Infantry: October 27, 2000


Blunting the Sharp End; The "Sharp End" is one of the many slang expressions for infantry fighting. There are fewer and fewer people working the Sharp End. No wonder. It's dangerous up there. The military has long resorted to a number of sneaky maneuvers to get people to volunteer for front line work. Even if you could conscript grunts, you had to find some way to generate a little enthusiasm, otherwise the term "cannon fodder" becomes a primary consideration and your ground troops were not very effective.

Going into the 21st century, most nations depend on young men to volunteer for the Sharp End. This is not working too well. The U.S. has about 100,000 infantry of all types and most infantry units are understrength. But it gets worse, for the glamorous "special operations" (commandos or "operators") units are also having problems. The navy SEALs have to train 900 new recruits a year to maintain strength. But for the last seven years, no more than 751 candidates have been found. The Army is actually recruiting more Special Forces than ten years ago, for these troops are perfect for peacekeeping and training well behaved troops for unsettled nations. But recruiting goals are met by lowering standards, and this has become a sore point among special forces troops. The air force has commandoes to go in and set up air control posts or rescue downed pilots and is unable to fill more than 80 percent of the positions.

In the last few years, people in Congress and the media noted that minorities were underrepresented in special operations units. Minority representation in these units averaged about half what it "should" be given the proportion of that minority in the armed forces as a whole. Worst was the Navy SEALs, where only two percent are black. Naturally, a think tank was commissioned to do a study on why this was so. The results were interesting. A big problem was swimming. All operators are expected to encounter many water obstacles (oceans, rivers, swamps) and thus must have good swimming skills. Take a look at the Olympic swimmers and you can see that water is something whites have a greater affinity for. There were also career potential. After a tour with special operations, minorities see reduced employment opportunities as civilians. While this is also true for whites, since the volunteer army was introduced in the 1970s, combat units have been disproportionately full of white kids looking for a few thrills before going off to college (or not, no one knows why this is so). Black and Latino kids prefer military jobs where they can get skills useable in civilian occupations. The armed forces is not complaining. They get high quality guys to fill the infantry ranks for a few years. No problem. The minority kids run computers and commo gear. Makes for great photo ops and good PR. But now that the sharp end is thinning out, it's a problem. 

Minority troops are more likely to be married and also (especially among Latinos) put more emphasis on close family relationships. Operators travel a lot, and everyone knows it. The amount of travel time is a large disincentive. Minority recruits also have more problems with navigation (making your way across unfamiliar terrain.) No one knows why. However, navigation is an essential skill for special forces. Minorities also have a harder time getting good scores on the written test. A lot of this is cultural, as even black educators now openly admit to a long known phenomenon; the black youth culture has long been violently "anti-nerd." Study and doing well was seen as "acting white," and discouraged. Once the kids were old enough realize that all "keeping it real" was nonsense, they had already lost many years of good schooling. 

The low percentage of black and Latino kids in the special operations units led to another problem; many potential volunteers thought that these outfits full of tough white guys had to be a hotbed of racism and bigotry. This was untrue, as minority operators tell anyone who asks. But the bad rep is hard to shake and makes it harder to attract minority candidates.

There has been some right wing and racist stuff in regular infantry units. This was largely the result of lower standards for officers and NCOs. The 90s were not a good time for the military to attract the best and the brightest and the infantry were hurt pretty bad in the leadership department. This was made worse by the need to crack down real hard on harassment (real or imagined) of homosexual and female soldiers. Leaders had a lot of bad habits to keep an eye on.

The elite units are the first ones to be used in an emergency. Some of these operators are ready to get on an airplane and fly to a distant trouble spot on a few hours notice. It's telling that there was no public outcry about the recruiting problems until it was framed in racial terms. Everyone insists that there will be no quotas or lowering of standards. If that happened, and word got out, it would be even more difficult to recruit competent operators.

But, then, stranger things have happened in the past.




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