We won't solve the military manpower crisis by retaining our worst soldiers.
Posted Thursday, June 2, 2005, at 6:54 PM
Second, the lock-step, caste-based pay system needs to be scrapped. In its place, a risk-adjusted bonus system needs to be built to target the growing majority of soldiers who cite "hardship" as their reason for leaving the service. The current system pays soldiers working in air-conditioned office cubicles the same salary as soldiers slogging it out for 13 months in Najaf. For years, the infantryman was underpaid because he had no civilian proxy; computer technicians and aircraft-maintenance chiefs were paid bigger bonuses because of direct civilian competition for their services. Today, the infantryman has an option. It's called private military contracting, it pays six-figure salaries, and it's so flexible that you can set your own deployment dates.
The Pentagon must stop the proliferation of its private army. Today there are as many as 30,000 private military contractors serving in traditional military billets. They are paid up to five times as much as soldiers performing the same duties. Encouraging the privatization of soldiers when there is a severe shortage of riflemen is circular reasoning. While the Army and Marines struggle to increase their infantry ranks, the DoD is paying private companies lucrative contracts to act as personnel brokers. Where do these firms find the recruits? The military. So the government is paying hefty finders' fees to locate quality soldiers it recruited in the first place. Far from being castoffs, they are among America's best, mostly senior soldiers lured by pay and flexibility. They belong in the ranks of the Army and the USMC, not the NYSE.
Finally, a new reserve component is needed. The active reserve's one weekend per month and two weeks per year requirement no longer meshes with the modern workforce. The Individual Ready Reserve used to be the vehicle for citizen-soldiers who wanted a connection to the military in the event of a national emergency. But the DoD has run roughshod over the implicit social contract of the IRR. By forcing civilians four years gone from the military into involuntary 18-month deployments at low pay, the Pentagon has turned the IRR into a purgatory from which everyone is trying to flee.
A new citizen-soldier reserve force should be established for those veterans who have completed their obligations and now want to serve on their own terms. The model already exists: Private soldiers are paid according to the risk they can stomach, choose their deployments, take leave from the combat zone, and can extend their contracts in-country as they see fit. The Pentagon should stop channeling funds through private companies and instead construct a reserve component to achieve the same end. During this operational surge to fight a world war spearheaded by foot soldiers, the United States needs every infantryman it can get. In return, it must offer the ability to set deployments without the looming threat of "stop-loss" extensions and involuntary call-ups. One option would be to copy the British model, where soldiers and officers can volunteer to stay with the regiment they want and serve "at will," able to be discharged either at the government's option or when they choose. The warrior class is small, but it is faithful. The promise of flexibility and control will get thousands to exchange suits for fatigues, if only to fill a wartime gap.
Economist Joseph Schumpeter invented the concept of "creative destruction" to describe the turbulent process of change in business, whereby old businesses would be destroyed and supplanted by new, more innovative and successful ones. The process of wartime innovation bears many similarities to Schumpeter's model—old ideas and structure are frequently cast aside in favor of new ones that work in combat. Today, the U.S. military faces a tougher crucible than any since Vietnam, and it stands at a crossroad. It can continue to fight this war with the same antiquated personnel structures, by choosing measures, such as this new Army directive, that increasingly try to squeeze water from a rock. Or it can leverage this unique historical moment to implement meaningful personnel and structural reform.
Owen West, who took two leaves-of-absence from his job Goldman Sachs where he co-heads the veterans' network. to serve with the Marines in Iraq, is the author of The Snake Eaters: An Unlikely Band of Brothers and the Battle for the Soul of Iraq. He is also the author of two novels and numerous articles about adventure sports and military affairs. His writings can be found at www.westwrite.com.
Photograph of soldiers on the Slate home page by Robert King/Zuma Press.