But the point of an army is to fight wars, not to promote social equality. So, the more critical reason to lament the Army's declining standards is their likely impact on military skills. This is a high-tech army, where even tank crews and artillery spotters deal with digital displays and computerized commands. Low-tech missions, too—foot soldiers on patrol in the sorts of "stability operations" they're conducting in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Bosnia—require a degree of alertness, sensitivity, initiative, even rudimentary foreign-language skills, that goes beyond a rote ability to follow orders and shoot straight.
Under the new rules, recruits without a diploma will be required to take and pass a GED exam, and the Army will pay for a preparation course, so at least the total dregs will be kept out. But something crucial will still be lost. Young men and women who graduate from high school, or who set out to earn a GED, demonstrate a degree of focus and ambition. It doesn't take much to sit through a GED prep course and then pass the exam; it does take a certain vitality to bother going through the process on your own. This is what the Army risks whittling away.
What to do about it? Some have proposed bringing back the draft. This would fill the ranks, but it wouldn't solve the problem of quality—and, for a variety of reasons, Congress isn't likely to approve a draft anyway, short of a genuine national emergency that requires the amassing of millions of American troops.
Some suggest bigger bonuses and salaries for those who sign up and re-enlist. The Army is already doing this to some extent, and it has probably kept the ranks from declining more dramatically—but it hasn't filled them to the level that its military missions require.
Another approach is to take a closer look at those military missions—and at the policies that generate and support them. It's a fair guess that fewer people are joining the Army (and fewer still are joining the Reserves and National Guard) for a simple reason: They don't want to get killed.
So, here are some modest proposals for this or any other administration:
First, if you do go to war, protect your soldiers as much as you can. There's no excuse for shortages of armor platings—especially in a war that was planned for over a year ahead of time.
Second, if you do go to war, plan it better. The evidence is now overwhelming that the Pentagon conducted no planning for "postwar" stabilization operations. Other government departments did, but their plans were ignored. George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld & Co. persuaded themselves that their favored Iraqi exiles would quickly form a new government and that most American troops would be home by late summer 2003—hence no need for long-term planning. It's appalling enough to be wrong (everybody is sometimes); it's disgraceful and irresponsible to dismiss the notion that you might be and that you should devise a backup plan accordingly.
Third, if you're thinking about going to war, think again. Do you really have to? What might happen if you don't? If you think the war will be easy, what will you do if it's not? How much death and destruction are you willing to inflict—and absorb—in its cause? This last question can be addressed, if you prefer, not so much as a moral issue but as a hard-boiled matter of national security: If the Army comes unraveled in the fighting of a protracted war whose victory seems elusive and whose goals were never clear, the nation will be less able—and perhaps less willing—to fight a more justified war down the road. Most comparisons between Iraq and Vietnam are shallow, but here's one that isn't: The Vietnam War ravaged the American military for a generation; it looks like the Iraq War might be about to do the same.