Finding Our Next Army

By Charles A. Krohn
Sunday, June 26, 2005

The Army's recruiting shortfalls have put the future of the all-volunteer armed forces in jeopardy. Pressure is mounting in the Pentagon -- and perhaps on the Pentagon -- to put a happy face on its failure to achieve the needed enlistments for the Army and, to a lesser extent, the Marine Corps. The Army fell short of April recruiting objectives by 42 percent.

Three questions arise:

· Can the all-volunteer force survive a sustained and unpopular war, regardless of who sits in the White House?

· Will quantity in recruiting become a silent substitute for quality, leading to what is often referred to as a "hollow army?"

· Were serious flaws built into the system more than three decades ago when the Gates Commission (named for its chairman, Thomas Gates) issued its report on creation of an all-volunteer armed forces?

The Gates Commission, in considering the transition from a draft to a volunteer force, optimistically assumed that young Americans would come to the colors if the nation went to war with any country that presented a conventional threat. Unconventional, non-state warfare didn't enter into the commission's calculus. It recommended keeping the selective service mechanism in place for the remote possibility that the draft would be needed to fill out the force if the nation was engaged again in all-out war.

In overseas deployments today we have basically committed most of the Army's active forces (including much of the National Guard), rotating them to the point of exhaustion. If the nation isn't in an all-out war, the Army and Marines are. If more recruits are in the nation's interest, a new commission could examine options and make recommendations without significant political taint.

Such a commission could consider why recruiting incentives seem insufficient to attract today's youth. Should we consider a new approach based on a different set of inducements? If young Americans and their parents understood why a favorable outcome in Iraq is in our nation's vital interest (and is not just a do-good effort to deliver the Iraqis from oppression) perhaps some of the stigma of serving would disappear.

Those who see value in a preemptive approach to public affairs make the case that our commitment to Iraq should be explained clearly before growing disenchantment becomes more widespread. How hard is it to acknowledge the obvious -- that the war we have now in Iraq bears little resemblance to the war we began? Yet the war we have today against fanatics and insurgents is far more serious than the one we started. Ironically, our enemies don't seem to have a recruiting problem.

Another thing a new commission could assess is the impact of fighting prolonged and unpopular wars. Our country will be threatened in the future, and some of the challenges will be ambiguous. If our adversaries sense they can win by wearing us out, surely they will exploit this vulnerability. How can a democracy adjust the national psyche to accommodate different threats in a changing world?

The Gates Commission report did accomplish its main objective of making the case that an all-volunteer force was feasible if pay was raised to marketplace levels. But it did not foresee a time when economic incentives would be insufficient. A new study might fill this void.

A third concern is the superficial attractiveness of filling the force with lower-quality recruits -- high school dropouts and those with low IQs. Any report of recruiting activity that fails to address the quality issue is deceptive on its face.

The temptation to cook the books to disguise quality shortfalls was predicted by my mentor, the late Gen. Maxwell R. Thurman, who was in charge of the Army's Recruiting Command. I helped Thurman prepare his congressional testimony in support of the fiscal 1984 budget.

"Building an Army of excellence is a long-range task," he said then. "Decisions that are made today often have an impact that influences the Army for decades. This is most evident when it comes to recruiting. If we bring in good soldiers now, we reap the benefits of their talents for up to 30 years. On the other hand, if we bring marginal soldiers into the force, we must make allowances for inefficiencies for up to three decades."

He knew that lowering the acceptable level of mental capability in recruits has an unintended ripple effect. A high school valedictorian thinking about enlisting in the Army sees the reduction of minimum standards for his or her potential peers as a disincentive. In short, the bad people drive out the good.

As we discussed that testimony, Thurman said he could see the day when there might be pressure to lower the standards in recruiting. "You have the responsibility to use this testimony to keep that from happening," he said, "whether I'm around or not."

The downward spiral in recruiting calls for positive and forceful action by leadership in the White House and Congress, which must ultimately take their case to the public. If the debate degenerates into political bickering, any chance of reform will collapse. Holding elected and appointed officials responsible for events abroad and outside our control is self-defeating. But holders of high office here should realize the importance of keeping the electorate involved and informed as a condition for holding the country together in the days ahead.

The writer is a retired lieutenant colonel and recently the Army's deputy chief of public affairs, serving in the Pentagon and Baghdad.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company