Recruit quality is important. Uneducated or incapable soldiers are less likely to do well operating high-tech equipment. And they're more likely to do stupid things, like beating up, robbing and raping civilians in U.S.-occupied territories.
The U.S. military is bigger than ever. But it's becoming dumber. It's also getting meaner: in 2008 one in five recruits received a "morals waiver" because they had a criminal record, including felonies. "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," reported Slate's Fred Kaplan in 2008.
As if that weren't bad enough, America's armed services are losing their smartest officers faster than ever. After graduating from West Point, cadets must serve five years. More high-caliber officers are choosing not to reenlist than at any time since the Vietnam War: 44 percent in 2006, up from 18 percent in 2003. Some analysts blame the endless wars against Iraq and Afghanistan.
There isn't much glory in shooting up buses and taxis at checkpoints in the hot dust of Central Asia and the Middle East. And it doesn't help that, yellow-ribbon magnets aside, the United States of America doesn't give a damn about its veterans. Whereas other countries treat their warriors like heroes, providing them with free housing and other benefits, the U.S. uses up and discards them like tissue paper. "Veterans make up almost a quarter of the homeless population in the United States," reports CNN. "The government says there are as many as 200,000 homeless veterans; the majority served in the Vietnam War. Some served in Korea or even World War II. About 2,000 served in Iraq or Afghanistan."
Higher salaries would increase the military's applicant pool and thus the quality and quantity of enlistees. But no one ever talks about the most obvious way to professionalize the U.S. military: treat servicemen and servicewomen like professionals.
Consider my experience.
Motivated by curiosity, contrarian rebellion and the loss of my full scholarship due to the Reagan budget cuts, I went down to my local Army recruiting station during the summer between my freshman and sophomore year of college. I thought perhaps there was some way to finance the remainder of my education by doing military service. The recruiter set up an appointment for me to take an aptitude test. Then the phone calls began. They were excited. Apparently I had gotten a perfect score. This didn't happen often.
Which didn't surprise me. Two things leapt out at me when I took the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery. First: it was appallingly easy. I was an AP student; I hadn't seen material so simple since elementary school. Second: the other guys taking the test were dolts. Where did they find such losers? Even my school's shop classes didn't feature such a sad collection of yahoos, misfits and morons.
Allowing for the obvious seduce-and-destroy tactics of Army recruiters, I did believe that they wanted me more than the average schlub who took the ASVAB. I was a straight-A student. All my test scores were in the top percentile, including a perfect score on the math SAT. I'd gotten into Columbia University's engineering program. I knew I was a catch.
I went in to talk.
One recruiter handed me a brochure. One of the photos showed a German village. "You'll probably be sent to Germany," he said. Probably.
"Can you put that in writing?"
Of course not. You go where they send you. That's the Army way. The military way. But look at it from the viewpoint of an 18-year-old. I had options! I could stay in school, take out student loans, earn a degree and get recruited by some deep-pocketed defense contractor. A deep-pocketed defense contractor that couldn't make me pack up and ship off to, say, Afghanistan or Iraq. A deep-pocketed defense contractor whose job I could quit just like that.
I was drawing cartoons and doing reporting for my campus newspaper.
"You'll almost certainly end up as a military journalist," the other recruiter said. "Stars and Stripes. Would you like that?"
Well, shucks and golly gee, why not? I'd be another Bill Mauldin! "Will you guarantee that?" I asked. Nope. You do what they assign you to do. Where they tell you to do it. For as long as they want you to do it.
"Can I put in a request for the kind of job I'd prefer?" I asked. "Or for where I'd like to be stationed?" There was a pause. The two men glanced at each other. I noticed a smirk, ever so slight, on one of their faces. As I knew it would be, the answer was a lie:
"Well, um, sure, I suppose we could submit your preferences," the liar-recruiter lied.
"No reason why not," the other one chimed in.
They only had one real carrot: the college tuition program. I was looking at paying $13,000 a year in tuition and fees. They were offering $4,000 a year for one term of enlistment. Actually, "up to $4,000." If the military wants to attract smart young men and women like I used to be, with high test scores and clean criminal records, they're going to have to start treating recruits like employees, not slaves or indentured servants. Fix enlistment terms, abolish both the current "stop-loss" rule scheduled to end next year and commit never to start a new one. Let people choose their jobs. (They can request one now. That's not enough.) Let people decide where they want to serve. If a brilliant recruit doesn't want to go to Afghanistan, why not let her serve elsewhere? The intelligent, independent thinkers a 21st century military needs demand and deserve the same respect they would enjoy in the private sector.
What about war? Shouldn't a president be able to send troops wherever he wants, consent be damned? No.
When the public supports a war, there are plenty of volunteers and enlisted men and women ready to go and fight. If there aren't enough people willing to go, there isn't enough political will to win. No one should be asked to fight--or die--for a cause they don't believe in.
Ted Rall is nationally syndicated columnist. His most recent book is "Wake Up, You're Liberal! How We Can Take America Back from the Right" (Soft Skull Press).