War Stories

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The Army says it exceeded its 2009 recruiting goals. But the numbers are very fishy.

A U.S. Army recruiter talks to a young man

The Pentagon boasted this week that the U.S. armed forces have exceeded their recruitment goals for this year. Some officials attributed the success to high unemployment in the civilian job market, others to a spurt in civic-mindedness.

Whatever the theory, many reporters assumed the numbers mean that more young men and women are joining the military.

In fact, however, fewer people joined the Army this year than last year. The Army exceeded its recruitment goals not because recruitment went up but rather because recruitment goals were lowered.

The Army is the service that has been having the hardest time finding new recruits in recent years, in part because it has borne the heaviest burden—and suffered by far the most casualties—in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

According to the Pentagon’s report,   the Army’s goal for fiscal year 2009 was to sign 65,000 new recruits. It actually signed 70,045—amounting to 8 percent more than the target.

But the picture is less bright than it seems. Though the Pentagon’s report doesn’t mention this fact, in each of the previous two years, the Army’s recruitment goal was 80,000—much higher than this year’s. The Army met those targets, but only by drastically lowering its standards—accepting more applicants who’d dropped out of high school or flunked the military’s aptitude test.

This year, the recruiters restored the old standards—a very good thing for troops’ morale and military effectiveness—but they signed up 10,000 fewer new soldiers.

It is, in other words, not the case that high unemployment or a new public spirit is leading more young men and women into the Army. It’s not the case that more young men and women are going into the Army at all.

There are two scenarios under which it might make sense for the Army to lower its recruitment goal. (The Air Force, Navy, and Marines kept their goals about the same, and met them; even in recent years, those services haven’t had much problem keeping the ranks filled.) First, Congress or the secretary of defense might have authorized a lower “end-strength”—that is, a smaller Army overall. If fewer troops were needed, then fewer recruits would be needed as well. In fact, however, Secretary Robert Gates ordered an increase in the size of the Army, and Congress went along.

Second, the Army might be doing better at the retention of troops. If more active-duty soldiers were re-enlisting when their tours of duty run out, then the Army could get by recruiting fewer new soldiers. When I asked several Army officials why the recruitment goal was reduced, better retention was the answer they gave me. The retention goal for FY 2009, they told me, was 55,000—and actual re-enlistments totaled more than 68,000.

At first glance, this seemed to explain everything. The Army was able to hang on to 13,000 more soldiers than it had expected. So it made sense that it lowered the recruitment goal by 15,000.

On second glance, this logic fell apart. A look through old reports revealed that the Army’s FY 2008 retention goal was 65,000—and 72,000 soldiers actually re-enlisted. The year before that, the goal was 62,000—and 69,000 soldiers signed up for another term.

In other words, the Army this year lowered not only the recruitment goal but the retention goal too, from 65,000 in 2008 to 55,000 in 2009. And it actually held on to fewer soldiers than it did in either of the last two years (68,000 in 2009, compared with 72,000 in 2008 and 69,000 in 2007).

So here is the situation. The secretary of defense ordered, and Congress authorized, an expansion in the size of the Army. But the Army reduced the recruitment goal—and reduced the retention goal. The size of the Army is in fact shrinking. It may look as if it’s growing—the Pentagon report gives the impression it’s growing—but it’s growing only in comparison with the officially set goals. What the report leaves out is that those goals have been lowered, in some cases dramatically. Is the Army engaging in deliberate deception? Did someone lower the goals so that it looked like the Army was doing much better, when it was really doing a little worse?

An Army spokesman claimed in an e-mail this morning that the retention goal was lowered because of budget limitations.

Back in the 1980s, when I was a defense reporter for the Boston Globe, Ronald Reagan’s defense secretary, Caspar Weinberger, actually did this. The military fell short of the recruitment goal one year, so Weinberger (or perhaps an assistant secretary) simply lowered the goal and declared success. (A former official in the Army’s recruitment command, who still works in the Defense Department, confirmed my memory of this incident.)

I’m not saying that someone in the Army today is pulling this same stunt. But something odd is going on, and the powers that be in the Pentagon and Congress might want to start asking questions.