The Few, the Recruits

This is a grim time for military recruiters. As schools let out for the summer—prime time for recruiters—they find themselves on the defensive and badly in need of more recruits.

In the past few months, a spontaneous, burgeoning anti-recruitment campaign, led by students and parents, has put recruiters on their heels. Consider what has happened just in the Seattle area. On May 23, walkouts of about 150 students from Seattle Central Community College (SCCC), Garfield High School, and the University of Washington briefly shut down three recruiting centers. Garfield's PTSA passed a resolution on May 9 calling for a ban of military recruiters on campus and encouraging other area PTSAs to follow suit. Bainbridge High School parents and students successfully protested plans by the Army to fly a Blackhawk helicopter onto that campus. And in January, angry students chased two military recruiters off SCCC's campus, ripping up literature after taking offense that the recruiters set up a table at the school's Martin Luther King Jr. Day rally.

The protests may be having an effect, but an unpopular and bloody war in Iraq is having a far greater one, convincing prospective recruits not to join the military. The Army fell short of its recruiting targets by 42 percent in April; other services report similar numbers. No matter how much recruiters promise that a prospective recruit won't be sent to Iraq against his or her will, the students often know better.

The market is speaking. Signing up for military service right now isn't very attractive. But the protests are serving to call attention to the dubious practices recruiters are resorting to as they become increasingly desperate to meet their goals. The word is getting around: Recruiters have been engaging in unethical, high-pressure tactics to get vulnerable 17- and 18-year-old kids to sign up. Stories are widespread of recruiters misrepresenting benefits and a recruit's ability to determine their own path. In one case, a recruiter allegedly forged transcripts to make a recruit eligible; in another, the recruiter showed the prospect how to mask a sample so as to pass a drug test. Stories are legion of recruiters harassing families that want to be left alone. Reports of recruiter abuse have become so pervasive that on May 20 the Army ordered an unprecedented one-day "stand down" of all recruiters so they could attend classes reminding them of the official limits on recruiting techniques.

The war in Iraq marks the first time that the all-volunteer military has been faced with recruiting volunteers during a protracted, deadly conflict. With casualties continuing to mount, and with politicians and generals uniformly predicting no end in sight, it's an open question: Can all-volunteer armed forces, in a time of war, provide the military with the number of people it needs?

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, acting on orders from President Bush, has been fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—among other War on Terror venues—but is fighting them in a certain way. Rumsfeld has defied the recommendations of his generals to try to fight the war in Iraq with far fewer soldiers than the generals would have preferred. Rumsfeld has championed a military that is light, quick, and heavily reliant on high-tech weaponry. Many military experts believe the U.S. is fighting with far fewer soldiers than it needs. If the various services cannot even meet their manpower quotas under these conditions, when some generals have called for double or triple the number of soldiers now on the ground in Iraq, the Pentagon is in serious trouble indeed.

Rumsfeld and Bush have been adamant that they will not consider a resumption of the draft. To do so, when polls show a majority of Americans are now skeptical about how the war is being conducted, would be political suicide. But from the military's standpoint, there would seem to be few other solutions if the serious shortfalls in recruitment quotas continue. And they will.

Of course, there is one obvious way out: Let the marketplace decide. In the finest tradition of the free market, if the youth of America don't want to fight a war, and if their parents don't think it's a cause worth risking their children's lives for, don't resort to tricking them into it, or forcing them into it. Don't fight the war. Stop. Find another foreign policy that parents and prospective recruits feel better about.

But that would be far too simple and obvious. Instead, it's little wonder the trickery and coercion will continue.

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