THURMONT, Md. — The Army is struggling to find volunteers for an unpopular war, despite recruiting bonuses of up to $20,000 and pay increases for enlistees that have beaten inflation by 21 percent since 2000.
It met its numeric goal of 80,000 recruits last year, but it paid a price in terms of declining numbers of high school graduates and lower scores on skills and physical tests. The percentage of minimally qualified Army recruits, known as Category IVs, has quadrupled since 2002, and the percentage that required special health or moral waivers has risen sharply as well.
And many recruiting problems preceded the Iraq war.
So what's really making good Army volunteers so hard to come by and, in a larger sense, sapping America's ability to fight a ground war or occupy foreign soil?
Pentagon and outside experts cite these factors in order of importance:
- While risks to U.S. troops are far lower than they were in most previous wars, young adults and their parents find them unacceptably high.
- Parents who went to college want their kids to go to college. So do parents who didn't. As the college-bound percentage of high school students has risen to two-thirds, the percentage that intends to enlist in any branch of the military has fallen by nearly two-thirds.
- Draft-era veterans, who for generations provided role models for military service, are dying off. A Pentagon study projects a 14 percent decline in high-quality recruits from a 10 percent drop in the veteran population.
- Most parents, grandparents, ministers and others whose approval potential recruits seek don't endorse enlistment these days.
- African-Americans, who joined the all-volunteer force in disproportional numbers for years, have cooled on military service recently. So have Hispanics.
- Except among those who sign up, duty to country isn't an important value, according to Defense Department polls.
Army Staff Sgt. Brandon Van Dusen, 26, a low-key Iraq infantry veteran who recruits in Thurmont, Md., a leafy, friendly farm town 50 miles northwest of Washington, sees all these factors. But the most powerful one, according to Van Dusen, who describes his own combat stint as "mostly boring," is fear, among recruits and their parents.
"They all figure they're going to get sent to Iraq, be in a firefight in the first 10 seconds and die," he said.
While it may seem that way, it's not. Deaths among U.S. troops deployed in Iraq — currently about 169,000 — average 2.3 a day. By comparison, the daily U.S. toll in World War II was 307.
Put another way, U.S. troops in Iraq die at about three times the rate of stateside civilians of the same age and sex distribution, according to a study published in September in Population and Development Review. Per year deployed, the Iraq death risk for U.S. troops is about a fifth that for the Vietnam War, according to University of Pennsylvania demographer Samuel Preston and co-author Emily Buzzell.
They computed the death risk to be 1 in 250 per year of deployment in Iraq for the period from March 2003 to September 2006. That compares with a death risk among black men in Philadelphia ages 20 to 34 of about 1 in 230 — 9 percent greater. "People do seem extremely surprised" by the numbers, Preston said, because they "severely overestimate the death rate in Iraq."
The same tendency to overestimate risks applies to at least some Iraq war injuries.
To gauge it, McClatchy Newspapers recently asked about 20 people to estimate the number of U.S. troops who'd lost limbs in Iraq, compared with the number who'd been killed, which at the time was 3,820.
Guessers included high school students, counselors, Vietnam veterans, parents, sociologist Preston and other academics, recruiter Van Dusen, an Iraq war correspondent and two editors.
Most estimated the amputee total to be double the death rate or higher.
In fact, the number is 719, according to Chuck Scoville, a program manager for the military's joint amputation care system. Add limb amputations due to accidents, training mistakes, tumors or other noncombat causes and the total comes to 795 as of Oct. 20, Scoville said. That comprises all uniformed personnel in Afghanistan and Iraq since December 2001.
It's not only civilians who are spooked about amputations. Even at the Army War College in Carlisle, Pa., the service's elite school for promotable lieutenant colonels and colonels, most students overestimated the number of amputees "by a couple of times," Scoville said.
To be sure, deployment in Iraq exposes troops to many potential injuries other than amputation or death, especially psychological ailments such as post-traumatic stress disorder. And there's no reason to think that people are more accurate about those other risks.
Preston attributes the exaggerated fear mainly to news media exposure. "It's you (journalists)," he said. "You're always after the dramatic violence."
Indeed, Pentagon surveys show that the more attention high school students pay to news, the less likely they are to enlist.
One reason parents in particular tend to exaggerate fear is that they're bad at estimating the likelihood of rare but horrific events that might befall their children, said Steven Mintz, a historian at the University of Houston and the author of "Huck's Raft: A History of American Childhood."
His theory is that parents can't keep rational odds apart in their minds from emotional fears. So they overestimate all kinds of low-probability risks, Mintz said, including risks of child abduction and even unaccompanied trick-or-treating.
Whatever the reason, senior classes of about 220 at Catoctin High School in Thurmont turn out just two or three military recruits a year now, according to counselor Curtis Howser. They're of three rare types, he said: children of families with traditions of military service, children keen for the military's discipline and those who enlist on the spur of the moment.
Nick Jensen Jr., 16, is more typical of the rest of the student body, however. "My dad didn't go to college, and he says, 'That's what you're going to do,' " said Jensen, a junior at Catoctin.
Even when parents do mention the military, Howser said, "it's only as a means to an end, which is money for college."
Absent from most conversations about students' futures is any notion of duty to country, said Howser, 57, who's been counseling for a quarter-century.
"It's just never there when you talk about college," he said.
On the other hand, duty to country is now the reason that recruits most often cite for enlisting, according to Curtis Gilroy, the director of the Defense Department's Office of Accession Policy, which oversees the armed services' recruiting. Money for college and training for a career, which used to top duty to country, rank behind it.
Broad opposition to the Iraq war is a major factor in the Army's recruiting difficulties, according to Gilroy. That's especially true among African-Americans, he said, whose opposition was earliest and greatest. The reasons behind a recent decline in Hispanic participation are less clear.
But the effects are demonstrable and dramatic.
"Does the current situation with the war on terrorism make you more likely or less likely to join the military?" a Pentagon-sponsored poll asked high schoolers in November 2002, before the Iraq war got under way. Half said less likely, 37 percent said more likely.
When the same question was asked last June, 69 percent said less likely and 17 percent said more likely.
The war also is eroding support for enlistment among parents, grandparents and other influential people. In the summer of 2003, for example, 36 percent of mothers in a Defense Department poll said they'd recommend enlistment as a post-high school option for an advice-seeking child, grandchild or youth. By last January, only 26 percent of mothers did. Fathers dropped from 44 percent to 33 percent in the same period, while support for enlistment among coaches, ministers and others fell from 64 percent to 46 percent.
Absent reasons to support war, the public's backing for conflicts generally declines as fatalities mount, according to John Mueller, a political scientist at Ohio State University and the author of the book "War, Presidents and Public Opinion."
He sees that trend in the Korean, Vietnam and Iraq wars. The main difference among them, he added, is that support fell faster in more recent conflicts. By his calculation, it took 20,000 U.S. deaths before public support for the Vietnam War fell below 50 percent in opinion polls. In Iraq that happened after 1,500 U.S. troop deaths.
Whether that's good news or bad depends on how you read it. A nation that's reluctant to fight is a humbler one, in Mueller's view, one more likely to work with allies and less likely to go to war pre-emptively. On the other hand, it's a more vulnerable nation when it's up against foes who're less afraid.
ON THE WEB
Preston's article on Iraq death rates appears in the September issue of Population and Development Review. You can read an abstract here. The publisher charges a fee for the full article.
You can read an earlier complete draft free at the University of Pennsylvania library's site. Hit "Browse by Author" and go to Preston's name.
Mueller's analysis of Iraq war casualties and public support appears in the November-December issue of Foreign Affairs.
(Researcher Tish Wells contributed to this story.)