The Army says it exceeded its 2009 recruiting goals. But the numbers are very fishy.
The Pentagon boasted this week that the U.S. armed forces have exceeded their recruitment goals for this year. Some officials attributed the success to high unemployment in the civilian job market, others to a spurt in civic-mindedness.
In fact, however, fewer people joined the Army this year than last year. The Army exceeded its recruitment goals not because recruitment went up but rather because recruitment goals were lowered.
The Army is the service that has been having the hardest time finding new recruits in recent years, in part because it has borne the heaviest burden—and suffered by far the most casualties—in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
According to the Pentagon's report, the Army's goal for fiscal year 2009 was to sign 65,000 new recruits. It actually signed 70,045—amounting to 8 percent more than the target.
But the picture is less bright than it seems. Though the Pentagon's report doesn't mention this fact, in each of the previous two years, the Army's recruitment goal was 80,000—much higher than this year's. The Army met those targets, but only by drastically lowering its standards—accepting more applicants who'd dropped out of high school or flunked the military's aptitude test.
This year, the recruiters restored the old standards—a very good thing for troops' morale and military effectiveness—but they signed up 10,000 fewer new soldiers.
It is, in other words, not the case that high unemployment or a new public spirit is leading more young men and women into the Army. It's not the case that more young men and women are going into the Army at all.
There are two scenarios under which it might make sense for the Army to lower its recruitment goal. (The Air Force, Navy, and Marines kept their goals about the same, and met them; even in recent years, those services haven't had much problem keeping the ranks filled.) First, Congress or the secretary of defense might have authorized a lower "end-strength"—that is, a smaller Army overall. If fewer troops were needed, then fewer recruits would be needed as well. In fact, however, Secretary Robert Gates ordered an increase in the size of the Army, and Congress went along.
Second, the Army might be doing better at the retention of troops. If more active-duty soldiers were re-enlisting when their tours of duty run out, then the Army could get by recruiting fewer new soldiers. When I asked several Army officials why the recruitment goal was reduced, better retention was the answer they gave me. The retention goal for FY 2009, they told me, was 55,000—and actual re-enlistments totaled more than 68,000.
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.
Photograph of Army recruiter by Joe Raedle/Getty Images.