Since the Vietnam War, America’s more successful interventions have been brief. That war engendered a legitimacy crisis in the United States military. Domestically, large numbers of young men resisted the draft or took advantage of deferments, but conscription still kept the armed forces supplied with men. In Vietnam, the military was riven by drug use, racial strife, and “fragging”—the assassination of unpopular officers by their troops. Operation Desert Storm in 1991 may be a model for a successful large-scale intervention post-Vietnam: the coalition allied with the United States dropped some bombs and sent an overwhelming ground force; Saddam capitulated while Lee Greenwood provided the soundtrack. If one ignores pesky issues such as the fate of Iraqi Kurds who were encouraged to rebel and the blowback from stationing U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia, the first Gulf War was a big success.

The United States fares worse when our goals are more ambitious and the enemy doesn’t quickly fold. When a volunteer army becomes bogged down in an unpopular war, protesters don’t fill the streets the way they did in 1969, and soldiers don’t “frag” their officers—people simply stop joining the military. The quest to fill that enlistment gap is where the investigative work of English journalist Matt Kennard comes in. In Irregular Army, Kennard documents a series of disturbing trends in the military: lowered standards, inadequately treated mental-health and substance-abuse problems, and the enlistment and retention of white supremacists, Nazis, and gang members.

Irregular Army begins with an investigation of undesirable elements who in years past would have had difficulty entering and staying in the military, such as racists and Nazi skinheads. Such extremists have made it into the military before—I briefly served in the Marine Corps in 1986 with someone who described himself as a racist skinhead—but Kennard provides background on how today the military often looks the other way to keep the ranks filled. He interviewed one neo-Nazi who had tattoos (a Celtic Cross and a Nordic warrior) that recruiters are supposed to flag. Forrest Fogarty’s story somewhat undercuts Kennard’s thesis, however, since he actually joined the Army prior to the War on Terror. He is something of a celebrity as the leader of the skinhead band Attack; he took leave in 2004 to play two concerts in Dresden, Germany. A bitter former girlfriend alerted the military to his leanings by sending pictures of him at neo-Nazi events, but that didn’t derail his military career. After his discharge the Southern Poverty Law Center intervened to keep him out of a job with a private military contractor.

Kennard’s confused timeline indicates that the seeds of the extremist infiltration problem existed before the Iraq War descended into a quagmire, although figures he received from the Department of Defense indicate that the military almost stopped the policy of denying reenlistment to undesirables at the height of the Iraq occupation, with the number of rejections falling from 4,000 in 1994 to a mere 81 in 2006.

Neo-Nazis have been joined in the military by members of African-American and Latino gangs. This came to light in an ugly and frightening fashion in 2005, when soldiers who were also members of the Chicago-based Gangster Disciples beat an Army sergeant to death in an initiation gone awry while stationed in Germany. Tracking gang membership in the military is difficult, as there is no specific prohibition against belonging to a gang, and according to Kennard the FBI “cannot gauge the problem of criminal gangs in the country’s fighting forces because the military [has] refused to report gang activity.” While the killing is the most disturbing gang-related incident reported in Irregular Army, Kennard reproduces numerous photos of gang graffiti in Iraq and military personnel flashing gang symbols, indicating that the 2005 incident was not simply a fluke.

One disturbing commonality between gang members and neo-Nazis is the possibility that they look upon the military as a training ground for their own private wars. Kennard quotes Dennis Mahon, a National Guard veteran with ties to various extremist organizations, who says, “the soldiers learn from unconventional warfare in Iraq and they realize that they can use that type of warfare in America and it’s impossible to stop.” Mahon is now serving time for a bombing in Arizona. Similarly, Kennard quotes an anonymous FBI agent suggesting that gangs may use the military for training purposes, noting that they would “get great weapons training… and access to weapons and arms, and be able to use that knowledge.”

Although the idea of the government training violent extremists and criminal gangs in the art of war is disturbing, it is only one upshot of the personnel crisis that has plagued the military in recent years. The tragic story of Specialist Travis Virgadamo illustrates another. Virgadamo displayed disturbing signs while on leave from Iraq in 2007. Instead of going AWOL as he contemplated, he returned to service,

But his superiors obviously knew something was wrong as they placed him on suicide watch and removed the bolt from his rifle, rendering it useless. He was given more pedestrian desk jobs as he tried to sort out his head. But, inexplicably, Virgadamo was cleared for combat the following month, and on the night of August 30, 2007, was given his bolt back. Three hours later he walked out of his barracks and shot himself in the head.

Suicides among soldiers and veterans reached epidemic proportions in the later years of the War on Terror. Viragadamo was one of 115 troops to commit suicide in 2007, a number that would increase to 245 in 2009. Irregular Army features several stories of soldiers who should have been routed into treatment but were instead sent back to battle, often with a prescription for Prozac or other antidepressants. The problem is severe enough that it would be inaccurate to describe troops with mental health issues as slipping through the cracks—they are plummeting through a chasm. Suicide isn’t the only concern when troops are pushed beyond the breaking point; they also commit crimes at home and atrocities abroad.

One rogue soldier who caused the Army and the government a great deal of stress in the last few years would likely have been rejected had the military not been desperate for warm bodies. Bradley Manning had a very troubled entry into the service. Kennard writes that Manning “was in such a disturbed mental state before his deployment that he wet himself, threw furniture around, shouted at his commanding officer, and underwent regular psychiatric evaluations.” He made it through, in spite of his problems, as Kennard quotes American Conservative contributor Chase Madar, because of the Army’s “desperation for soldiers with IT and analytic skills during its historic low in recruitment.”

“Desperation” is the key word, and Kennard documents a variety of other ways in which the military’s desperation has led to declining standards of recruitment. Overweight, less intelligent, or older recruits are not as extreme risks as Nazis, but they still present challenges. Perhaps the most disturbing large-scale change has been the rise in age limits. Young people are a better fit for military service because they both possess more physical endurance and are more malleable than older people, but in 2006 the Pentagon raised the maximum age for new recruits from 35 to 40 and shortly thereafter to 42. Kennard quotes one solider saying that “the type of training they receive is pretty much geared in one direction and focused on 18- and 20-year-olds just coming in.” The Army has compensated by lowering physical standards for older recruits, but as Kennard notes, war doesn’t discriminate: “older recruits… were at much greater risk of death and injury. In June 2010 it was reported that 566, or 12.1 percent, of the deaths in the War on Terror had been suffered by over-thirty-fives, a figure which dwarfed their representation in the fighting force.”

Kennard examines attempts to ameliorate the recruitment crisis, including the opening of a “Patriot Academy” on a National Guard base for the purpose of educating and giving diplomas to would-be soldiers who are short of credits for high-school graduation. The No Child Left Behind law, passed before the War on Terror, gave a gift to military recruiters in the form of access to contact information for high school students from institutions receiving aid under the bill.

The recruiting crisis has abated in recent years due to the weak economy and the drawdown in Iraq, but military needs still cannot be met without the now necessary aid of mercenaries, lately euphemized as “private military contractors.” Kennard notes that “it was impossible to do without them: the broken military could not long stand on its own two feet.”

Irregular Army goes into great narrative detail to illustrate an unfolding disaster that has engulfed the U.S. military, particularly the Army and Marine Corps. My biggest criticism of Kennard’s book is that it desperately needs charts, graphs, and timelines. For a book whose thesis has to establish that something went horribly wrong circa 2005-2006, it is often difficult to tell when particular events occurred. Neo-Nazi Forest Fogarty is Kennard’s star witness, but it is difficult to figure out that Fogarty actually joined the Army well before the War on Terror, which is also true of some of the others that Kennard profiles. Yet even if one concedes that some of these problems have antecedents before 9/11, Kennard still demonstrates a serious weakness in America’s ability to recruit a long- or even medium-term occupying force. He makes an obvious point that should be chiseled into the walls of the Pentagon: American culture is not conducive to maintaining a force to occupy another country. Policymakers should take heed—it is preferable that America’s next occupying force not be brought into existence at all, but if it must be, it shouldn’t come draped in Nazi regalia.

Clark Stooksbury writes from Knoxville, Tennessee.