Nearly every day, anywhere from one to several U.S. soldiers or Marines die in Iraq, and even more are wounded. The news doesn't always make the front pages anymore, but the casualty rate has apparently registered deeply in the consciousness of young Americans and their families. The result is a dangerous decline in new enlistments that is depleting U.S. military resources and weakening our capacity to face additional conflicts or threats from abroad.
To keep our forces strong, every soldier we lose or who leaves the service has to be replaced by a new recruit. Their leaders, meanwhile -- the men who take them into combat and help determine the outcome of many battles -- can only be replaced by soldiers who gain experience and undertake many years of leadership training. For 20 years, the all-volunteer Army, with its enlistment bonuses and generous scholarships, succeeded magnificently at filling its manpower and leadership needs. Recruits sought entry in such numbers that for a decade it was running annual surpluses that could be held over to succeeding years.
But when the Iraq war began to stretch from months into years, the view of the military as an attractive option for young Americans gradually began to change. Recruiting for the Army, the Army National Guard and the Army Reserve, as well as the Marines, has become increasingly difficult, and recruiters point to the casualties from Iraq and Afghanistan as the primary cause of the unusual resistance -- including parental threats -- that they're confronting in trying to attract new enlistees.
The recruiting problems first became apparent in the late summer of 2003, when the surplus of enlistees disappeared and the Army went into the next fiscal year without any cushion. Since then, recruiting numbers have been declining. An alarming trend -- fewer young people signing up than the Army needs to maintain its strength -- began to develop last fall. Now, the Army has failed to meet its monthly recruiting goals since February. On Friday, it said that in May it reached only 75 percent of a goal it had already reduced from 8,050 to 6,700. The National Guard and Reserve, which provide more than 40 percent of the Army forces in Iraq, are experiencing even more trouble; so far, the National Guard has reached only 76 percent of its recruiting goals for this year.
Historically, recruiters have had to contact more than 100 prospects for every recruit. This year, those numbers are going up daily. The Army added 1,200 recruiters last month, and it has significantly increased its advertising budget and enlistment bonuses, from $6,000 for most recruits to $20,000. At the same time, it has raised the eligible age for the Army National Guard or the Reserve from 35 to 39. Even more telling, the Army is also accepting more recruits who are not high school graduates. This year, the percentage of high school graduates among those enlisting dropped from 92.4 to barely 90 percent, the Army's stated floor for the number of recruits who must have a high school diploma.
With recruiting goals seemingly out of reach for the present, recruiters, who are selected from among the best junior leaders in the noncommissioned officer corps, are experiencing high levels of stress. More and more, they appear to be bending the rules to meet their goals. The Army has become so concerned about recruiting ethics that it suspended all recruiting on May 20 to conduct a full day of ethics training.
But the real concern for all Americans is the effect that a continuing drop in enlistments will have on the military's quality. If there aren't enough recruits over the coming months, the Army will not be able to keep its units at fully combat-ready strengths. A classic solution to those shortages is to take soldiers from other units to bring up the personnel strength of units deploying to combat. But this causes turbulence in the deploying unit and undermines the unit from which the soldiers have been taken. When the time arrives to deploy the latter unit, even more soldiers must be transferred to bring it to combat strength. The result is units whose soldiers don't know each other -- exactly the situation the Army has worked so hard to avoid for the last two decades.
Now, the Army's latest desperate attempt to gain recruits is a shortened, 15-month enlistment policy. A 15-month enlistment means that soldiers will receive only basic and advanced individual training, but none of the team and unit training our premier soldiers traditionally receive. These recruits will be shipped off to war after only five months of training, deployed to units in combat where they know no one. These inexperienced soldiers will be at an enormous disadvantage and the casualties among them will be bound to reflect that disadvantage.
The 15-month enlistment is exactly the replacement policy the Army has proudly rejected since the Vietnam War. This flawed approach was instituted then because of the urgent need to replace casualties. We ended up with units of inadequately trained soldiers who didn't know each other and weren't fully cohesive teams. The result was high casualties among the newly arrived, inexperienced soldiers -- and it will likely be the result again. It would probably be better to maintain high standards and not reduce training time, even if this leads to temporary shortages.
Meanwhile, the decision to ease standards and accept soldiers who are less able to operate many complex weapons has the potential to weaken fighting capability. The Army already has a manpower shortage in certain critical skills, such as languages and military police. It has responded with short-term solutions like the "Stop Loss" program, which retains soldiers on active duty involuntarily after their period of enlistment is over. Soldiers who have left active Army service have also been involuntarily recalled. Both these solutions have been implemented to provide a limited number of soldiers, and they will not be effective in offsetting the shortfall in thousands of new recruits.
Ironically, these stop-gap measures further contribute to the recruiting challenge, as potential enlistees are deterred by the prospect of involuntary service on top of the fear of combat casualties.
An equally dangerous challenge facing the Army is the loss of experienced soldiers who leave the service after undergoing the demands of combat multiple times over several years. Currently, soldiers expect to get a year away from combat after serving in Iraq or Afghanistan. But this expectation is violated as soldiers returning from combat are transferred to new units, which are then sent to the front well before a year is up.
I recently chatted with one such soldier, who told me that after participating in the invasion of Iraq, he remained there for a year and then returned to the United States, where he was transferred to a different unit. Only four months after he got home, his new unit deployed to Iraq. He has just returned from there again. His enlistment ends in less than a year, but he fully expects to go back to Iraq before that year is up and to serve another full year in Iraq under stop loss.
In addition to gaining extensive combat experience, this soldier finished two years of college while in the Army. He is exactly the type of soldier essential to the service's future: self-motivated, experienced and mature, the qualities the Army cultivates in junior leaders.Unfortunately, he told me that he'll leave the Army as soon as he can -- not from bitterness, but because he's weary of combat and saddened at the loss of friends.
The departure of soldiers like this is another serious threat to the Army's combat capabilities. It is the Army's junior leaders -- the squad leaders, platoon sergeants and company commanders -- who lead the close combat fights that decide battles and wars and, as I saw in Vietnam, whom the soldiers trust under fire. If this soldier's intention to leave the Army is part of a developing trend, then the military's problems could get even worse. Just such a situation developed after Vietnam, as disillusioned junior leaders left the service in droves, and years passed before the Army was able to rebuild itself.
If the Army's recruiting numbers continue to fall, the cascading effect will undermine combat capability in months, not years. But reversing this trend will be very difficult, and it seems highly unlikely over the next months or even year or two, until Iraqi security forces are in a position to take over the defense of their country from U.S. troops. But it's a mistake to solve this difficult short-term problem by adopting policies that could hurt the military for several decades.
Some small steps can be taken. The war in Iraq has placed the Army and the Marines in the cauldron of intense combat, while the Navy and the Air Force are essentially at peace. A decision to shift Navy and Air Force resources to the Army and Marines could improve the latter services' ability to attract recruits, especially if our leadership launched a national campaign calling on all Americans to join in the war on terrorism. The military's best hope is to convince America's youth and their parents that Army service is still a positive option.
A strong Army fighting force is essential not only to America's worldwide interests, but indeed to our survival as a nation and the life we enjoy today. But if the decline in our Army's strength continues, make no mistake, we could readily lose that way of life.
Don Edwards retired from the U.S. Army as a major general in 1997 after more than 37 years of service, including two tours in Vietnam. He is a vice president of the information technology company SRA International Inc.