"We're going to have to face that question," Senator Joe Biden told Tim Russert last Sunday when asked about the likelihood of a draft.
"It is going to be a subject, if, in fact, there's a 40 percent shortfall in recruitment. It's just a reality." Unfortunately, Biden and others are probably right.
The Army has missed its recruiting targets since February and last month unexpectedly lowered its benchmark from 8,050 to 6,700 recruits and still only reached 75 percent of that downsized goal. The National Guard and Reserve have suffered a similar 25 percent shortfall. These recruiting declines are largely why the Army has only 35,000 of the 80,000 troops needed to rotate into Iraq and elsewhere next year.
The lagging numbers, a product of inflexible military policies and an increasingly unpopular war in Iraq, have forced a full-blown recruiting crisis. Last month the Army added 1,200 recruiters, boosted its advertising budget, upped enlistment bonuses from $6,000 to $20,000 per recruit and even offered $50,000 in low-rate home mortgages. They've also slashed the enlistment period from two years to 15 months and raised the eligible age for National Guard and Reserves from 35 to 39. In an attempt to plug the hole, the Army is recruiting more high-school dropouts with lower test scores. Applicants who score in the 10th to 30th percentile range on the military's standardized aptitude test are now being accepted at higher rates. Making matters worse, junior Army leaders are quitting after their enlistment.
The effects have been alarming. For the first time in twenty years, the Army suspended recruiting on May 20 to hold a full day of ethics training for its recruiters. The ethical breaches include "the recruitment of a mentally ill young man in Ohio and a recruiter in Houston who threatened to arrest an applicant if he failed to join," the New York Times reported. The abuses, said top Army recruiter Michael Rochelle, "were just flying under my radar." Reported recruiting improprieties are up 60 percent since 1999, with recruiters themselves suffering from stress-related illnesses, damaged marriages and suicidal thoughts.
Next year could be the toughest for recruiting since the all-volunteer Army began in 1973, Maj. Gen. Rochelle predicts. "It's comparable to having no savings account," added RAND Corp specialist Beth Asch. "They'll be living month to month." The hiring of poorly educated, unqualified troops will likely force a critical drop in the capabilities, training and readiness of the modern military, experts predict.
"America faces a choice," Paul Glastris and former Army captain Phil Carter wrote in the Washington Monthly in March. "It can be the world's superpower, or it can maintain the all-volunteer military, but it probably can't do both."
It's time to have this debate across the country, and especially in Washington.
Ari Berman writes The Nation's "Daily Outrage" weblog.
By Ari Berman
Reprinted with permission from The Nation