Best Defense

Change one thing in military personnel policy? (6): Recruit the force in a new way

Expanding the Army's recruiting pool could help prepare the United States for future conflicts.

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By Robert L. Goldich

Best Defense personnel contest entry

If I could change one thing in the U.S. military personnel system, I’d radically expand the Army’s recruiting horizons.

No discussion of Army recruiting is complete these days without repetition of the mantra that only 30 percent (sometimes less) of the nation’s youth are “qualified for military service.” This is a given. It is used as a basis for bemoaning the lack of physical fitness and incidence of obesity among America’s young people (true); supporting all kinds of quasi-authoritarian measures to limit what we can eat or drink (philosophically dubious among us cantankerous Americans); and gracing reports by retired general officers, health practitioners, and the like about how we face a national security crisis because of it. The fitness for service issue, of course, combines with concern over propensity to serve, which further narrows the target population.

The problem with all this is that, much as I hate to build on a Donald Rumsfeld quote, you recruit from the population you have, not the one you’d like to have. The Army is busy digging itself into a deeper and deeper hole as it chases a shrinking population of potential recruits, rather than considering ways to expand the recruiting pool through its own actions. (I focus on the Army because it is the Army that has always, by far, had the biggest recruiting problems.) Right now this isn’t a big problem because either actual or perceived unemployment is still fairly high; the force is downsizing; and the military actually has a very high reputation. But this happy coincidence of factors which helps recruiting may not last — in particular, what happens when we have to increase, not decrease, the force, even to a moderate degree? What to do?

First, how about creating programs whereby the Army would explicitly appeal to young people who are qualified for enlistment in every way except physical fitness?  Tell these young men and young women that if they join, the Army will first send them to special training which will, to put it simply, feed them right and sweat them down until they become qualified to enter regular initial entry training. How about a recruiting video which includes pictures of kids who were 40-50 pounds overweight when they came in and looked perfectly fit, all of that pudge gone, when they finished basic training — or better still, doing a variety of things that soldiers in units do?

Second, how about fully funding Junior (high school) ROTC? Any high school that wants and is willing to support a JROTC unit should get one. It isn’t that the Army isn’t supportive of JROTC right now — it doesn’t have the money to accept all offers to establish one. One of the biggest factors in recruiting is just putting the idea into the student’s head that the military exists as an option, and it is clear that JROTC cadets/midshipmen indeed go on to affiliate one way or another with the armed forces more than their counterparts who aren’t in JROTC. Much of this, of course, is self-selection — but the option should be available to all who want it. I emphasize that I would in no way change the substance of the program at schools — no obligation therefrom, and no harder sell. I’d also expand existing summer programs for JROTC students. How about giving them four or six or eight weeks at a military installation rather than one or two? And furthermore, how about doing what our British brethren do with their equivalents, which is, when they go to military bases, letting them fire weapons, wear standard uniforms for the field, and the like?

Third, why not create the equivalent of the Citizens’ Military Training Camps of the 1920s and 1930s, in which young — or fairly young — people, say ages 18-30, could receive one or two or even three months of paid military training in the summer months (on the assumption that most would be students of one form or another), with the aim of acquainting young people with military life, perhaps allowing successful completion of the courses to provide some kind of additional credit if the person does enlist?

Would all this cost money? Of course. But I have no doubt that when costed out, the amount involved would be quite small compared to what the services put out for all kinds of weapon systems. To do this, though, the services would have to stop treating recruiting as a distinct and compartmentalized area of their operations and realize that they have to be much more proactive in bringing their existence and messages to the nation as a whole. The Army would have to realize that its people are every bit as much an “investment” as are the so-called “investment” accounts of the defense budget — procurement and research and development. One way to start would be for the Army to do what the Marine Corps does, which is assign their best officers and NCOs to recruiting duty.

There’s something else these initiatives would do. Some day — a year, ten years, 50 years from now — we’re going to have a really, really big mobilization to face a really, really big threat. Hundreds of thousands, then millions of recruits, brought in by the inevitable draft, will be pouring into training bases all over the country. The broader the recruiting base for our current all-volunteer force, the better understanding our career officers and NCOs will have of the great mass of people that a total mobilization will put into uniform. Right now, as far as I can tell, nobody in the Army is thinking about how to manage a total mobilization — unlike the interwar era, when it devoted a great deal of time to just that. It will come.

There are lots of young people who could make great soldiers if the Army gave them an initial push. Let’s go out and get some of them. It’d be good for the Army now, good for the country, and good for the massive Army that sooner or later we’ll have to recruit and train and throw into a very, very big war.

Robert Goldich retired as the senior military manpower analyst with the Congressional Research Service in 2005. Since then he has been researching and writing a book on conscription in history from the first human civilizations to the present.

Hey, Dot, got a thought? — about how to improve the U.S. military personnel system? Please consider sending it to the blog e-mail address, with PERSONNEL in the subject line.

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Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. @tomricks1

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