War Stories

Dumb and Dumber

The U.S. Army lowers recruitment standards … again.

Army soldiers in Iraq

The Army is lowering recruitment standards to levels not seen in at least two decades, and the implications are severe—not only for the future of the Army, but also for the direction of U.S. foreign policy.

The latest statistics—compiled by the Defense Department. and obtained through the Freedom of Information Act by the Boston-based National Priorities Project—are grim. They show that the percentage of new Army recruits with high-school diplomas has plunged from 94 percent in 2003 to 83.5 percent in 2005 to 70.7 percent in 2007. (The Pentagon’s longstanding goal is 90 percent.)

The percentage of what the Army calls “high-quality” recruits—those who have high-school diplomas and who score in the upper 50th percentile on the Armed Forces’ aptitude tests—has declined from 56.2 percent in 2005 to 44.6 percent in 2007.

In order to meet recruitment targets, the Army has even had to scour the bottom of the barrel. There used to be a regulation that no more than 2 percent of all recruits could be “Category IV”—defined as applicants who score in the 10th to 30th percentile on the aptitude tests. In 2004, just 0.6 percent of new soldiers scored so low. In 2005, as the Army had a hard time recruiting, the cap was raised to 4 percent. And in 2007, according to the new data, the Army exceeded even that limit—4.1 percent of new recruits last year were Cat IVs.

These trends are worrisome in at least four ways.

First, and most broadly, it’s not a good idea—for a host of social, political, and moral reasons—to place the burdens of national defense so disproportionately on the most downtrodden citizens.

Second, and more practically, high-school dropouts tend to drop out of the military, too. The National Priorities Project cites Army studies finding that 80 percent of high-school graduates finish their first terms of enlistment in the Army—compared with only about half of those with a General Equivalency Degree or no diploma. In other words, taking in more dropouts is a short-sighted method of boosting recruitment numbers. The Army will just have to recruit even more young men and women in the next couple of years, because a lot of the ones they recruited last year will need to be replaced.

Third, a dumber army is a weaker army. A study by the RAND Corporation, commissioned by the Pentagon and published in 2005, evaluated several factors that affect military performance—experience, training, aptitude, and so forth—and found that aptitude is key. This was true even of basic combat skills, such as shooting straight. Replacing a tank gunner who had scored Category IV with one who’d scored Category IIIA (in the 50th to 64th percentile) improved the chances of hitting a target by 34 percent.

Today’s Army, of course, is much more high-tech, from top to bottom. The problem is that when tasks get more technical, aptitude makes an even bigger difference. In one Army study cited by the RAND report, three-man teams from the Army’s active-duty signal battalions were told to make a communications system operational. Teams consisting of Category IIIA personnel had a 67 percent chance of succeeding. Teams with Category IIIB soldiers (who had ranked in the 31st to 49th percentile) had a 47 percent chance. Those with Category IVs had only a 29 percent chance. The study also showed that adding a high-scoring soldier to a three-man team increased its chance of success by 8 percent. (This also means that adding a low-scoring soldier to a team reduces its chance by a similar margin.)

Fourth, today’s Army needs particularly bright soldiers—and it needs, even more, to weed out particularly dim ones—given the direction that at least some of its senior officers want it to take. When the Army was geared to fight large-scaled battles against enemies of comparable strength, imaginative thinking wasn’t much required except at a command level. However, now that it’s focusing on “asymmetric warfare,” especially counterinsurgency campaigns, such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan, the requirements are different. The crucial engagements—in many ways, the crucial decisions—take place in the streets, door to door, not by armored divisions or brigades but by infantry companies and squads. And when the targets include hearts and minds, every soldier’s judgment and actions have an impact.

The Army’s 2006 field manual on counterinsurgency, which was supervised by Gen. David Petraeus (who is now trying to put its principles into action as U.S. commander in Iraq), emphasized that successful counterinsurgency operations “require Soldiers and Marines at every echelon to possess the following”—and then the authors recite a daunting list of prerequisites, including a “clear, nuanced, and empathetic appreciation of the essential nature of the conflict,” an “understanding of the motivation, strengths, and weaknesses of the insurgent,” rudimentary knowledge of the local culture, and several other admirable qualities.

Some of the officers and outside specialists who helped Petraeus write the field manual expressed concerns to me, at the time, that the Army—which was just beginning to lower its standards—might not be up to the demands of this kind of warfare. Given that standards have dipped quite dramatically since—and add to that the problems the Army has had in retaining its most talented junior officers—the concerns now must be graver.

It’s well-known that the Army might not have enough combat troops to conduct sustained counterinsurgency campaigns. Now it seems the problem may soon be about quality as well as quantity (brains as well as boots).

The main reason for the decline in standards is the war in Iraq and its onerous “operations tempo”—soldiers going back for third and fourth tours of duty, with no end in sight. This is well understood among senior officers, and it’s a major reason why several Army generals favor a faster withdrawal rate. They worry that fewer young men and women—and now it seems fewer smart young men and women—will sign up if doing so means a guaranteed assignment to Iraq. They worry that, if these trends continue, the Army itself will start to crumble.

So, there’s a double spiral in effect. The war keeps more good soldiers from enlisting. The lack of good candidates compels the Army to recruit more bad candidates. The swelling ranks of ill-suited soldiers make it harder to fight these kinds of wars effectively.

Petraeus and officers who think like him are right: We’re probably not going to be fighting on the ground, toe-to-toe and tank-to-tank, with the Russian, Chinese, or North Korean armies in the foreseeable future. Yet if the trends continue, our Army might be getting less and less skilled at the “small wars” we’re more likely to fight.

So, we’re facing two choices. Either we change the way we recruit soldiers (and, by the way, cash bonuses are already about as bountiful as they’re going to get), or we change the way we conduct foreign policy—that is, we engage more actively in diplomacy or, if war is unavoidable, we form genuine coalitions to help fight it. Otherwise, unless our most dire and direct interests are at stake, we should forget about fighting at all.