"Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please." (Mark Twain)

Thursday, June 09, 2005

The All-Volunteer Army 

Remember back to last October, when the Empty Flight Suit made one of his famous verbal boo-boos? "After standing on the stage, after the debates, I made it very plain we will not have an all-volunteer army." A misstatement, of course, and he corrected himself a moment later after being prompted by his adoring fans. And indeed, we do have an all-volunteer army - assuming that one has a rather broad definition of the word "volunteer:"
A single mom with a meager income, Marcia [Cobb] raised her kids on the farm where, until recently, she grew salad greens for restaurants.

Axel [Cobb]'s father, a Marine Corps vet who served in Vietnam, died when Axel was 4.

Clearly the recruiters knew all that and more.

"You don't want to be a burden to your mom," they told him. "Be a man." "Make your father proud." Never mind that, because of his own experience in the service, Marcia says enlistment for his son is the last thing Axel's dad would have wanted.

The next weekend, when Marcia went to Seattle for the Folklife Festival and Axel was home alone, two recruiters showed up at the door.

Axel repeated the family mantra, but he was feeling frazzled and worn down by then. The sergeant was friendly but, at the same time, aggressively insistent. This time, when Axel said, "Not interested," the sarge turned surly, snapping, "You're making a big (bleeping) mistake!"

Next thing Axel knew, the same sergeant and another recruiter showed up at the LaConner Brewing Co., the restaurant where Axel works. And before Axel, an older cousin and other co-workers knew or understood what was happening, Axel was whisked away in a car....

At about 3:30 in the morning, Alex was awakened in the motel and fed a little something. Twelve hours later, without further sleep or food, he had taken a battery of tests and signed a lot of papers he hadn't gotten a chance to read. "Just formalities," he was told. "Sign here. And here. Nothing to worry about."

Let's be clear - the Marine recruiters kidnapped this young man. They stuffed him in a car against his wishes, drove him a hundred miles from home, deprived him of food and sleep, and then lied to him ("He could serve anywhere he chose and leave any time he wanted on an 'apathy discharge' if he didn't like it") in an effort to get his signature on the bottom line. If you believe that kids like Alex Cobb are "volunteers," then yeah - we got ourselves one grade-A, regulation, volunteer-type army.

If, on the other hand, your personal working definition of "volunteer" excludes, for example, threatening to have potential recruits arrested if they don't sign up, then you may hesitate a bit at the "all-volunteer" label. In fact, it was precisely these sorts of cases which led to a nationwide stand-down on May 20, so that recruiters could be retrained. And how did that retraining work out? Well, the article cited at the beginning of this post noted that Alex Cobb was kidnapped while his mother was at the Folklife Festival here in Seattle. That's Memorial Day weekend - a week after the stand-down.

Of course, recruiters are stuck between a rock and a hard place. It's no excuse for kidnapping Alex Cobb (an extraordinary case, I assume), but recruiters are thoroughly screwed these days. Amazingly, no one wants to go to Fallujah to be greeted with flowers anymore. The Army is missing its recruiting goals by wider margins every month - 27% short in February, 31% in March, and 42% in April. When official numbers are released this Friday, the Army is expected to report that recruiting totals for the month of May were "only" about 25% below the target, which would represent a substantial improvement over recent months except that they are cooking the books. The goal for May was retroactively decreased from over 8,000 new recruits to 6,700. A little cocktail napkin math leads me to conclude that actual recruits signed up in May is something like 37% below the original goal.

This is unsustainable. As long as our soldiers are being killed in Iraq and Afghanistan (remember Afghanistan?) at the rate of about two a day, recruitment will suffer. Of course, if the war could be justified on the grounds of actual national security, things might be different. People will fight for their country, but they are not inclined to fight and die for nothing much at all - and that's the product that recruiters are being forced to sell. That smug little twerp in the White House has gotten us into this mess, and now (as always) it falls on the men and women in uniform - the recruiters, this time - to try to get us out. If they get desperate in the attempt, no one should be surprised.




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