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Recruiting Crisis

01/31/08 7:55AM By Bill Arkin
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(HOST) You've probably heard the news that the Army is facing a crisis in recruiting. Commentator Bill Arkin is a Pomfret-based military analyst, who writes the Early Warning blog for the Washington Post - and he says the problem is more complex than you might think.

(ARKIN) The new numbers are truly stark: the percent of Army recruits with high-school diplomas has dropped from 94 percent in 2003, the first year of the Iraq war, to 70.7 percent last year. From 2005 to 2007 moreover, in just two years, the percent of what the Army calls high quality recruits, those who have high-school diplomas and who score in the upper 50th percentile on aptitude tests, has declined more than 10 percent.

Vermonters on the one hand can be proud that we ranked number one in sending high school grads to the Army in 2007; on the other hand, at 81 percent, even Vermont's stellar numbers fell nine percent below Army goals.

Some would say that once the Iraq war is over, the Army will recover. But consider another and more complex explanation: Despite 9/11, despite an ongoing war on terrorism that we are told is equivalent to the fight against communism or Nazi Germany, despite our support for the troops, we, the American people at large, don't want to serve in the armed forces.

And let's be blunt: while I'm sure Patriotism extends just as far and just as deep into all households in America, regardless of income, it's increasingly the poorest and least educated segment of our society that shoulders the greatest military burden.

The Army's solution is to lower quality and throw money at the problem in the form of bonuses and other economic incentives. If ever there were a short-term solution that ignores what's really happening, this is it. Experience shows that volunteers with lower education end up washing out of training more often and re-enlisting less. And given the increasingly high-tech military, these soldiers are also less able to perform their mission, thus less able to fight our wars. What is more, soldiers from the lower aptitudes have been shown in studies to be unable to effectively cope with the complex demands of counter-insurgency and the battle for hearts and minds.

Regardless of what happens in Iraq, the problem can only worsen over the next few years. This is because the Army will have to replenish a higher percentage of unqualified soldiers who just cant hack military life. In other words, for every unqualified soldier the Army takes in now, it will have to take in two tomorrow.

So, is it all about the Iraq war - that the people are just voting with their feet? Or is the Army one of the last bastions of economic opportunity in this post-industrial society?

Maybe the answer is yes to both, but to me, the lingering question is whether the American public is really comfortable with the tenor of the Bush administration's war against terrorism. We can wave the flag, but the country - our nation - is clearly not behind the kind of wars being waged, not in the tangible way of spreading around the risk and the responsibility.
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