The Army’s Hard Sell

The New York Times

The all-volunteer Army is not working. The problem with such an Army is that there are limited numbers of people who will freely choose to participate in an enterprise in which they may well be shot, blown up, burned to death or suffer some other excruciating fate.

The all-volunteer Army is fine in peacetime, and in military routs like the first gulf war. But when the troops are locked in a prolonged war that yields high casualties, and they look over their shoulders to see if reinforcements are coming from the general population, they find -as they’re finding now – that no one is there.

Although it has been lowering standards, raising bonuses and all but begging on its knees, the Army hasn’t reached its recruitment quota in months. There are always plenty of hawks in America. But the hawks want their wars fought with other people’s children.

The problem now is that most Americans have had plenty of time to digest the images of people being blown up in Baghdad and mutilated in Fallujah, and they know that thousands of our troops are coming home in coffins, or without their arms, or without their legs, or paralyzed, or horribly burned.

War in the abstract can often seem like a good idea. Politicians get the patriotic blood flowing with their bombast and lies. But the flesh-and-blood reality of war is very different.

The war in Iraq was sold to the American public the way a cheap car salesman sells a lemon. Dick Cheney assured the nation that Americans in Iraq would be “greeted as liberators.” Kenneth Adelman of the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board said the war would be a “cakewalk.” And Donald Rumsfeld said on National Public Radio: “I can’t say if the use of force would last five days or five weeks or five months, but it certainly isn’t going to last any longer than that.”

The hot-for-war crowd never mentioned young men and women being shipped back to their families deceased or maimed. Nor was there any suggestion that a broad swath of the population should share in the sacrifice.

Now, with the war going badly and the Army chasing potential recruits with a ferocity that is alarming, a backlash is developing that could cripple the nation’s ability to wage war without a draft. Even as the ranks of new recruits are dwindling, many parents and public school officials are battling the increasingly heavy-handed tactics being used by military recruiters who are desperately trying to sign up high school kids.

“I started getting calls and people coming to the school board meeting testifying that they were getting inundated with phone calls from military recruiters,” said Sandra Lowe, a board member and former president of the Sonoma Valley Unified School District in California.

She said parents complained that in some schools “the military recruiters were on campus all the time,” sometimes handing out “things that the parents did not want in their homes, including very violent video games.”

Ms. Lowe said she was especially disturbed by a joint effort of the Defense Department and a private contractor, disclosed last week, to build a database of 30 million 16- to 25-year-olds, complete with Social Security numbers, racial and ethnic identification codes, grade point averages and phone numbers. The database is to be scoured for youngsters that the Pentagon believes can be persuaded to join the military.

“To have this national data collection is just over the top,” Ms. Lowe said.

Like many other parents resisting aggressive recruitment measures, Ms. Lowe has turned to a Web site –– that counsels parents on their rights and the rights of their children. She described the site as “wonderful.”

What’s not so wonderful is that this war with no end in sight is becoming an ever more divisive issue for Americans. A clear divide is developing between those who want to continue the present course and those who feel it’s time to craft an exit strategy.

But with volunteers in extremely short supply, an even more emotional divide is occurring over the ways in which soldiers for this war are selected. Increasing numbers of Americans are recognizing the inherent unfairness of the all-volunteer force in a time of war. That emotional issue will become more heated as the war continues. And it is sure to resonate in the wars to come.

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