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Recruiters Sink to New Lows

The Nation | June 24, 2005
by Katrina vanden Heuvel

During the Vietnam War, protesters burned draft cards, rallied on campuses and marched on Robert McNamara's Pentagon. Today, with the war in Iraq raging on and on, parents, teachers and other community leaders are spearheading a new antiwar effort, telling the military to keep their hands off the children. The Times' Bob Herbert put it well: "The parents of the kids being sought by recruiters to fight this unpopular war are creating a highly vocal and potentially very effective antiwar movement."

The debacle in Iraq has made recruiting an impossibly difficult job and recruiters are sinking to new lows in the face of growing pressure to fulfill monthly quotas as well as fierce opposition from parents who don't support the President's botched Iraq war mission.

While the stunning list of recruiting abuses has received some needed media attention, it's worth reviewing the extremes to which the military has gone to fill its ranks. In Houston, one recruiter warned a potential recruit that if he backed out of a meeting, "we'll have a warrant" for the potential recruit's arrest. In Colorado, a high school student, David McSwane, who wanted to see "how far the Army would go during a war to get one more soldier," told recruiters that he didn't finish high school and that he had a drug problem. "No problem," the recruiters responded. McSwane was told to create a diploma from scratch and to buy products at a store that would help him beat the drug test.

Recruiters have urged teens to lie to their parents and have ignored medical and police records of potential recruits to not compromise recruiting goals. In Ohio, two recruiters signed up a 21-one-year-old man with bipolar disorder who had just been released from a psychiatric ward. The violations, all told, forced the Army into halting all recruiting for a day last May so it could re-train its recruiters and remind them of the ethical considerations entailed in their jobs.

Despite this recent recruit-at-all-costs mentality, the Army has now failed to meet its monthly recruiting quotas for four months straight. (It's beginning to re-jigger its goals in mid-stream and even then it still can't meet its quotas.) There's even talk among retired military brass and other defense experts that the all-volunteer Army is stretched so thin in Iraq that it can't sustain the mission much longer.

Hence, recruiting violations in the Army have nearly doubled to 320 in 2004 from 199 in 1999, and as my colleague Ari Berman pointed out the Army has added 1,200 recruiters, "upped enlistment bonuses from $6,000 to $20,000 per recruit," and created 15-month enlistments as an alternative to the standard two-year enlistment period. The Army is also accepting into its ranks a greater number of high school dropouts and lower-scoring applicants as well.

"The problem is that no one wants to join," one recruiter recently told the Times. "We have to play fast and loose with the rules just to get by." The standards for those already in are also being adjusted: The Wall Street Journal recently reported on an internal army memo which said that battalion commanders could no longer kick out of the military enlistees who had abused drugs and alcohol, gotten pregnant or were unfit for duty.

If you want to understand just how dire the situation is, you need to know that the Army is busily exploiting a provision in the No Child Left Behind law that allows recruiters to go into public schools receiving federal funding, gain access to students' personal data and cultivate potential recruits with a virtually unfettered hand. According to an Army manual, savvy recruiters should eat in the school cafeteria, befriend administrators, bring coffee and donuts for teachers and buddy up to team captains and student body presidents to win the hearts and minds of other students.

Activists are holding rallies to raise awareness, urging families to tell schools to keep their personal data private. A student-led campaign at a high school in Montclair, New Jersey, convinced more than 80 percent of the student body to keep their private information hidden from recruiters.

Then there's NASCAR. Our US military is spending millions of dollars a year recruiting young men at NASCAR races. As the Air Force's superintendent of motorsports said (according to the AP, that's actually his job­superintendent of motorsports), NASCAR is the military's "target market." The Army alone is spending $16 million a year at NASCAR events. Each branch of the Armed Forces sponsors NASCAR race drivers and they set up recruiting booths outside of NASCAR events. This "belly-to-belly selling," the superintendent of motorsports explained, enables the military to woo potential recruits "face to face."

Recruiters are paying a high price, suffering from depression, headaches and stomach problems brought on by the tremendous pressure of having to find two new recruits per month to meet their quotas, avoid their commanders' wrath and fulfill their mission. One Texas recruiter told the New York Times' Damien Cave that he'd rather be fighting on the front lines of the war in Iraq than recruiting weary teenagers and coping with anxious parents in the states.

"The evidence is overwhelming that the Army is slowly being worn down by its commitment in Iraq," a Pentagon adviser and military analyst at the Lexington Institute told Newsday. The handwriting is on the wall: This is a failed war, and the American people are refusing in their wisdom to fight it.

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