The Dumbing-Down of the U.S. Army
And some modest proposals for countering the trend.
Further evidence that the war in Iraq is wrecking the U.S. Army: Recruiters, having failed to meet their enlistment targets, are now being authorized to pursue high-school dropouts and (not to mince words) stupid people.
This year the Army set a goal of recruiting 80,000 active-duty soldiers, but it wound up with just 73,000—almost 10 percent short. As a result, the Army Times reported this week, the Pentagon has decided to make up the difference by expanding the pool—by letting up to 10 percent of new recruits be young men and women who have neither graduated high school nor earned a General Equivalency Diploma.
More than that, the Los Angeles Times reports today that 4 percent of recruits will be allowed to score as low as in the 16th to 30th percentile—a grouping known as "Category IV"—on the U.S. Armed Forces' mental-aptitude exam.
As of 2003 (the last year for which official data are available), just 6 percent of active-duty Army soldiers lacked a high-school diploma or a GED. Just 1 percent scored in Category IV on the aptitude test.
Not since the mid-1980s—when the military brass first decided to reject low-scoring applicants—have the all-volunteer Army's standards been allowed to dip so steeply.
Several career officers are dismayed by this new policy—not least because it reverses the progress that has been made these past two decades in the buildup of a professional army.
In the mid- to late-1970s—in the wake of the Vietnam War, the height of popular disenchantment with the military, and the start of the all-volunteer armed forces—as many as half of U.S. soldiers hadn't finished high school, and as many as one-third were Category IV.
The new policy will leave the Army's ranks in far better shape than they were back then. But officers, analysts, and many recruiters are disturbed by the trend, the lowering of a barrier, the reversal of an accomplishment.
Should they be disturbed? Is it important that nearly all our soldiers have a diploma or score better than abysmally on an aptitude test? Yes and yes, for at least two reasons.
The first reason is sociopolitical.Not manynations have an all-volunteer army, and the concept could not be sustained if the burden of service fell entirely on the lowest classes—on those who joined the military because they couldn't find jobs elsewhere. The inequity would be intensified—rendered impossible to ignore—if the face of this lower-class army were disproportionately black. This was precisely the kind of military we had in the early days of the all-volunteer force: overwhelmingly poor, uneducated, and African-American. But this is no longer the case. The racial mix, reading levels, and aptitude scores of today's Army are not much different from those of 18-to-24-year-olds in American society as a whole.
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter.
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