The Big Five

W. Thomas Smith, Jr
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Posted: Apr 12, 2006 2:12 PM

Myths abound when it comes to military personnel in the modern American armed forces. Most are in some way related to recruiting new soldiers, and who’s fighting and who’s dying.

Five of the biggest myths include:

1) The U.S. Defense Department is unable to recruit enough military personnel to defend the country and its interests abroad.

2) Critical combat arms units are not being filled.

3) The military will accept any warm body and any dull brain it can get its hands on.

4) American minorities (and those from lower income urban areas) are suffering disproportionately higher losses on the battlefield.

5) Female soldiers are fighting in offensive ground combat operations.

All are myths perpetuated by those opposed to our efforts in Iraq, who are opposed to the current administration and the U.S. Department of Defense, who are pulling the race card (for whatever reason), or who would simply prefer to use the military for social engineering purposes rather than for what it is designed to do.

Now, let me qualify what I am about to say.

Anyone – white, black, male, female – wearing the uniform of the United States armed forces, whether they are serving in a support capacity or as a member of a combat arms unit, is first and foremost a soldier, sailor, airman, or Marine. They are serving honorably, in a noble cause. They deserve the unwavering respect, gratitude, and support of the American people. And they are all at risk in a war with few discernible front lines.

But let’s look at the myths that are being perpetuated by extremely vocal outsiders who often go unchallenged.

BY THE NUMBERS

First, there is the myth that recruiting is down, or as many opponents of the war in Iraq like to say, “Bush can’t find enough high school grads to send to Iraq.”

Fact is, recruiting is up. If we look at four of the past five years, the Army – which usually struggles more than the other services in terms of recruiting – has met and exceeded its goals for active-duty recruits.

But that fact is often ignored because it runs counter to the myth that young Americans, who might have considered military service as a viable career option, are avoiding service like the proverbial plague.

During a conversation last fall with J.E. McNeil, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Center on Conscience & War (an organization that “defends the rights of conscientious objectors”), she warned me not to feed into what she referred to as the Army’s trumpetry. “I haven’t looked at the numbers this time around, but I do know that [earlier in 2005] when the Army did not make its goal, they lowered goal numbers in order to make goal,” McNeil said.

The Army’s actual numbers tell a different story.

For fiscal year 2004, the Army’s recruiting goal for active duty recruits was 77,000. That number was met and exceeded by nearly 600.

The Army’s active duty goal for 2005 was then upped to 80,000 – an increase of 3,000 over the previous year’s goal. And with 73,373 new recruits for 2005 – granted, less than 2004 and 92 percent of 2005 – the actual numbers were still high, and no one was lowering numbers to try and make goal.

During that same reporting period, the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps met or exceeded their annual recruiting goals, as they have done for every year since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

Now, let’s look at the Defense Department’s latest active-duty numbers, released Monday: The Army achieved 104 percent of its recruiting goal for March. The Air Force and Navy both achieved 100. The Marine Corps achieved 102. Retention goals for the current fiscal year also are on track to be met, and four of the six Reserve components met or exceeded goal in March.

THE CRITICAL COMBAT ARMS

Numbers don’t lie. But, I’ve learned that whenever members of the cut-and-run crowd find themselves against the ropes – shrieking that recruiting numbers are down until they are confronted by someone who actually knows numbers are up – they resort to the argument that the military can no longer recruit for critical combat arms jobs.

A recent AP story, for example, painted a bleak picture of the dearth of explosive ordinance disposal teams – the guys who go out and defuse roadside bombs. True: There are not as many “blaster teams” as we currently need. Dynamics change. And that same argument could be used in regards to needing better armored vehicles than the current up-armored Humvees we now have in Iraq. But no one knows going into the fight what new systems or types of soldiers will be needed. No one knows until the shooting starts and the after-action reports begin rolling in. Then the catch-up game begins. It may take months, unfortunately even years. It’s the nature of conceptualizing, development, experimentation, contracting, testing, changing environments, retesting, training, shipping, etc.

It’s been that way in every war throughout history. Armies and navies that march and sail to war are initially manned, trained, equipped, and arrayed to fight the previous war.

But if anyone is going to contend in a broad sense that we cannot find enough good people to staff the critical combat arms needs, how are they able to explain away the always combat-ready fighters of the U.S. Marine Corps? The Corps is the smallest branch of the four traditional services. It has the fewest resources. It is almost always first to fight in the most dangerous places. Its casualty numbers in relation to the actual number of Marines on the ground are almost always higher than the other branches. Yet the Corps consistently exceeds its recruiting goals, year after year.

Moreover, the Marines have recently launched a 2,600-man special operations force that currently deployed Marines – and leatherneck hopefuls still in boot camp – are clambering to join.

There also is no scarcity of young men hoping to join elite special operations teams like the Navy SEALs and Army Special Forces. The problem is most young men can’t complete the rigorous training. You can’t just give a young sailor a scuba tank, throw him in the pool, and call him a SEAL. You can’t run a soldier through a ropes course and christen him a Ranger. And, in the same vein, you cannot give a rifleman a pair of wire-cutters and dub him an expert in defusing bombs.

BRAWN AND BRAINS

Then there is the myth that the U.S. armed forces are so desperate for warm bodies to fill their ranks, they’ll take any recruit despite his or her physical condition. But according to a Defense Department document, Who is Volunteering for Today's Military, “Nearly one half of American youth tend to be disqualified [from military service] for health-related reasons, with obesity as the leading cause.”

There also is a belief that today’s military recruits are somehow less educated or have inherently fewer cognitive abilities than their civilian counterparts. This argument might have been made with a few examples, 25 or 30 years ago: Not in the 21st century, where a young soldier has to be able to effectively operate his rifle, night-vision goggles, a computer, perhaps even a GPS receiver and a satellite phone all while under great physical and emotional stress.

Additionally, between 93 and 95 percent of current recruits have high school diplomas, compared to 75 percent of their civilian counterparts. And according to numbers released by the Defense Department, “Nearly two-thirds of today’s recruits are drawn from the top-half of America in math and verbal aptitudes.” Soldiers in the modern American Army have to think. They are all taught to lead, to operate independently – if separated from their units – and to think outside of the box, using methods of deductive and inductive reasoning.

THE MINORITY REPORT

We all heard the claims in the months running up to the Iraq war that African Americans, the poor, and those who hail from America’s urban centers would be fighting and dying in disproportionately higher numbers than wealthier white Americans from the middle and upper classes. In some circles, that myth continues to be perpetuated, when in fact, according to Who is Volunteering for Today's Military, “Urban areas are actually underrepresented among new recruits. Suburban and rural areas are overrepresented.”

Moreover, jobs volunteered for in the military often determine which ethnic and racial groups (as a whole) will bear the brunt of the fighting, and consequently which groups will suffer the greatest number of losses percentage-wise.

Fact is, African American military personnel, representing approximately 17 percent of the overall force, have suffered 11 percent of those killed in Iraq (through last November). White Americans, comprising 67 percent of the overall force, have suffered 74 percent of all deaths. And Hispanic Americans, comprising nine percent of the overall force, have suffered 11 percent of all deaths. The high percentages of white and Hispanic casualties stems from the fact that both groups, for whatever reasons, overwhelmingly join frontline combat infantry and special operations forces.

“This pattern results from occupational choices young people make,” according to the document. “For example, African American youth choose to serve in support occupations such as the health care field, which tend to feature valuable job training over bonuses or education incentives. These are the choices young volunteers make.”

G.I. JANES

Then there is the myth of G.I. Jane: The belief in some circles that female soldiers are fighting on the front lines and in offensive actions. Granted, the lines are certainly blurred in the global war on terror. Some women are flying aircraft in combat operations, and some women on the ground have had to fire their weapons in self defense or defense of others, particularly those who serve in military police units. But to suggest that females are fighting on a numerical – or an offensive-combat – par with their male counterparts is just factually untrue.

Politicians like to refer to soldiers as “our men and women fighting in Iraq,” because it sounds fair, inclusive, and equally opportunistic. But the reality is very few women are fighting at all. By far most females who have been killed or wounded, have been the victims of ambush.

Women are not kicking in doors and fighting house-to-house with the Marines in the Al Anbar province. Women don’t suit up and go out on special operations. They don’t storm terrorist strongholds. They don’t go out on combat infantry patrols. Nor should they according to Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness (CMR).

“Women have always served in the armed forces with courage and distinction,” Donnelly writes in a column for CMR. “But there is no military necessity to send young women and mothers to fight in close combat areas where they do not have an equal opportunity to survive, or to help fellow soldiers survive.”

But those who disagree with Donnelly seem to look for any opportunity to perpetuate the myth of women as warriors.

Jessica Lynch – who in fact became a media darling and the pretty face of the new American Army after her rescue by U.S. forces – was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time when she was captured by the enemy in 2003. The media made her out to be some sort of hero (“heroine” is no longer politically correct) when in fact the real heroes were the nameless, faceless American commandos who snatched her from the bad guys.

Donnelly adds, “The flimsiest argument for women in land combat is the notion that such a policy will improve recruiting. If that were the case, Army officials would have secured official approval for such a plan long ago and advertised the new policy on the Super Bowl.”

OTHER MYTHS

Despite projected retention goals being met for Fiscal Year 2006, an article in The New York Times on Monday led with, “Young Army officers, including growing numbers of captains who leave as soon as their initial commitment is fulfilled, are bailing out of active-duty service at rates that have alarmed senior officers.” The article goes on to talk about “worsening numbers.”

Those opposed to our efforts in Iraq are having great fun talking about what the first few grafs of the story say. What they skirt are the hard facts, several grafs down into the piece, that mention 9.3 percent of the Army’s young officers were opting out in 2001 before the 9/11 terrorist attacks. That number decreased after the attacks (the result of a burst of “patriotic fervor”). Now it has inched back up – naturally the prospect of hard, multiple deployments will do that - to 8.6 percent in 2005, but still fewer opt-outs than in 2001.

Moreover, when West Point recently offered graduate schooling as an incentive to remain in uniform for its Class of 2006, cadets jumped at the opportunity. It’s all about career options, and of course a need for additional schooling in a high-tech world.

“It is an amazing response,” West Point superintendent Lt. Gen. William J. Lennox Jr. told the Times, “It has exceeded how I thought the class would respond.”

You can be sure the mythmakers won’t be talking about that.