Attrition: Where Have All The American Soldiers Gone


February 27, 2023: The United States, like other industrialized nations, is having problems finding enough military age men and women to serve in the military. Most women are not interested but a growing percentage of troops are female. Currently that means five to ten percent of the armed forces personnel are women. Currently the U.S. military estimates that there are 412,000 Americans aged 17-24 who are qualified and willing to join the military. That’s not enough to replace all the troops who are retiring or simply leaving the military. This has forced the four services (army, navy, air force and marines) to be creative in coming up with ways to attract these prospects and keep those already in the service longer.

Another strategy is to stay in touch with those who left before they were eligible (after 20 years) for retirement. Some believe that returning to the military, even if only for a few more years, is not a bad idea. The military encourages that by restoring the rank and pay the returnee had when they left. At the moment, all this is less effective because the military, particularly the army, is undergoing a period of mandatory political indoctrination. This discourages some men from joining or rejoining the army.

Meanwhile there are still some fundamental problems that have to be overcome. The service with the most problems is the army. This service needs the most new recruits and suffers the most casualties in wartime. Despite that the U.S. Army quickly, by 2020, recovered from its recruiting crisis in 2018. That was the first year since 2005 that the army failed to achieve its recruiting goal (76,500 new recruits). The fiscal year ends on September 30 and the army was forced to examine how it was going about its recruiting. Changes were made and the army exceeded its recruiting goal in fiscal 2019.

The turnaround was not miraculous. Upon close examination, the army discovered that the problems in 2018 were largely self-inflicted. There were a lot of other problems with how the army ran its recruiting operation and that’s where solutions were found. Another factor was that 2018 was a spike year, in which the need for recruits went up because of the large number of troops retiring or not reenlisting that year. The army fell short by 7,000 recruits in 2018 and even though that boosted the need for 2019, the goal for 2019 was only 68,000. In 2018 the other three services (navy, air force and marines) required a total of 100,000 and all met their goal.

In 2019 the army raised its standards somewhat to take advantage of the fact that more young Americans could meet those standards. In past years there had been complaints that too many potential recruits were turned away for a number of shortcomings. That has changed and more potential recruits still can now meet the physical, mental, legal and psychological standards for military service. While obesity continues to be a major problem, more potential recruits have high school diplomas, fewer drug problems and no arrest records. Those are trends that existed in 2018 and earlier but have accelerated and with it the number of young men and women who qualify to join.

The shrinking unemployment rate continues but is no longer as much of a problem because the army made better use of their recruiters in 2019. In 2018 recruiters were ordered to work fewer hours, to address problems with recruiter burnout and complaints about higher divorce rates and other family problems because of the pressure put on recruiters to meet their goals. For 2019 those family-friendly rules remained but more NCOs were assigned to recruiting duty and recruiters were redeployed so that more were in areas that required more recruiter effort to meet goals. The army paid more attention to recruiter complaints about methods and made a number of other changes that reduced the workload while increasing the effectiveness of recruiter efforts. Many of these changes were overdue, especially because the other services were already more efficient and, in most recruiting centers with recruiters from all services were present, the army recruiters were finally able to operate as effectively as they had seen the other services doing.

The army also looked back at 2005, the last year goals were not met and found that times had changed and the reasons for shortfalls were different in 2018 compared to 2005, as are economic and political conditions. In 2005 unemployment rates were higher, although headed lower, and there was a lot of combat with lots of casualties. There were other differences. Back in 2005 the problem was getting recruits for non-combat jobs, not the infantry. The 2018 shortfall was mainly for infantry. In 2018 there was little combat and infantry are more likely to die in an off-duty auto accident than in combat. The army and marines found recruiting for infantry was easier when the recruits expected to serve in combat, and harder when that excitement was not available.

Back in 2006-7, the recruiting shortfall was quickly turned around so those annual goals (80,000 new recruits) were met. This was also the goal for 2008 as well as the army expanded to meet the demands of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Back then the army was growing from 482,000 to 547,000. In 2018 the expansion was from 476,000 to 500,000 by 2024. Other differences are that in 2018-19 the army is a lot more selective, both in terms of new recruits and who is allowed to reenlist. Existing troops who fail to meet higher physical and deployability (ability to go overseas) standards are not allowed to stay in and have to be replaced with better qualified new recruits. Many of these are for non-combat jobs, which comprise nearly 90 percent of all soldiers. Because there is no longer an active war, a lot fewer qualified young men are enlisting to be in the infantry.

Back in 2005-7 the army recruiting effort was unprecedented for wartime. Never in American history has a war this long been sustained with only volunteers. Party politics and media concentration on that has prevented the story behind this from getting out much. There are several reasons for the army recruiting success since 2001. The principal ones are:

Patriotism. Many of the troops that joined up believed that the nation was at war and must be defended. Those who got to Iraq or Afghanistan saw for themselves why the wars are being fought. The best recruiting aid turned out to be recently recruited or discharged soldiers. That's a story most media didn't want to cover because it contradicted so much else that was reported as news. But for army recruiters, this patriotism and word of mouth were key ingredients in recruiting success. With no war on, it's more difficult to get new recruits for combat jobs which tend to be strenuous and boring, although safer, in peacetime. This is a less attractive proposition for a lot of potential infantry recruits. With the record low unemployment rates today, there are plenty of other good job opportunities for those who meet the mental and physical standards to be infantry. In 2019 the recruiters put more emphasis on the good pay and benefits, especially the college tuition program for those who complete their four year enlistment. In the army recruits get to try out career options they would not have had access to if they went straight to college or took whatever job was available. This pitch resonates because many college students right out of high school noted that the slightly older veterans had an easier time of it. This was a phenomenon first noticed after World War II when millions of recent veterans took advantage of the new GI Bill benefits and raised the maturity level of education for a generation of younger college students. The GI Bill was revived in the 1960s and the psychological and financial benefits for veterans in college are still there, even though fewer veterans are in each freshman class.

Low casualties. Although the media gets obsessed with U.S. casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan, the reporting tends to ignore the fact that those casualties are the lowest in history, any army's history. Put simply, troops were half as likely to be killed or wounded in Iraq as they would have been in Vietnam or World War II. A combination of better equipment, training and leadership made it happen. These are trends that have been going on for decades. The lower casualties make a big difference, especially for troops who have gone back to Iraq or Afghanistan several times. Recruiters know that there's enough real danger there to attract young men looking for some adventure, but not so much that most potential recruits would be put off by it. "Extreme" (very dangerous) sports have become much more popular since the 1980s, and for many young men, modern combat is in that league plus you actually get to kill people. Most reporters have forgotten how teenage males think. The recruiters haven't, and the U.S. Marine Corps consistently exceeds its recruiting goals by emphasizing the danger and challenges. The end result is that it was more difficult to recruit for support jobs than for the combat ones during a ground combat war.

Bonuses. Taking a cue from the corporate world, the army increased its use of cash bonuses for people with key skills. Electronics and intelligence specialists were regularly among the best rewarded. Veteran infantry leaders got lots of the bonus money because recruiters for corporate security firms were making outrageous offers. While these bonuses were rarely used to attract new infantry recruits, the bonuses are still needed for recruits qualified to handle highly technical jobs, like those involving maintenance of electronic systems. Bonuses are not an immediate benefit for new recruits, but for those qualified to handle the most difficult jobs, bonuses are an attractive feature even if many of these specialist soldiers do not make a career of it.

Higher Re-enlistment Rates. As important as new recruits are, getting experienced soldiers to stay in is equally important. And in this department, the army has been very successful. Veteran troops in combat zones tend to re-enlist at a higher rate than those in safer areas. Although there's sometimes a tax angle to this, many veterans admit they re-enlist because there is a job to be done, and they are the only ones to do it. With the wars over more soldiers seek to take advantage of the GI Bill education benefits and get a less stressful civilian job. The army still needs a lot of soldiers who will re-enlist, to provide the NCOs and technical specialists that have become essential.

Better screening. For over half a century, the army has been working on better screening and training techniques for handling "substandard" recruits. This includes those who have too much fat, not enough education, or a troubled past. Although the army has only been accepting recruits who are considerably healthier, smarter and better educated than the average for their age since the 1980s, efforts to turn less well-qualified men and women into effective soldiers continued. Now those techniques are being used, although you'd never know it from the performance of the troops. Yet in the long term lowering standards to meet recruiting goals did not work. The army screening is better at finding those among the seemingly less qualified who will turn out to be stable and productive over the long term. The problem is that this is mainly for non-combat jobs. The army has, since the 1990s, become known as a place for qualified people to learn useful civilian job skills while getting paid for it. Soldiers can get out after four years, get more subsidized education via the GI Bill and be eligible for a lot of good civilian jobs. That’s one reason the army still offers reenlistment bonuses to technically adept troops that are very expensive to train. During the 2018 recruitment crises, the army noted that the percentage of young Americans eligible to enlist was actually going up and is continuing to do so. The army went looking for other problems in the recruiting process, found them and fixed them,

Ongoing Reforms. The army has, since the 1980s, been rolling out more and more reforms. Not just obvious things, like new weapons and uniforms, but new leadership and organizational methods. The result is better performance and morale. Troops are more likely to reenlist if they believe they are serving with the best, and being well treated. The army has had some problems with officer quality and those problems are still not solved. But when it comes to the troops, the army is in better shape than it has ever been. It was just that not enough attention was being paid to the problems with how recruiters were used.

Another benefit of the 2018 recruiting problems was being forced to more closely examine the problems with the large number of unqualified potential recruits, many of who were eager to enlist. A growing problem since 2001 has been the declining number of young Americans physically qualified for military service. More young Americans are overweight and out-of-shape and this has not changed much. But the army noted that with improved screening they could identify those willing to make the effort to lose weight and/or get in better physical shape to qualify. There turned out to be a lot of these out-of-shape applicants who were willing to spend months working on meeting these goals. All they got from the army was recruiters willing to show them what to do and monitor progress, offer encouragement or eventually tell the potential recruit that they didn’t yet have the determination and discipline to solve their problem.

There are still a lot of potential recruits with a record of drug abuse and bad behavior in general. The army has found from long experience that these recruits are a lot more expensive to train, a lot more of them drop out or simply fail, while those that do get through training have more disciplinary problems during their term of service. Recruiters now put more emphasis on pointing out that for many of these applicants there is still a chance of qualifying. Getting off the drugs is often a possibility, especially if they are prescription drugs for anxiety or inattention. But that is a problem the applicants have to handle with their doctors and sometimes the doctors can offer an acceptable way to get off the meds and qualify for military service. This is a work-in-progress for the military just as it is for the medical profession where over-medicating patients is a problem the doctors and pharmaceutical companies did not want to admit exists. But it does and is slowly being addressed.




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