America's recruiting dilemma

Robert Novak
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Posted: May 27, 2005 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- Retired Army Lt. Col. Charles Krohn got himself in trouble with his superiors as a Pentagon civilian public affairs official during the first three and one-half years of the Bush administration by telling the truth. He is still at it in private life. He says not to blame the military recruiters for the current recruiting "scandal." Blame the war.
 
"Army recruiting is in a death spiral, through no fault of the Army," Krohn told me. Always defending uniformed personnel, he resents hard-pressed recruiters being attacked for offering unauthorized benefits to make quotas. In a recent e-mail sent to friends (mostly retired military), Krohn complained that the "Army is having to compensate for a problem of national scope."

 The Army's dilemma is maintaining an all-volunteer service when volunteering means going in harm's way in Iraq. The dilemma extends to national policy. How can the United States maintain its global credibility against the Islamists, if military ranks cannot be filled by volunteers and there is no public will for a draft?

 Krohn's e-mail describes the problem: "Consider the implications of being unable to find sufficient volunteers, as seen by our adversaries. Has the United States lost its will to survive? What's happened to the Great Satan when so few are willing to fight to defend the country? Surely bin Laden et al are making this argument, telling supporters victory is just around the corner if they are a bit more patient. And if they're successful, the energy sources in the Mideast may be within their grasp."

 Krohn says this reality is accepted by recipients of his message. It also meets agreement from active duty officers I have contacted but who cannot speak publicly. They ponder how an all-volunteer force can be maintained when generals say there is no end in sight for U.S. troops facing an increasingly sophisticated insurgency.

 Krohn's message goes on to say that "the recruiting problem is an unintended consequence of a prolonged war in Iraq, especially given the failure to find WMD [weapons of mass destruction]." He therefore calls for a "national consensus to address the root causes" of the recruiting problem -- that is, the war in Iraq.

 But the focus at the Defense Department has been on the excesses of desperate recruiters, 37 of whom reflected their frustration in trying to meet quotas by going AWOL over the last two and one-half years. The official response was a 24-hour stand-down in recruiting to review proper procedures. It also has been proposed that enlistments, now usually three to four years with a minimum of 24 months, be cut to 15 months.

 The recruiting guru Charles Moskos, professor emeritus at Northwestern University who once suggested an 18-month tour, now says shorter enlistment will not help. He proposes restoring the draft, but that is a political non-starter. Democratic Rep. Charles Rangel, who as a drafted soldier won the Bronze Star in Korea, is one of the very few members of Congress who advocate the draft. He does not hide his motive: a president would be politically unable to take a conscript army into wars such as Iraq.

 In contrast, Krohn is a lifelong Republican who actively supported George W. Bush's presidential candidacy in 2000. He specified in his e-mail that "I'm not now blaming" President Bush or Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld for the situation. "We have a problem that transcends politics," Krohn added.

 The current Iraq war is America's first prolonged conflict fought entirely with volunteers. It is a more professional and in every way a better army than the conscript army of Korean War vintage in which I served, or the conscript army that fought in Vietnam for seven years. The problem was signaled when the 9/11 attack on America did not generate the enlistments expected. Three and one-half years later, willingness to face personal peril in Iraq has faded.

 That means the problem goes beyond mechanics of recruiting and the details of volunteer service and is found in the war itself. Paraphrasing Rumsfelds' comment about going into battle with the Army we had, Charles Krohn said: "The war we have now is not the war we started off with. It's much more serious."