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.
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.
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 email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter.
Illustration of Uncle Sam on the Slate home page © Swim Ink 2, LLC/Corbis.