Just last year, I was reporting that increasing difficulties in military recruitment and retention (particularly in the field grade officer corps), had led the Army to relax its standards and start paying unprecedented sums in incentives to both recruit and to keep men and women on the job. The Army, specifically, was giving out more waivers than in recent memory to felons who would otherwise not be eligible to serve. High school graduation rates among recruits had dropped as did scores for the Armed Forces Qualification test. In the words of one former Marine Corps officer I had interviewed, the military was hurtling dangerously towards the dark days of the post-Vietnam years, where the recruits were “probably the worst in the history of the Marine Corps.”
According to the Washington Post this morning, this ship of doom has already reversed course and the unlikely captain is the economic crisis itself. It makes sense — young people are graduating high school and entering a dismal jobs market, and the military is there, looking less like the grim reaper, then say, in 2005:
Above all, the economic crisis has increased unemployment and reduced job opportunities — particularly in sectors that tend to employ young people, said Curtis Gilroy, the Pentagon’s top recruiting official.
When the recession hits the service sector, “everything from McDonald’s to cutbacks at Best Buy and some of the more entry-level jobs . . . this impacts young people more. Those who are last hired tend to be first fired,” Gilroy said. “They would then view the military option more favorably.”
“Improved security in Iraq” has also made the Armed Forces more attractive, the article reads, further leading the Army to raise standards regarding previous arrests and drug use and offer less incentives. High School graduation rates are increasing — 93 percent so far this year, compared to 79 percent in 2007.
So, given the right financial desperation and better odds they’d return from a first tour of duty with a whole body and mind, recruits are lining up again. Combined with the planned withdrawal of troops from Iraq, this bodes nicely for a military in need of recuperation. But how tenuous is this narrative? With more than 20,000 new troops headed for Afghanistan and the neoconservative hawks suddenly in favor among the national security elite clamoring for more, the big question mark hovering over Pakistan and Iraq Commander Ray Odierno making noises about delaying withdrawal in key Iraqi cities because of ongoing violence, the answer seems, “pretty much.”
For the moment, however, today’s WaPo news reinforces the obvious, that a recession is good for recruitment, and that the Department of Defense will remain one of the nation’s leading employers, despite the current tempest over Pentagon cutbacks. It’s disappointing though, not necessarily because recruitment has turned around, but that there has been, until now, no consequences for the way the military has tended to its brave and dedicated servicemen and women, either in the field (putting them unnecessarily at risk) or when they return home.
It’s a pity that a economic crisis at home might forestall real reform in the Armed Forces — who can possibly hold their feet to fire when they have all the “cannon fodder” necessary to fight these unpopular but nonetheless ongoing wars abroad?