress and strain in mind, it's great to welcome Nick Turse
back to the writing ranks of TomDispatch. He's re-upped after a stint co-reporting
and co-authoring a
powerful series on American war crimes in Vietnam at the Los Angeles
Times. Below he gives new meaning to the military recruitment side of imperial
The Pentagon's 12-step program to create a military of misfits
by Nick Turse
Military recruiting in 2006 has been marked by
pronouncements from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, claims
of success by the White House, propaganda
releases by the Pentagon, and a spate of recent
press reports touting the way the military has made its wo/manpower goals.
But the armed forces have only met with success through a fundamental "transformation,"
and not the transformation of the military that "co-evolution
of concepts, processes, organizations, and technology" Rumsfeld is always
talking about either.
While the secretary of defense's long-standing goal of transforming the planet's
most powerful military into its highest tech, most agile, most futuristic fighting
force has, in the words of the
Washington Post's David Von Drehle, "melted away," the very makeup
of the armed forces has been mutating before our collective eyes under the pressure
of the war in Iraq. This actual transformation has been reported, but only in
scattered articles on the new recruitment landscape in America.
Last year, despite
NASCAR, professional bull-riding, and arena football sponsorships; popular
video games that doubled as recruiting tools; TV commercials dripping with seductive
scenes of military glory; a "joint marketing communications and market research
and studies" program actively engaged in measures to target for military service
Hispanics, dropouts, and those with criminal records; and at least $16,000 in
promotional costs for each soldier it managed to sign up, the U.S. military
failed to meet its recruiting goals. This year those methods have been pumped
up and taken over the top in 12 critical areas of recruitment that make the
old Army ad-line, "Be All That You Can Be," into material for late night TV
punch lines of the future.
1. Hard Sell
When not trolling for potential soldiers via video games, Web sites, or most
recently the social networking site MySpace.com and text
messaging, the armed forces employ recruiters who use old-fashioned hard-sell
tactics to cajole impressionable teens into enlisting. Recently, one New Jersey
mother told her local newspaper about the Army's persistence in targeting her
17-year-old daughter. When the mother finally asked the Army to stop calling
her child, the recruiter argued vigorously against it. The mother, who otherwise
praised the military, was nonetheless aghast
at the recruiter's tactics. "That's what frightened and enraged me. This military
person telling me that I have no rights over my child," she said.
Teens are also subject to military advertising and high-pressure tactics at
Boston Globe recently wrote that recruiters were now setting up booths
in "cafeterias in high schools across the nation." The State
Journal-Register of Springfield, Ill., reported that local recruiters
were "visiting each school about every three to four weeks." At one school,
administrators were forced to "clam[p] down on aggressive recruiters" and bar
at least one from ever returning to campus.
2. Green to Gray
The military has always filled its rolls primarily by targeting the young,
but these days the "old" are in its sights, too. In 2005, the Army Reserves
increased their maximum enlistment age from 35 to 40; then, later that year,
to 42. This year, regular Army green went grayer as well with a similar two-step
increase that boosted active-duty enlistment eligibility to 42
3. Backdoor Draft
Another group of old-timers has recently been targeted by
the military: the Marine Corps Individual Ready Reserve (IRR) troops who
have left active-duty status and transitioned back into civilian life. In
August, the Marines announced that they would begin making up for a shortage
of volunteers by "dipping
into [this] rarely used pool of troops to fill growing personnel gaps
in units scheduled to deploy in coming months." As the Boston Globe
noted, it was "the first time since the invasion of Iraq three years ago that
Marine commanders have taken the extraordinary step of drafting back into
uniform those who have left the ranks."
For its part, the Army, according to the Washington Post,
"has used its IRR several times since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. It has
mobilized about 5,000 soldiers from that pool over the past five years, most
of them since the middle of 2004." CBS
News reports that, from the Army Reserve, "approximately 14,000 soldiers
on IRR status have been called to active duty since March 2003 and about 7,300
have been deployed to Iraq."
4. Rubber-Stamp Promotions
Earlier this year, the Army admitted that, to maintain desperately needed numbers,
it was forgoing almost any measure of quality when it came to its officer corps.
According to 2005 Pentagon figures, 97 percent of all eligible captains were
promoted to major a significant jump from the already historically high average
of 70-80 percent. "The
problem here is that you're not knocking off the bottom 20 percent," one
high-ranking Army officer at the Pentagon told the Los Angeles Times.
"Basically, if you haven't been court-martialed, you're going to be promoted
to major." Despite near-guaranteed promotions, the San
Antonio Express-News reported that the "Army expects to be short 2,500
captains and majors this year, with the number rising to 3,300 in 2007."
5. Foreign Legion
In July, testifying
before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Undersecretary of Defense for
Personnel and Readiness David S. C. Chu listed a series of inducements currently
offered to get foreigners to risk life and limb for Uncle Sam. These included:
"President Bush's executive order allowing non-citizens to apply for citizenship
after only one day of active-duty military service," a streamlined application
process for service members, and the elimination of "all application fees
for non-citizens in the military."
While noting that approximately 40,000 non-citizens are already serving in
the U.S. armed forces, Chu offered his own solution to the immigration crisis.
With the services denied the possibility of a draft, he made a pitch for creating
a true foreign legion from a group "potentially interested in military service,"
the "estimated 50,000 to 65,000 undocumented alien young adults who entered
the U.S. at an early age." Chu then talked-up legislation like the DREAM Act
which would give illegal aliens the opportunity to, among other options, join
the military as a vehicle to conditional permanent resident status.
In addition to proposing a possible source of undocumented cannon fodder that
might prove less disturbing to Americans than their own sons and daughters,
Chu noted that the "military also has initiated several new programs, including
opportunities for those with language skills, which may hold particular appeal
for noncitizens." Just in case noncitizens aren't thrilled to the depths by
the chance to serve with the occupation forces in Iraq, the Army promises expedited
citizenship, quick advancement, and a host of other perks including a boatload
of cash. In addition to "foreign language proficiency pay while on active duty,"
those willing to sell their "Middle-Eastern
language skills and join the U.S. Army as a Translator Aide
in Iraq and
Afghanistan" will receive an enlistment bonus of $10,000 a sizable sum given
yearly per-capita incomes in those countries, which hover
in the $800-$2,000 range.
6. Mercenary Military
To solve its wo/manpower woes, the military has also enhanced its lure at home
in the form of "more
recruiters and more financial incentives." In some cases, this can mean
enlistment bonuses as high as $40,000
for those documented but poor Americans looking to put themselves directly in
harm's way for three years as an Army infantryman or explosive ordnance disposal
specialist markedly more than 2005 per-capita yearly income for African Americans
($16,874), Hispanics ($14,483), and even non-Hispanic whites ($28,946).
According to a recent Associated
Press report, the Army is doling out yet more fistfuls of taxpayer dollars
to entice troops to reenlist "an average bonus of $14,000, to eligible
soldiers, for a total of $610 million in extra payments."
Marine reenlistees seem to rake in the biggest bucks of all. This July, Maj.
Jerry Morgan, who runs the Selective Reenlistment Bonus Program, told Stars
and Stripes that "the maximum bonus has been raised
to $60,000 for
Marines" serving in five critical military occupational specialties.
Add to these sums promised benefits of up to $71,424
and $23,292, for active duty and reserve personnel respectively, to "help
pay for college" and you've got a potentially life-changing bribe, provided
you still have a life when that college acceptance finally comes through.
7. Abuse of Power
More recruiters waving more money has its pitfalls. Last year, amid
a swirl of complaints
as recruiters struggled to meet monthly goals (including tips to potential
enlistees on how to pass drug tests), the Army suspended all recruiting activities
for a one-day nationwide "stand down" to reexamine its methods and retrain
its men. Just last month, however, the Government Accountability Office issued
showing that "between fiscal years 2004 and 2005, allegations and service-identified
incidents of recruiter wrongdoing increased, collectively, from 4,400 cases
to 6,500 cases; substantiated cases increased from just over 400 to almost
630 cases; and criminal violations more than doubled from just over 30 to
almost 70 cases."
What also came to light last month, courtesy of the
Associated Press, was this revelation: "More than 100 young women who expressed
an interest in joining the military in the past year were preyed upon sexually
by their recruiters." According to one of the victim's lawyers, a
recruiter "said to her, outright, if you want to join the Marines, you
have to have sex with me. She was a virgin. She was 17 years old." Another
teenage victim spelled out the situation quite clearly, "The recruiter had
all the power. He had the uniform. He had my future. I trusted him."
8. Civilian Headhunters
Not surprisingly, given tough times and an administration that never saw anything
it couldn't imagine privatizing, the private headhunter has landed on the military
recruitment landscape. According to Renae Merle of the Washington
Post, as part of a pilot program that began in 2002, two Virginia-based
companies, Serco and MPRI Inc., "have more than 400 recruiters assigned across
the country, and have signed up more than 15,000 soldiers. They are paid about
$5,700 per recruit."
While these companies rake in the recruitment money, the mercenary recruiters
themselves reap cash bonuses, free gas cards, and suede jackets. They can augment
their base salary by about $30,000 a year by successfully shuttling large numbers
of aimless kids and others into the armed forces. As has been true with the
military's use of private contractors in all sorts of roles in recent years,
this step has drawn ire. According to Rep. Janice D. Schakowsky (D-Ill.), "The
use of contractors for this sensitive purpose, dealing with the lives of young
people, is troublesome." She was particularly worried by the lack of oversight.
Quality-control has been another issue. While an Army report recommended continuing
the $170 million program, it also noted that the civilian headhunters "enlisted
a lower quality of recruit."
Yet the Army's less-than-complimentary assessment of the private sector's performance
didn't sway its officials from announcing in August that they had awarded MPRI
"a firm-fixed price requirements-type contract for $11,196,996 as the base-period
portion of an estimated $34,272,571 contract (if all options are exercised)
for recruiting services to
be performed at any of the Army's 1,700 recruiting
9. How Low Can You Go?
Lowered standards have hardly remained the property of privateers these days.
As Brad Knickerbocker of the Christian
Science Monitor noted, "The Army has had to recruit more soldiers from
the 'lowest acceptable' category based on test scores, education levels, personal
background, and other indicators of ability." Even Undersecretary of Defense
Chu admitted in July that almost
40 percent of all military recruits scored in the bottom half of the armed
forces' own aptitude test.
Other how-low-can-you-go indicators of the military's desperation
are now regularly surfacing in news reports. Here are two examples:
Last year, the New
York Times reported that two Ohio recruiters were quick to sign up a
recruit "fresh from a three-week commitment in a psychiatric ward
the man's parents told them he had bipolar disorder a diagnosis that would
disqualify him." After senior officers found out, the mentally ill man's enlistment
was canceled, but in "[i]nterviews with more than two dozen recruiters in 10
states," the Times heard others talk of "concealing mental-health histories
and police records," among other illicit practices.
In May of this year, the Oregonian
reported that Army recruiters, using hard sell-tactics and offering thousands
of dollars in enlistment bonus money, signed up an autistic teenager "for the
Army's most dangerous job: cavalry scout." The boy, who had been enrolled in
"special education classes since preschool" and through "a special program for
ha[d] a part-time job scrubbing toilets and dumping trash,"
didn't even know the U.S. was at war in Iraq until his parents explained it
to him after he was first approached by a recruiter. Only following a flurry
of negative publicity did the Army
announce that it would release the autistic teen from his enlistment obligation.
10. Armed and Considered Dangerous
In 2004, the Pentagon instituted a "Moral Waiver Study" whose seemingly benign
goal was "to better define relationships between pre-Service behaviors and subsequent
Service success." That turned out to mean opening the recruitment doors to potential
enlistees with criminal records. In February of this year, the Baltimore
Sun wrote that there was "a significant increase in the number of recruits
with what the Army terms 'serious criminal misconduct' in their background"
a category that included: "aggravated assault, robbery, vehicular manslaughter,
receiving stolen property, and making terrorist threats." From 2004 to 2005,
the number of those recruits had spiked by over 54 percent, while alcohol and
illegal drug waivers, reversing a four-year downward trend, increased by over
In June, the Chicago
Sun-Times reported that, under pressure to fill the ranks, the Army
had been allowing in increasing numbers of "recruits convicted of misdemeanor
crimes, according to experts and military records." In fact, as the military's
own data indicated, "the percentage of recruits entering the Army with waivers
for misdemeanors and medical problems has more than doubled since 2001."
One beneficiary of the Army's new moral-waiver policies gained a certain prominence
this summer. After Steven D. Green, who served in the Army's 101st Airborne
Division, was charged in a rape and quadruple murder in Mahmudiyah, Iraq, it
that he had been "a high-school dropout from a broken home who enlisted to get
some direction in his life, yet was sent home early because of an 'antisocial
personality disorder.'" Recently, Eli Flyer, a former Pentagon senior military
analyst and specialist on "the relationship between military recruiting and
military misconduct" told Harper's
Magazine that Green had actually "enlisted with a moral waiver for at
least two drug- or alcohol-related offenses. He committed a third alcohol-related
offense just before enlistment, which led to jail time, though this offense
may not have been known to the Army when he enlisted."
With Green in jail awaiting trial, the Houston Chronicle
reported in August that Army recruiters were trolling around the outskirts
of a Dallas-area job fair for ex-convicts. "We're looking for high school
graduates with no more than one felony on their record," one recruiter said.
The Army has even looked behind prison bars for fill-in recruits
in one reported case, a "youth prison" in Ogden, Utah. Although Steven
Price had asked to
see a recruiter while still incarcerated and was "barely 17 when he enlisted
last January," his divorced parents say "recruiters used false promises and
forged documents to enlist him." While confusion exists about whether the
boy's mother actually signed a parental consent form allowing her son to enlist,
his "father apparently wasn't even at the signing, but his name is on the
11. Gang Warfare
According to the Chicago Sun-Times, law enforcement officials report
that the military is now "allowing more applicants with gang tattoos because
they are under the gun to keep enlistment up." They also note that "gang activity
may be rising among soldiers." The paper was provided with "photos of military
buildings and equipment in Iraq that were vandalized with graffiti of gangs
based in Chicago, Los Angeles, and other cities."
Last month, the Sun-Times
reported that a gang member facing federal charges of murder and robbery enlisted
in the Marine Corps "while he was free on bond and was preparing to ship out
to boot camp when Marine officials recently discovered he was under indictment."
While this particular recruit was eventually booted from the Corps, a Milwaukee
police detective and Army veteran, who serves on the federal drug and gang task
force that arrested the would-be Marine, noted that other "[g]ang-bangers are
going over to Iraq and sending weapons back
gang members are getting access
to military training and weapons."
Earlier this year, it was reported that an expected transfer of 10,000-20,000
troops to Fort Bliss, Texas, caused FBI and local law enforcement to fear "a
turf war" between "members
of the Folk Nation gang
[and] a criminal group that is already well-established
in the area, Barrio Azteca." The New York Sun wrote that, according to
one FBI agent, "Folk Nation, which was founded in Chicago and includes several
branches using the name Gangster Disciples, has gained a foothold in the Army."
12. Trading Desert Camo for White Sheets
Another type of "gang" member has also begun to proliferate within
the military, evidently thanks to lowered recruitment standards and an increasing
urge by recruiters to look the other way. In July, a
study by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks racist and right-wing
militia groups, found that due to pressing manpower concerns "large
numbers of neo-Nazis and skinhead extremists" are now serving the military.
are knowingly allowing neo-Nazis and white supremacists to join the armed
forces and commanders don't remove them from the military even after we positively
identify them as extremists or gang members," said Scott Barfield, a Defense
Department investigator quoted in the report.
The New York Times noted that the neo-Nazi magazine Resistance
is actually recruiting for the U.S. military "urg[ing] skinheads to join the
Army and insist on being assigned to light infantry units." As the magazine
explained, "The coming race war and the ethnic cleansing to follow will be very
much an infantryman's war.
It will be house-to-house
until your town or
city is cleared and the alien races are driven into the countryside where they
can be hunted down and 'cleansed.'"
Apparently, the recruiting push has worked. Barfield reported that
he and other investigators have identified a network of neo-Nazi active-duty
Army and Marine personnel spread across five military installations in five
states. "They're communicating with each other about weapons, about recruiting,
about keeping their identities secret, about organizing within the military."
Little wonder that "Aryan Nations graffiti" is now apparently competing for
space among American inner-city gang graffiti in Iraq.
When the American war in Vietnam finally ground to a halt, the U.S. military
was in a state of disarray, if not near disintegration. Uniformed leaders vowed
never again to allow the military to be degraded to such a point.
A generation later, as the ever less appetizing-looking wars in Iraq and Afghanistan
spiral on without end, an overstretched Army and Marine Corps have clearly become
desperate. At a remarkable cost in dollars, effort, and lowered standards, recruiting
numbers are being maintained for now. The result: U.S. ground forces are
increasingly made up of a motley mix of underage teens, old-timers, foreign
fighters, gang-bangers, neo-Nazis, ex-cons, inferior officers, and a host of
near-mercenary troops, lured in or kept in uniform through big payouts and promises.
In the latter half of the Vietnam War, as the breakdown was occurring,
American troops began to scrawl "UUUU" on their helmet liners an abbreviation
that stood for "the unwilling, led by the unqualified, doing the unnecessary
for the ungrateful." The U.S. ground forces of 2007 and beyond, fighting in
Iraq, Afghanistan, or any other war du jour may increasingly resemble
the collapsing military of the Vietnam War, the band of criminal misfits sent
behind enemy lines during World War II in the classic Vietnam-era film, The
Dirty Dozen, or the janissaries of the old Ottoman Empire.
With a growing majority of Americans opposed
to the war in Iraq, even ardent hawks refusing to enlist in droves, and the
Pentagon pulling out ever more stops and sinking to new lows in recruitment
and retention, a new all-volunteer generation of UUUU's may emerge the
underachieving, unable, unexceptional, unintelligent, unsound, unhinged, unacceptable,
unhealthy, undesirable, unloved, uncivil, and even un-American, all led by
the unqualified, doing the unnecessary for the ungrateful. Current practices
suggest this may well be the force of the future. It certainly isn't the new
military Donald Rumsfeld's been promising all these years, but there's no
denying the depth of the transformation.
Nick Turse is the associate editor and research director of TomDispatch.com.
He has written for the San Francisco Chronicle, the Nation, the
Village Voice, and regularly for TomDispatch. Articles from his recent
Los Angeles Times series "The War Crimes Files" can be found here.
Copyright 2006 Nick Turse