The Pentagon’s announcement that all military branches reached or exceeded their active-duty recruiting goals for fiscal year 2006 grabbed plenty of headlines. Small wonder. After all, it flouts the conventional wisdom that our military is mired in an unpopular war. Recruiters must be looking under rocks and bending standards to fill the ranks, right?
Wrong. Indeed, a study we conducted of the recruiting classes for all military branches in 1999 and from 2003 through 2005 puts the lie to the crass assumption that the United States is fielding a low-quality military.
A common misperception is that the ranks are increasingly filled with relatively uneducated young men and women from low-income households. Yet this myth doesn’t hold up under inspection.
Our study analyzed demographic data on every single enlistee, not just a sample, and found that in terms of education, last year’s recruits were just as qualified as those of any recent year, and maybe the best ever. Over all, wartime recruits since 1999 are in many respects comparable to the youth population on the whole, except that they are on average a bit wealthier, much more likely to have graduated from high school and more rural than their civilian peers.
As for the idea that the military poaches from poor families, the fact is that, as the conflict in Iraq continues, youths from wealthy American ZIP codes are volunteering in ever higher numbers. Additionally, enlistees from the poorest fifth of American neighborhoods fell nearly a full percentage point over the last two years, to 13.7 percent. In 1999, that number was exactly 18 percent.
Yes, the Army has changed its standards — for example, our study found that 4.4 percent of Army recruits received Category 4 scores (the lowest ranking) on the Armed Forces Qualifying Test. This is up from 2 percent in previous years, and has been widely touted as evidence of decline. Yet we also found that the percentage of enlistees with Category 1 scores, the highest level, is rising.
More important than enlistee test scores is a comparison of military volunteers to their civilian peers. And here there is no contest. Counting enlisted troops only, 29 of 30 have a high school diploma, compared to about 4 out of 5 civilians. And the typical enlistee reads at a level roughly a full grade higher than other young American adults.
Critics have also focused on the fact that age limits on recruits have been raised — the Army’s old threshold of 35 has been changed to 42 for active-duty troops and to 40 for reserves. But this was simply an acknowledgment of reality: older recruits today are much healthier on average than in previous generations.
We also looked at a much-noted curiosity: Why were the years 1999 and 2004 harder for recruiting than the others in our study? The answer, most experts agree, is a strong economy. Indeed, the Pentagon always faces a challenge enlisting young people when jobs are plentiful. Thus the Army is crediting its current recruiting success, in part, to significant cash bonuses and other financial perks. And that’s the way it should be: using market incentives for volunteers, not a draft of the less fortunate.
While achieving last year’s recruiting goals is a success, there is some cause for concern regarding future recruitment and retention efforts — particularly in the National Guard and Reserves — if military spending over all isn’t increased. We feel that the Army’s 2008 budget proposal is $20 billion or more below what it should be.
During a time of war abroad and prosperity at home, tens of thousands of young Americans remain willing to make real sacrifices for the rest of us. Congress and the Pentagon should not shortchange them on pay and benefits. The soldiers themselves might appreciate getting paid more of one other thing: Respect, both for their intelligence and their decision to serve.
First appeared in The New York Times