Commentary

You and What Army?

Any remaining doubts about whether our current foreign policies are sustainable were demolished by the news that the Army has missed its recruiting goals for the fourth straight month. The Marine Corps has missed its goals for four out of the past five months. The National Guard and Army Reserve have been struggling with retention and recruiting problems for over a year. If the Bush administration and Congress do not fundamentally rethink their attitude toward the use of force abroad, then they will wreck the finest military in the history of mankind.

The U.S. military remains a fearsome adversary, eminently capable of defeating any force foolish enough to engage it on the battlefield. Our special forces and intelligence personnel are similarly able to hunt down shadowy terrorist groups outside of the bounds of conventional war. Policing foreign countries is another matter. These operations place a particularly onerous burden on our troops, and they fall well outside the realm of national security. As Condoleezza Rice noted in 2000: “Carrying out civil administration and police functions is simply going to degrade the American capability to do the things America has to do. We don't need to have the 82nd Airborne escorting kids to kindergarten.”

Indeed, we don't. The American public's reluctance to play the world's policeman reflects an accurate assessment of the high costs and dubious benefits of such operations. Many now question the presumption that we can increase our safety here in the United States by stationing our military in foreign lands. As we are learning in Iraq, and should have learned with earlier experiences in the Balkans, peacekeeping is often a thankless task because it engenders resentment among the very people we are trying to help. These pressures are driving the current recruitment crisis.

Expanding the military is no solution. Since neither the Army nor the Marines can meet the existing recruiting goals, even with record high incentives, how would raising those recruiting goals — which is what expanding the Army would mean — do anything to address the fact that young people are increasingly skeptical of signing up to support the current administration's foreign policy?

The Pentagon has experimented with various band-aids to cover the recruiting wound. Fearing the effects of the Afghanistan and Iraq deployments on the force, it began employing stop-loss orders to prevent some military personnel from leaving the service when their terms of enlistment expired. Other individuals who have completed their service obligations have been returned to active duty. These provisions are included in a service member's contract with the government, but have been invoked rarely since the all-volunteer force was created in 1973. Some military officials concede that their actions are “inconsistent with the fundamental principles of voluntary service.”

Stop-loss orders, or other similar measures, can only postpone a time of reckoning. The military cannot compel members to remain in the service forever. Military spouses can opt out of the system by divorce, and an alarming number have done so in the past few years. Meanwhile, new potential recruits, and their parents and spouses, are asking the inevitable question: “How long will I be expected to serve?” Honest recruiters tell them the truth: “It depends.”

A draft would succeed in getting bodies into uniforms, but conscription is morally reprehensible, strategically unsound, and politically unthinkable. The generals and colonels, but especially the junior officers and senior enlisted personnel who lead our armed forces, know that the military is uniquely capable because it is comprised of individuals who serve of their own free will.

The current crisis in manpower did not begin with the occupation of Iraq, but it was made worse by it. The handover of security responsibilities to the Iraqi government should continue, and the Bush administration needs to make firm its pledge to reduce and eliminate the military deployment in that country.

Going forward, if Americans undertake new military operations, we should do so with a clear understanding of the costs and risks. These costs and risks multiply if we leave our men and women in uniform in foreign lands for indefinite periods of time.

For over a decade, we have asked more and more from our soldiers. They have responded honorably. But they cannot be everywhere, and they cannot do everything. And when their time is up, we should not be surprised if they walk away. Neither should we be surprised if fewer and fewer Americans step forward to take their place. More troops is not the answer. A more judicious use of these troops is.

Christopher Preble is director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, and a founding member of the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy.