In late November, Secretary Gates traveled to Fort Hood, Texas, to meet with soldiers and spouses about the future of Iraq. (I traveled with him as part of a profile that I was writing for the New York Times Magazine.) The night before the meetings, at a dinner of the Killeen, Texas, Chamber of Commerce, he said, "The people who encourage young people to go into the military are less positive than they used to be. That includes the dads, who have been the foundation for recruitment. Until we reach the point where joining the Army doesn't mean an automatic assignment to Iraq, we'll have a challenge."
This is why Gates and many senior military officers would like to continue withdrawing troops from Iraq after this July, when the five combat brigades that formed the "surge" are scheduled to leave. They fear that, unless the withdrawal continues (slowly, gradually), the Army might fall apart because more soldiers will leave and fewer new ones will take their place.
But here's the problem: A week after Gates' trip to Texas, he traveled to Iraq, where U.S. commanders told him that they could draw down another five brigades by the end of 2008, leaving 10 brigades in all—if that's the order, they could do that—but, they added, don't ask us to secure the Iraqi population with such a small force, and the Iraqi military isn't ready to take our place.
And so, earlier this month, Gates announced—reluctantly—that there would be a "pause" in troop reductions from Iraq after July. And, though he didn't say so, this means that the Army's recruitment problems—and the dads' dismay—will intensify.
This is no doubt one reason the Army is stringing out the $40,000 sign-up bonus. It's debatable which scenario would wreak more damage: that a lot of young men and women who previously had no interest in the Army sign up—or that, despite the enticement, not enough of them do.