LOS ANGELES—The number of new U.S. Army recruits who are high-school dropouts soared during the Bush years, peaking at 29.3 percent in 2007. The economic collapse made life easier for military recruiters. "Only" 17 percent of soldiers who joined in 2008 failed to graduate from high school. But high unemployment hasn't resulted in enough new high-quality soldiers and sailors.
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.
The U.S. military is bigger than ever. But it's becoming dumber and 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 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 United States uses up and discards them like tissue. "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.
If the military wants to attract smart young men and women with high test scores and clean 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 never 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. 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 ready to go and fight. If there aren't enough 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.