Attrition: Too Dumb To Fight


January 8, 2011: Why are so many young Americans too stupid to be soldiers. A fourth of potential American military recruits can't join because they are too fat. That got some media attention. But the fact that a quarter of high school graduates who tried to join failed the written exam attracted less attention. The main reason for this is that fact that most of the uneducated high school grads are minorities (mainly blacks and Hispanics) from urban schools. Those schools are failure factories controlled by teachers unions, bureaucrats who are willing to sacrifice education for jobs and more benefits. You do not want to mess with teachers unions, as they have a lot of political clout and can make life miserable for mainstream journalists and their editors. What is scarier about the failure rate of high school grads is that the armed forces entrance exam tests for skills common to most civilian jobs. Survey civilian employers, and you will find that they see the same failure rate among applicants who are high school grads.

While the army can do something about the overweight applicants (by giving out diet plans and holding physical training exercises for the willing), there is not much they can do cheaply, and quickly, for those who learned little in high school. Moreover, the fact that a quarter of your "educated labor force" really isn't ready to handle technology (and more learning) means two things. One, employers are either going to be short of the people they need, and, two, some employers will be forced to spend more on educating new hires. This isn't easy, because many of those uneducated high school grads are not keen on more "education," having experienced so much failure with it already.

All this is a big change from World War II, when the biggest problem was lack of education, and even illiteracy. The army could remedy that in short order, as the recruits were eager to get an educational opportunity. Back then, obesity was rare as well, and recruits who were too thin were more common. But since then, the introduction of TV, video games, computers, bad diets and teachers unions and dysfunctional schools led to the largest and least educated generation.

One of the biggest problems American military recruiters have is the bad lifestyles of young Americans. It shouldn't be that way, for there are 32 million people in the prime military age group (17-24). But because of bad lifestyle choices, only 13 percent of them are eligible for service. Each year, the armed forces have to recruit 180,000 new troops. The military is allowed to waive some physical or mental standards, and this means that only about 20 percent of those 32 million potential recruits qualify. Each year, recruiters have to convince 2.7 percent of those eligible that they should join up. It's a tough job, made worse by a generation that eats too much, exercises too little and doesn't pay enough attention in school.

Some 57 percent of potential recruits are lost because they do not score high enough on the aptitude test the military uses to see if people have enough education and mental skills to handle military life. Most of these are those who never even managed to graduate from high school. Thus many of those who score too low do so because they did not do well at school. A lot of these folks have high IQs, but low motivation. Most of the remainder are not eligible for physical reasons. But get this, the most common physical disqualifier is being overweight. Nearly a third of the people of military age are considered obese. The big folks who are eager to join, are told how much weight they have to lose before they can enlist, but few return light enough to sign up.

As a result of all this, the recruits who do get in are a very select and motivated group. Thus the average soldier today is smarter, and in much better physical shape, than civilians of the same age and gender. But by being this selective, it requires more money and effort to find the people needed. During World War II, the percentage of acceptable recruits was more than double what it is today. Young men and women were in better physical shape, fewer got into trouble with drugs or crime, and military educational standards were not as high because there were more non-technical jobs available.