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Broken Coverage

This column was written by Stephen Spruiell.
Although the Pentagon will not officially post the numbers for a few more days, word is already out that the Army will miss its recruiting goals for this year by about 7,000 soldiers. This represents a challenge to our efforts to grow the Army, but it does not represent a crisis. Media reports have focused on the war in Iraq as a cause for the shortfall, but it would be more accurate to say that a strong national economy has provided better opportunities for many who would otherwise consider enlisting. In order to overcome that obstacle, the military has started offering higher signing bonuses and other incentives for people to join.

First, the primary reason for the shortfall is the fact that the Army was trying to grow this year. According to AP reports, several members of Congress believe the Army needs to expand by 50,000 soldiers in order to take some of the burden off of those currently serving in the Middle East. In pursuit of this goal, the Army increased its recruiting goal this year to 80,000 from 72,000 last year. This 8,000-recruit increase puts the 7,000 recruit shortfall into a context that many media accounts are missing.

Second, media accounts have focused on the war in Iraq as the main cause for the recruiting shortfall. Evidence indicates that the strong economy was a more influential factor. The Army last missed its recruiting goals in 1999, coming up 6,290 recruits short. There was no war in 1999. Rather, the economy was growing and providing competitive opportunities for people who would otherwise consider enlisting. Similarly, the booming economy this year has provided potential recruits with more attractive opportunities. To compete, the military has started offering higher signing bonuses and compensation packages.

The shortfall in recruits affected the Army primarily. The active-duty Marines, Navy, and Air Force all met their recruiting goals. More importantly, all of the services met or exceeded their retention goals for the year, with particularly high rates in key combat brigades overseas. Such high rates of reenlistment attest to a belief among the soldiers in what we are doing in Iraq is making us safer and a desire to help that country set up a functioning government that guarantees the Iraqi people a better way of life than they had under Saddam.

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It is important that the American people have a better understanding of the recruitment situation than the news media are providing. When they are not portraying the recruiting shortfall as a "broken Army" caused by low public support for the war, they are glamorizing Cindy Sheehan and the hundreds of crosses she and her supporters plant wherever they protest — crosses that bear the names of the fallen without the permission of their families.

The media, by and large, prefer to convey the recruiting shortfall as a function of the nation's antiwar sentiment that, to them, Cindy Sheehan symbolizes. To report that it is more a function of the booming economy would force them to admit that the economy is in fact doing well, which they are loath to do. As Larry Kudlow has reported, despite low inflation, low unemployment and high economic growth rates, most polls show the president's economic approval rating around 40 percent. With low poll numbers for both the president's handling of the economy and the war, yet neither going as badly as the polls suggest, one wonders whether public opinion on both issues is a function of a media swept away by its downfall-of-Bush storyline.

That's not to say that President Bush hasn't deserved criticism, or the economy couldn't be better, or that the shortfall in recruiting isn't a challenge. But it's important for us not to get swept away with the media and lose sight of the crucial goals that the president has established, even if it seems at times that he himself has. With Republican leadership faltering, it's up to the American people to call for continued movement on the conservative agenda — spending cuts to offset Hurricane Katrina relief, making the tax cuts permanent, and continuing to support the mission in Iraq.

This last item is especially important given the thousands of men and women who reenlisted at such a crucial moment in the conflict. As Ralph Peters has written, "[these soldiers]believe in the Army, and they believe in their missions in Iraq and Afghanistan." We should believe in them too.

Stephen Spruiell reports on the media for National Review Online's new media blog.

Reprinted with permission from National Review Online

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