In a recent speech at Fort Bragg, a major U.S. military
base, president Bush declared, "There is no higher calling than service in
our armed forces." It seems fewer and fewer young Americans and their parents
agree with him. The U.S. military is finding it increasingly difficult to sustain
itself. This is despite what at first sight should be fruitful conditions for
military recruitment: the events of Sept. 11 and the fears about terrorism; the
argument by the Bush administration that the global war on terrorism must be fought
in Afghanistan and Iraq and other such faraway places, or it will end up having
to be fought at home; and America's ongoing wars that bring to the screens daily
stories of heroic "warriors" liberating and defending the innocent.
Newspapers describe the U.S. Army as "facing
one of the greatest recruiting challenges in its history." The U.S. military
is deeply worried. General Barry McCaffrey, now a professor at the West Point,
wrote in the Wall
Street Journal that the U.S. is in a "race against time" in
Iraq because of the strains on the military – the military is "starting
to unravel." He argues that, "The U.S. Army and the Marines are too
under-manned and under-resourced to sustain this security policy beyond next
fall." The consequences are great. For McCaffrey, the U.S. military in
Iraq is "the crown jewel of our national security guarantee to the American
people in the war on terror." This threatens the future of the American
wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and as McCaffrey puts it, "Failure would
be a disaster for U.S. foreign policy and economic interests for the next 20
Sending in more troops, the American solution year after year in the Vietnam
War, does not seem to be an option. President Bush has said that he would send
more troops to Iraq if the military commanders in the field asked for them.
He claims that they have not done so. But others suggest a more serious obstacle.
Senator Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the Senate minority leader, has said that U.S.
military commanders in Iraq have told him that they need more troops but they
know none are available. Reed has said, "The conclusion I reach is that
they know the soldiers aren't there, so why ask for something you know doesn't
A recent study by the RAND Corporation, a military think-tank, "Stretched
Thin: Army Forces for Sustained Operations" found that the troop shortage
in the Army is so severe that it calls into question the Pentagon's policy of
being able to fight two major regional wars at the same time while also having
sufficient soldiers for the war on terrorism and providing security in America.
A recent meeting of the National Governors' Association, which brings together
the governors of the states, registered the governors' concern that deployment
of National Guard soldiers in Iraq was leaving their states unable to deal with
possible natural disasters and other emergencies, with one governor exclaiming
that "we don't have personnel – whether it is full time or part time
– to take care of all the needs and concerns of Americans."
Little of this seems to resonate with the public.
So far this year, the U.S. Army is reported to be 40 percent short of its recruitment
target. The Army has failed to meet its monthly recruiting goals in each of
the preceding four months. In mid-July, the U.S. military reported that the
Army National Guard, which makes up more than one-third of the U.S. soldiers
in Iraq, had missed its recruiting goal for the ninth straight month. This was
an understatement of the larger trend. The Army National Guard has apparently
missed its recruiting targets for at least 17 of the last 18 months.
U.S. Army Chief of Staff General Peter Schoomaker told the Senate "We've
got enormous challenges" when it comes to recruitment of new soldiers.
The Army's goal of 80,000 new recruits for this year "is at serious risk,"
and next year "may be the toughest recruiting environment ever." These
recruiting problems, he believes, are likely to stretch "well into the
These problems are despite the enormous incentives now being offered to join
the military. There is a joining bonus of $90,000 paid over three years, of
which $20,000 is in cash and $70,000 in benefits, along with a canceling of
the loans many a young American must take to afford to go to college. There
are reports also that people almost 40 years old are now eligible to join the
military, and that the physical and intellectual standards for recruits have
The fall in recruitment is strongest in the African-American community (12
percent of the U.S. population) and among women. African-Americans made up almost
a quarter of Army recruits in 2000, now their numbers have fallen to less than
14 percent. The number of women Army recruits has dropped from 22 percent in
2000 to about 17 percent. Women make up about 15 percent of the military in
The Military Path to Citizenship
About 7 percent of the U.S. military are not citizens.
There are about 30,000 foreign soldiers in the U.S. military from more than
100 countries; more than a third are Hispanic. To encourage recruitment, in
2002 the Bush administration made it easier for foreign-born U.S. troops to
become naturalized citizens. Now, any legal resident who joins the military
can immediately petition for citizenship rather than wait the five years required
for civilians to start this process. They do not even have to pay the several
hundred dollar fee for this process. As an added incentive, if a foreign-born
soldier who is a U.S. citizen dies in the line of duty, the foreign-born members
of his or her family can now seek citizenship, even if they are not legal residents.
It is also possible for soldiers to be made citizens after they have died in
service and for their families to then become eligible for citizenship.
Despite all this, the numbers of non-citizens joining the military is falling
fast. The number has fallen by 20 percent since 2001. It is not slowing down,
as much of the decline came last year.
It is not just those would be foot soldiers who are staying away. Those with
the most to defend are less willing to do so. Army's Reserve Officers' Training
Corps, which trains and commissions more than 60 percent of the new Army officers
each year, has been facing similar problems. It now has the fewest participants
in nearly a decade, with recruitment having fallen by more than 16 percent over
the past two years. In a recent article in Harpers, Lewis Lapham pointed
out that there is a longer-term process at work here, noting that almost half
of the 1956 graduating class from Princeton University went into the military
(400 out of a total of 900 students), but from the class of 2004, there were
only nine students who joined out of a class of 1,100.
The children of America's elite see no future for themselves in the military.
And there are some soldiers who see this. The story is told of a U.S. Marine
who returned to California after a tour of duty in Iraq and was invited to speak
at a "gated community" in Malibu as a war hero. He told his audience
"I am not a hero. … Guys like me are just a necessary part of things.
To maintain this way of life in a fine community like this, you need psychos
like us to go and drop a bomb on somebody's house."
In its efforts to find out why there are now such problems with recruitment,
the Army called in the research company Millward Brown to do a study. It found
that the resistance was due to popular objection to the war in Iraq, the casualties,
and media coverage of the torture at Abu Ghraib. The study reportedly concluded
that, "Reasons for not considering military service are increasingly based
on objections to the Iraq situation and aversion to the military."
In short, the Bush administration has failed to make its case for the war in
Iraq. Now, people see and read about what really happens in war, and towns and
cities are facing the reality of the 1,900 or so American
military deaths and well over 14,000 wounded so far in Iraq. A June 2005
Gallup poll found that in the past five years the proportion of Americans who
said they would support their child's entering the military has fallen from
two-thirds to about half. This has not all happened spontaneously. Across the
U.S., there is a growing campaign against military recruitment that is bringing
parents, teachers, and peace activists to protect students from military recruiters.
Retention Also a Problem
It is not just recruitment. The military has been
having problems keeping its soldiers. Almost 30 percent of new recruits leave
within six months. Some of this is at least due to the vast gap between the
day-to-day experiences of young people before they join up and the life of a
recruit during training. Stories talk of recruits who "can't eat, they
literally vomit every time they put a spoon in their mouths, they're having
nightmares." Bonuses are being offered to encourage soldiers to re-enlist
once their service is over. It is reported that re-enlistment bonuses can be
as high as $150,000, depending on the specialty and length of re-enlistment.
Some reports suggest the Army has started to lower its standards for soldier
performance, and so reduce losses. The Wall Street Journal has reported
a military memo directing commanders not to dismiss soldiers for poor fitness,
unsatisfactory performance, or even for pregnancy, alcoholism, and drug abuse.
There are problems with desertion. The Pentagon has admitted that more than
5,500 soldiers have deserted since the start of the Iraq war. In comparison,
1,509 deserted in 1995. The cases that have become public have said that they
did so because they are opposed to the war. A telephone hotline to help soldiers
who want to leave the military has reported that the number of calls it is receiving
is now double of what it was in 2001 – the hotline answered 33,000 calls
A New Army of Mercenaries?
Max Boot, a prominent military commentator, named
among "the 500 most influential people in the United States in the field
of foreign policy," has offered his solution for the problem of finding
people to fight America's wars. In a recent article, Boot proposed that the
path to a bigger American Army lay in offering a new deal, "Defend
America, Become American." Boot has proposed that the U.S. should look
beyond just U.S. citizens and permanent, legal residents for soldiers to fight
in its military.
He has proposed a "Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors
Act," a DREAM Act, as he puts it, that would offer legal status to the
children of illegal immigrants residing in the U.S. and eligibility for citizenship
if they can meet a number of conditions, including graduating from high school,
and if they go to college or choose to serve in the military. A bill to this
effect was introduced in the U.S. Senate but has not been voted on yet.
Even this may not be enough, though. Like many others who argue that America
should embrace fully and enthusiastically its imperialism, Boot believes there
is a need to dramatically increase the size of the U.S. military, and military
spending will have to rise to pay for an Army able to put and keep troops on
the ground in faraway countries. He has proposed that the U.S. should "offer
citizenship to anyone, anywhere on the planet, willing to serve a set term in
the U.S. military."
Boot asks, "Would foreigners sign up to fight for Uncle Sam? I don't see
why not, because so many people are desperate to move here. Serving a few years
in the military would seem a small price to pay and it would establish beyond
a doubt that they are the kind of motivated, hardworking immigrants we want."
The nightmare of war is offered as the prelude to the "American dream."
Reprinted with the permission of Foreign Policy in Focus.