May 29, 2005

The Death Spiral of the Volunteer Army

NYTimes Editorial

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld likes to talk about transforming America's military. But the main transformation he may leave behind is a catastrophic falloff in recruitment for the country's vital ground fighting forces: the Army and the Marine Corps. The recruitment chain that has given the United States highly qualified, highly skilled and highly motivated ground forces for the three decades since the government abandoned the draft has started to break down.

This is astonishing, even allowing for the administration's failure to prepare Americans honestly for how long and difficult the occupation of Iraq would be. There are over 60 million American men and women between 18 and 35, the age group sought by Army recruiters. Getting the 80,000 or so new volunteers the Army needs to enlist each year ought not to be such a daunting challenge. There are obvious attractions to joining the world's most powerful, prestigious and best-equipped ground fighting forces, and in so doing qualifying for valuable benefits like college tuition aid.

But Army recruitment is now regularly falling short of the necessary targets. Recruiters are having even more trouble persuading people to sign up for Army National Guard and Reserve units. The Marine Corps has been missing its much smaller monthly quotas as well. Unless there is a sharp change later this year, both forces will soon start feeling the pinch as too few trainees are processed to meet both forces' operational needs.

Why this is happening is no mystery. Two years of hearing about too few troops on the ground, inadequate armor, extended tours of duty and accelerated rotations back into combat have taken their toll, discouraging potential enlistees and their parents. The citizen-soldiers of the Guard and Reserves have suddenly become full-time warriors.

Nor has it helped that when abuse scandals have erupted, the Pentagon has seemed quicker to punish lower-ranking soldiers than top commanders and policy makers. This negative cycle now threatens to feed on itself. Fewer recruits will mean more stress on those now in uniform and more grim reports reaching hometowns across America.

The results can now be seen at every Army and Marine recruiting office. (The Air Force and Navy, which have not been subjected to the same stresses and dangers as the ground forces, are meeting their recruiting quotas.) Missed quotas have translated into intense pressure to lower standards and recruit people who should not be in uniform.

Earlier this month the Army required all of its recruiters to go through a one-day review of basic recruiting ethics.

Things might have been different if Mr. Rumsfeld had heeded the judgment of Gen. Eric Shinseki, then the Army chief of staff, in the months before the United States invaded Iraq and planned for a substantially larger occupation force. A larger force might have kept the insurgency smaller and more manageable. It would have been better able to defend itself without resorting to the kind of indiscriminate firepower that kills civilians, destroys homes and inflames Iraqi opinion. Individual combat brigades would not have been under such constant operational stress. But Mr. Rumsfeld rejected General Shinseki's sound advice. The Pentagon now says it gives field commanders as many troops as they ask for. But those commanders are aware of Mr. Rumsfeld's doctrinaire commitment to holding down troop numbers and of the diminished career prospects that could result from challenging him.

The Pentagon now hopes that next month's high school graduations will help it catch up to its recruiting goals.

Besides crossing its fingers, the military should open more combat roles to women, end its senseless discrimination against gays and reach out to immigrants with promises of citizenship after completion of service. There should be no thought of reinstating the draft, which would be militarily foolish and politically explosive. But expanding the potential recruiting pool can be only a partial answer. Young people and their parents are reacting rationally to a regrettable and unnecessary transformation in how the United States government treats its ground troops. That is what needs to be changed.