War Stories

The Bonus Army

The creeping monetization of military service.

The U.S. Army is having such a hard time recruiting new soldiers that it is about to offer a truly breathtaking incentive to high-school graduates who sign up—a $40,000 signing bonus, to be applied to buying a home or starting a business after their service is complete.

This comes on top of standard-dipping measures that the Army has recently had to take to meet its enlistment targets—accepting more dropouts, more criminals, and more people who score poorly on aptitude tests.

The latest lure is no less disturbing, for at least three reasons.

First, at a time when the Army is trying to expand its ranks for the long haul (Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has authorized the recruitment of 65,000 more troops in the next several years), this bonus is likely to attract—or, in any event, produce—short-timers. Since the cash is handed over only after the recruits finish their service, they will have an incentive not to re-enlist for a second term, much less to make a career of the military.

Second, it may work against another set of incentives to retain junior officers, who are leaving the service in droves. The Army recently offered a $30,000 bonus for captains who re-enlist. Some have found it alluring, but now they’re likely to be peeved that the Army’s giving mere recruits even more.

Here’s what “Kip,” one of the bloggers on the lively Abu Muqawama Web site (and an Army captain who has served in Iraq and Afghanistan), wrote on Feb. 14 about the news of the enlistment bonus:

And a Big US Army Middle Finger to all the CaptainsYou reading this? You a US Army captain? You wonder what your worth to the Army? Well, less than a private… How’s $30,000 of indentured servitude feel now? ([O]r perhaps you opted for some non-guaranteed grad school between your 8th and 11th year of service for which you could pay back an additional service obligation of 3 years per year AFTER you complete school.)

Are we about to witness an arms race of bonuses among the ranks or, short of that, another wave of exits from the likes of Kip?

Third, there is a deeper danger in the growing monetization of military service. Yes, an all-volunteer force must be paid well, especially when serving involves not merely “learning a career” and being “all you can be” (as the pre-9/11 recruitment ads put it) but also killing and maybe dying in battle. But every good junior officer I’ve ever met gets very uncomfortable when the discussion turns to this topic; they emphasize, sincerely I think, that they’re not in the military for the money; that fair compensation is appreciated, but they could make a lot more as a civilian if that was their goal. Putting so much emphasis on cash bonuses tends to draw people whose primary aim is making money—and who aren’t talented enough to make the same kind of money in the civilian world.

The fundamental problem here is that the Army is in bad shape—and is going to stay in bad shape until we pull a lot of troops out of Iraq.

In late November, Secretary Gates traveled to Fort Hood, Texas, to meet with soldiers and spouses about the future of Iraq. (I traveled with him as part of a profile that I was writing for the New York Times Magazine.) The night before the meetings, at a dinner of the Killeen, Texas, Chamber of Commerce, he said, “The people who encourage young people to go into the military are less positive than they used to be. That includes the dads, who have been the foundation for recruitment. Until we reach the point where joining the Army doesn’t mean an automatic assignment to Iraq, we’ll have a challenge.”

This is why Gates and many senior military officers would like to continue withdrawing troops from Iraq after this July, when the five combat brigades that formed the “surge” are scheduled to leave. They fear that, unless the withdrawal continues (slowly, gradually), the Army might fall apart because more soldiers will leave and fewer new ones will take their place.

But here’s the problem: A week after Gates’ trip to Texas, he traveled to Iraq, where U.S. commanders told him that they could draw down another five brigades by the end of 2008, leaving 10 brigades in all—if that’s the order, they could do that—but, they added, don’t ask us to secure the Iraqi population with such a small force, and the Iraqi military isn’t ready to take our place.

And so, earlier this month, Gates announced—reluctantly—that there would be a “pause” in troop reductions from Iraq after July. And, though he didn’t say so, this means that the Army’s recruitment problems—and the dads’ dismay—will intensify.

This is no doubt one reason the Army is stringing out the $40,000 sign-up bonus. It’s debatable which scenario would wreak more damage: that a lot of young men and women who previously had no interest in the Army sign up—or that, despite the enticement, not enough of them do.