We won't solve the military manpower crisis by retaining our worst soldiers.
Posted Thursday, June 2, 2005, at 6:54 PM
After combat, recruiting may be the toughest duty in the military today. Both the Army and Marines—who shoulder the casualty burden in Iraq and Afghanistan almost to the exclusion of their Navy and Air Force brethren—have failed to meet their recruiting targets for the last few months. The Army has assigned more recruiters, pledged more money, and lowered quality standards in an effort to hit its recruiting targets. Both active-duty and reserve recruiting has suffered. For the most part, the Army and Marines continue to meet their retention targets, thanks to a labyrinth of incentives. But current operational demands make retention increasingly uncertain. Many military experts predict a manpower meltdown at some point in 2006.
Now comes a new Army directive that attempts to alleviate the personnel crunch by retaining soldiers who are earmarked for early discharge during their first term of enlistment because of alcohol or drug abuse, unsatisfactory performance, or being overweight, among other reasons. By retaining these soldiers, the Army lowers the quality of its force and places a heavy burden on commanders who have to take the poor performers into harm's way. This is a quick fix that may create more problems than it solves.
Officially, the new directive merely raises the approval authority for discharges from the battalion commander level to the "special court-martial convening authority" level—generally a step of one command level, from battalion to brigade. This is a leap in the military command hierarchy; battalions are families, brigades are neighborhoods. Centralizing such matters at the brigade command level will make it substantially more difficult to discharge these troops and will lengthen the process significantly. Further, the message from the Army is clear: "[E]ach soldier retained reduces the strain on recruiting command and our retention program, which must replace every soldier who departs the Army early." For every 1 percent of soldiers retained who would otherwise be booted, the service has to sign 3,000 fewer recruits.
Make no mistake, however—these are not soldiers who field commanders want to retain. One lieutenant colonel currently commanding a civil-affairs battalion said these troops were the ones "who eat up my time and cause my hair to gray prematurely." A former infantry officer said he could "not recall a single soldier chaptered for the reasons identified ... that I would have wanted to deploy with."
This new retention directive represents a regression by the Army, from the vaunted all-volunteer force of today back in the direction of the all-volunteer force of the 1970s, when drug use, race riots, and AWOL incidents were common among all services. The Marine Corps Historical Branch traces its own severe spiral to "the end of the draft and the pressure of keeping up the size of the Marine Corps. In the process, a number of society's misfits had been recruited." By 1975, the corps had so decayed that newly appointed Commandant Lewis Wilson sought permission from Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger to implement a radical personnel proposal: Push the authority to discharge unworthy Marines down to the battalion level. Under the "expeditious discharge program," commanders quickly cut 6,000 undesirables, sending a message that reverberated throughout the military, paving the way for the subsequent military performance surge credited to President Reagan.
Now the Army intends to reverse the policy, implying that battalion commanders are not able to weigh the needs of the total force against those of their units. By the time a soldier reaches the discharge point, the officers above him have already invested a great deal of rehabilitative effort. Forcing units to keep these troops—and indeed, to take them to war—puts a very heavy rock in the rucksack of any field commander who must now balance managing these subpar performers with his mission and the needs of his unit.
It does not have to be this way. While faced with an unprecedented personnel squeeze, the military has a golden opportunity to implement structural reforms so it can better face the challenges of the 21st century.
The services must shift the manpower priority from recruiting to retention. The fact that the Navy and Air Force have consistently met their recruiting quotas in the face of a global war demonstrates that there is no shortage of young Americans willing to join the military. Shouldering a rifle in the mountains of Tora Bora or on Fallujah's streets is a different story, however. Though the Army and Marines have to recruit less than a quarter of 1 percent of the eligible population each year, they are finding that America's warrior class is small. "There's a difference between those who want some life experience and those who want to fight," says a Marine recruiter. "And most of [the latter] sign up anyway." The focus should be on retaining those who gravitate to the tip of the spear instead of coercing those more comfortable with service than soldiering.
An April 2005 study by the RAND Corp. recommended a number of ways the Army could reduce its "first term attrition" problem—the early discharge of soldiers during their first tour of duty. About 20 percent of recruits who enlist never even start active duty, and another 36 percent of those who do report to basic training fail to complete their first term of service (generally a hitch between two and four years). The report cited causes such as poor physical conditioning and low educational attainment. (For example, recruits with GEDs drop out at higher rates than those with high-school diplomas.) Surprisingly, the report found that college funding, bonuses, and the length of an enlistment contract had little to no bearing on first-term attrition. The RAND report recommends a number of fixes focused on giving the most tenuous recruits extra attention and keeping them competitive and fit once they reach boot camp. The Army has yet to implement any of these recommendations, but it's a safe bet they could retain at least as many soldiers by heeding these suggestions as by keeping those marked for early discharge.
If retention is the goal, the military pay and promotion system needs a complete overhaul. First, retention bonuses should more closely mirror recruiting costs. Today they lag by more than 50 percent. Further, there is little science involved in setting incentives. Exit interviews need to become a systematic piece of the resignation process—just as they are in civilian companies—with an emphasis on using incentives to encourage people to stick around. The Department of Defense needs to find the marginal rate that would encourage the most service members to "stay soldier" while still saving on replacement costs.
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.