Supporters of larger military push incentives, not a draft

As Bush calls for more troops, critics say standards have been lowered

December 25, 2006|By Julian E. Barnes and Peter Spiegel

WASHINGTON -- President Bush's call to build up the size of the Army and Marine Corps confronts the U.S. military with a sizable and potentially costly challenge, especially given its recent history of war-related recruiting problems. But one solution remains firmly off the table: reinstituting a draft.

Bush last week endorsed proposals to increase the size of the Army and Marine Corps. The proposals have wide support, from those who advocate a short-term boost in the number of troops in Iraq to those who say a larger overall force will be needed even if troops are moved out of Iraq.

By boosting incentives and bonus money, adding recruiters and continuing to increase the military advertising budget, the Army should be able to sign up an added 10,000 people a year within the current all-volunteer system, according to many military experts. But they say that such an increase would be costly. An additional 10,000 soldiers would cost at least $1.2 billion more per year.

"We've been at it for 30-plus years," said Theodore G. Stroup Jr., a retired lieutenant general and former head of the Army personnel system. "We do not want to go back to a draft."

Supporters of the volunteer force say it is of much higher quality than that of the draft era, which ended in 1973. But critics suggest that the Army has lowered its standards to meet current recruiting goals and would have to lower them even more to meet a larger goal.

Since the beginning of the Iraq war, the percentage of recruits with high school diplomas has fallen sharply, according to a new study by the National Priorities Project, a research group in Massachusetts. The percentage of soldiers with a graduate equivalency degree - as opposed to a high school diploma - rose from 13.1 percent in 2004 to 26.7 percent in 2006, according to the study, which is based on Army documents.

"Someone holding a regular high school diploma may still have more options than someone holding some alternative credential," said Anita Dancs, the research director for the project.

Current and former defense officials deny that changes in recruitment standards have adversely affected quality.

"The quality of the force is outstanding," said Bernard Rostker, a former undersecretary of defense and one-time head of the Selective Service system. "There are plenty of people who we don't take today who are quite adequate to do the jobs we need."

Although top generals were reluctant to give up the draft in the 1970s and move to the all-volunteer force, most in the military today believe that a reinstatement of conscription would reduce the professionalism and experience of the force.

Iraq is the longest war the all-volunteer Army has had to fight, and the demands of the yearlong rotations in and out of Iraq are straining the military and its sprawling recruiting system.

Bush voiced support for calls to increase the size of the Army and Marines but did not specify how large an increase he wants over the 507,000 now serving. The Association of the U.S. Army, the service's influential advocacy group, has proposed an increase of 100,000. Other proposals call for increases of 20,000 to 30,000.

After struggling in 2004, the Army missed its recruiting target in 2005. To meet its recruiting goal of 80,000 new soldiers this year, the Army was forced to loosen rules for those it is willing to accept. Commanders have allowed an increase in the number of so-called Category 4 recruits, enlistees who score the lowest on aptitude tests, and have raised the enlistment age from 35 to 42.

According to Army data, the service also has issued more than 13,600 medical or "moral character" waivers to recruits this year, up more than 2,500 over last year. Waivers given to recruits who had engaged in "serious misconduct" in the past - crimes, repeated instances of substance abuse or misconduct involving weapons - went from 630 to 1,017, and those for recruits with misdemeanors on their records went from 4,587 to 6,542.

As recruiting problems have grown, so has the economic disparity within the military. According to the National Priorities Project, the number of recruits from wealthy neighborhoods continues to decline. Although wealthy Zip codes have long been underrepresented in the armed forces, the numbers dropped further still from 2004 to 2006, Dancs said.

Rep. Charles B. Rangel, a New York Democrat, incoming chairman of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee, has proposed a reinstitution of the draft, in part to address disparity concerns. And Veterans Affairs Secretary Jim Nicholson, a Vietnam War veteran, said Thursday that he thought "society would benefit" from a draft. Nicholson later issued a statement to say that he does not support reinstitution of the draft.

Julian E. Barnes and Peter Spiegel write for the Los Angeles Times.

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