Scraping the bottom

November 09, 2005

Army officials call them Category 4's, low-aptitude recruits unsuitable for any but the most menial jobs performed with plenty of supervision.

These unsophisticated and generally unmotivated soldiers made up about half of all recruits when the volunteer Army was created during the 1970s. Military life was so unpopular in the wake of the Vietnam War that young people with other options stayed away in droves.

Now the Iraq war is forcing the Army to scrape the bottom of the barrel again. The Sun's Tom Bowman reports that reform efforts of nearly three decades emphasizing quality over quantity are being reversed in a desperate bid to fill the ranks of a badly overstretched force.

This shortsighted tactic is doomed to be counterproductive. It will further degrade America's ground force and make Army life even more unattractive to talented recruits. Worse, it is dangerous. In this high-tech age, military service requires more skill and intelligence than ever. On the streets of Baghdad, where U.S. soldiers function as police officers, lives depend far more on sound judgment than a strong back.

If President Bush is determined to leave U.S. troops in Iraq indefinitely, he has an obligation to them and to the rest of the nation to make sure they are up to their very difficult jobs. Lowering the quality bar is no solution.

From 1990 to last year, Category 4's made up 2 percent or fewer of Army recruits, totaling just 0.6 percent in 2004. But the proportion rose to 4 percent for fiscal 2005, which ended Sept. 30, and soared to 12 percent of the recruits signed up in October.

National Guard officials have adopted a similar policy. Six percent of those recruited into the Guard in October came from the lowest-scoring category on the military aptitude test.

Those proportions could decline as the fiscal year rolls on. But that doesn't seem likely given increasing frustration among Americans about the incompetence with which the Iraq war is being conducted.

Options for attracting a higher-quality recruit include incentives for college graduates, such as cutting the three-year enlistment period by half, and drawing more deeply from the growing immigrant population by easing the path to citizenship.

Military service might also become more appealing if a substantial number of troops are withdrawn from Iraq before the congressional elections next year, as some expect.

By whatever method, Mr. Bush and Congress have a vital responsibility to maintain a high-quality military, large enough and smart enough to deal with the dangers awaiting the nation in years ahead.

If even a small percentage of soldiers aren't capable of repairing a truck, treating a wound or managing a crowd panicked by a flu pandemic, they don't belong in uniform.

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