Unraveling of the U.S. Military

Foreign Policy In Focus

In a recent speech at Fort Bragg, a major U.S. military base, president Bush declared, “There is no higher calling than service in our armed forces.” It seems fewer and fewer young Americans and their parents agree with him. The U.S. military is finding it increasingly difficult to sustain itself. This is despite what at first sight should be fruitful conditions for military recruitment: the events of September 11 and the fears about terrorism; the argument by the Bush administration that the global war on terrorism must be fought in Afghanistan and Iraq and other such faraway places, or it will end up having to be fought at home; and America’s ongoing wars that bring to the screens daily stories of heroic “warriors” liberating and defending the innocent.

Troop Shortages

Newspapers describe the U.S. army as “facing one of the greatest recruiting challenges in its history.” The U.S. military is deeply worried. General Barry McCaffrey, now a professor at the West Point, wrote in the Wall Street Journal that the U.S. is in a “race against time” in Iraq because of the strains on the military–the military is “starting to unravel.” He argues that, “The U.S. army and the Marines are too under-manned and under-resourced to sustain this security policy beyond next fall.” The consequences are great. For McCaffrey the U.S. military in Iraq is “the crown jewel of our national security guarantee to the American people in the war on terror.” This threatens the future of the American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and as McCaffrey puts it, “Failure would be a disaster for U.S. foreign policy and economic interests for the next 20 years.”

Sending in more troops, the American solution year after year in the Vietnam War, does not seem to be an option. President Bush has said that he would send more troops to Iraq if the military commanders in the field asked for them. He claims that they have not done so. But others suggest a more serious obstacle. Senator Harry Reid (D-NV), the Senate Minority Leader, has said that U.S. military commanders in Iraq have told him that they need more troops but they know none are available. Reed has said, “The conclusion I reach is that they know the soldiers aren’t there, so why ask for something you know doesn’t exist?”

A recent study by the RAND Corporation, a military think-tank, Stretched Thin: Army Forces for Sustained Operations found that the troop shortage in the army is so severe that it calls into question the Pentagon’s policy of being able to fight two major regional wars at the same time while also having sufficient soldiers for the war on terrorism and providing security in America. A recent meeting of the National Governors’ Association, which brings together the governors of the states, registered the governors’ concern that deployment of National Guard soldiers in Iraq was leaving their states unable to deal with possible natural disasters and other emergencies, with one governor exclaiming that “we don’t have personnel–whether it is full time or part time–to take care of all the needs and concerns of Americans.”

Recruitment Problems

Little of this seems to resonate with the public. So far this year, the U.S. army is reported to be 40{cd9ac3671b356cd86fdb96f1eda7eb3bb1367f54cff58cc36abbd73c33c82e1d} short of its recruitment target. The army has failed to meet its monthly recruiting goals in each of the preceding four months. In mid-July, the U.S. military reported that the Army National Guard, which makes up more than one-third of the U.S. soldiers in Iraq, had missed its recruiting goal for the ninth straight month. This was an understatement of the larger trend. The Army National Guard has apparently missed its recruiting targets for at least 17 of the last 18 months.

U.S. army chief of staff General Peter Schoomaker told the Senate, “We’ve got enormous challenges” when it comes to recruitment of new soldiers. The army’s goal of 80,000 new recruits for this year “is at serious risk,” and next year “may be the toughest recruiting environment ever.” These recruiting problems, he believes, are likely to stretch “well into the future.”

These problems are despite the enormous incentives now being offered to join the military. There is a joining bonus of $90,000 paid over three years, of which $20,000 is in cash and $70,000 in benefits, along with a canceling of the loans many a young American must take to afford to go to college. There are reports also that people almost 40 years old are now eligible to join the military, and that the physical and intellectual standards for recruits have been lowered.

The fall in recruitment is strongest in the African-American community (12{cd9ac3671b356cd86fdb96f1eda7eb3bb1367f54cff58cc36abbd73c33c82e1d} of the U.S. population) and among women. African-Americans made up almost a quarter of army recruits in 2000, now their numbers have fallen to less than 14{cd9ac3671b356cd86fdb96f1eda7eb3bb1367f54cff58cc36abbd73c33c82e1d}. The number of women army recruits has dropped from 22{cd9ac3671b356cd86fdb96f1eda7eb3bb1367f54cff58cc36abbd73c33c82e1d} in 2000 to about 17{cd9ac3671b356cd86fdb96f1eda7eb3bb1367f54cff58cc36abbd73c33c82e1d}. Women make up about 15{cd9ac3671b356cd86fdb96f1eda7eb3bb1367f54cff58cc36abbd73c33c82e1d} of the military in total.

The Military Path to Citizenship

About 7{cd9ac3671b356cd86fdb96f1eda7eb3bb1367f54cff58cc36abbd73c33c82e1d} of the U.S. military are not citizens. There are about 30,000 foreign soldiers in the U.S. military from more than 100 countries; more than a third are Hispanic. To encourage recruitment, in 2002 the Bush administration made it easier for foreign-born U.S. troops to become naturalized citizens. Now, any legal resident who joins the military can immediately petition for citizenship rather than wait the five years required for civilians to start this process. They do not even have to pay the several hundred dollar fee for this process. As an added incentive, if a foreign-born soldier who is a U.S. citizen dies in the line of duty, the foreign-born members of his or her family can now seek citizenship, even if they are not legal residents. It is also possible for soldiers to be made citizens after they have died in service and for their families to then become eligible for citizenship.

Despite all this, the numbers of non-citizens joining the military is falling fast. The number has fallen by 20{cd9ac3671b356cd86fdb96f1eda7eb3bb1367f54cff58cc36abbd73c33c82e1d} since 2001. It is not slowing down, as much of the decline came last year.

It is not just those would be foot soldiers who are staying away. Those with the most to defend are less willing to do so. Army’s Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, which trains and commissions more than 60{cd9ac3671b356cd86fdb96f1eda7eb3bb1367f54cff58cc36abbd73c33c82e1d} of the new army officers each year, has been facing similar problems. It now has the fewest participants in nearly a decade, with recruitment having fallen by more than 16{cd9ac3671b356cd86fdb96f1eda7eb3bb1367f54cff58cc36abbd73c33c82e1d} over the past two years. In a recent article in Harpers, Lewis Lapham pointed out that there is a longer term process at work here, noting that almost half of the 1956 graduating class from Princeton University went into the military (400 out of a total of 900 students), and form the class of 2004, there were only nine students who joined, out of a class of 1,100.

The children of America’s elite see no future for themselves in the military. And there are some soldiers who see this. The story is told of a U.S. Marine who returned to California after a tour of duty in Iraq and was invited to speak at a “gated community” in Malibu, as a war hero. He told his audience “I am not a hero… Guys like me are just a necessary part of things. To maintain this way of life in a fine community like this, you need psychos like us to go and drop a bomb on somebody’s house.”

In its efforts to find out why there are now such problems with recruitment, the army called in the research company Millward Brown to do a study. It found that the resistance was due to popular objection to the war in Iraq, the casualties, and media coverage of the torture at Abu Ghraib. The study reportedly concluded that, “Reasons for not considering military service are increasingly based on objections to the Iraq situation and aversion to the military.”

In short, the Bush administration has failed to make its case for the war in Iraq. Now, people see and read about what really happens in war, and towns and cities are facing the reality of the 1,750 or so American military deaths and well over 12,500 wounded so far in Iraq. A June 2005 Gallup poll found that in the past five years the proportion of Americans who said they would support their child’s entering the military has fallen from two-thirds to about half. This has not all happened spontaneously. Across the U.S. there is a growing campaign against military recruitment that is bringing parents, teachers, and peace activists to protect students from military recruiters.

Retention Also a Problem

It is not just recruitment. The military has been having problems keeping its soldiers. Almost 30{cd9ac3671b356cd86fdb96f1eda7eb3bb1367f54cff58cc36abbd73c33c82e1d} of new recruits leave within six months. Some of it is at least due to the vast gap between the day-to-day experiences of young people before they join up and the life of a recruit during training. Stories talk of recruits who “can’t eat, they literally vomit every time they put a spoon in their mouths, they’re having nightmares.” Bonuses are being offered to encourage soldiers to re-enlist once their service is over. It is reported that re-enlistment bonuses can be as high as $150,000, depending on the specialty and length of re-enlistment.

Some reports suggest the army has started to lower its standards for soldier performance, and so reduce losses. The Wall Street Journal has reported a military memo directing commanders not to dismiss soldiers for poor fitness, unsatisfactory performance, or even for pregnancy, alcoholism, and drug abuse.

There are problems with desertion. The Pentagon has admitted that more than 5,500 soldiers have deserted since the start of the Iraq war. In comparison, 1,509 deserted in 1995. The cases that have become public have said that they did so because they are opposed to the war. A telephone hotline to help soldiers who want to leave the military has reported that the number of calls it is receiving is now double of what it was in 2001–the hotline answered 33,000 calls last year.

A New Army of Mercenaries?

Max Boot, a prominent military commentator, named among “the 500 most influential people in the United States in the field of foreign policy,” has offered his solution for the problem of finding people to fight America’s wars. In a recent article, Boot proposed that the path to a bigger American army lay in offering a new deal, “Defend America, Become American.” Boot has proposed the U.S. should look beyond just U.S. citizens and permanent, legal residents for soldiers to fight in its military.

He has proposed a “Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act,” a DREAM Act, as he puts it, that would offer legal status to the children of illegal immigrants residing in the U.S. and eligibility for citizenship if they can meet a number of conditions, including graduating from high school, and if they go to college or choose to serve in the military. A bill to this effect was introduced in the U.S. Senate but has not been voted on yet.

Even this may not be enough though. Like many others who argue that America should embrace fully and enthusiastically its imperialism, Boot believes there is a need to dramatically increase the size of the U.S. military, and military spending will have to rise to pay for an army able to put and keep troops on the ground in faraway countries. He has proposed that the U.S. should “offer citizenship to anyone, anywhere on the planet, willing to serve a set term in the U.S. military.”

Boot asks, “Would foreigners sign up to fight for Uncle Sam? I don’t see why not, because so many people are desperate to move here. Serving a few years in the military would seem a small price to pay and it would establish beyond a doubt that they are the kind of motivated, hardworking immigrants we want.” The nightmare of war is offered as the prelude to the “American dream.”

(Zia Mian is a Pakistani physicist with the Program on Science and Global Security of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University (www.princeton.edu/~globsec) and a regular contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus (www.fpif.org). This is a revised version of an article that originally appeared in Economic and Political Weekly.)

For More Information

Sixty Years Without Nuclear War
By Zia Mian, R. Rajaraman, and Frank von Hippel

A New American Century?
By Zia Mian (May 4, 2005)

U.S.-Russian Lessons for South Asia
By Zia Mian, R. Rajaraman, and Frank von Hippel (August 2, 2002)

Nuclear War in South Asia
By Matthew McKinzie, Zia Mian, M.V. Ramana, and A.H. Nayyar (June 2002)

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