Morale: Survivor Anxiety

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December 21, 2011: While the war on terror is still officially underway the American military is demobilizing. That is, fewer recruits are being sought and more of those in uniform are being told to leave. This downsizing is nothing new, it happens after every war. Since World War II (when over four million troops left the military within a year of the war ending) the demobilizations have been increasingly more gradual and deliberate.

The current downsizing is partly the result of Iraq being free of American troops and Afghanistan being a much smaller war (with a lot more Western allies involved). The Islamic terror movements have not been destroyed, but they are defeated and on the run. Not as many troops are needed and defense budgets will be shrinking. The remaining troops are a bit anxious about all this.

Far fewer troops want to leave the American military these days. Many are putting off retiring and are trying to renew their contracts. The biggest reason for this rush to stay in uniform is the desire to stay employed. The global recession has pushed unemployment rates in the U.S. to double what they have been over the last five years.

This higher retention (people deciding to stay in uniform) rate has provided the military with a rare opportunity to significantly increase the quality of their troops. This is being done in two ways. First, there are higher standards for those being recruited. Even with more people wanting to stay in, the military has to replace 13 percent of its strength each year. Secondly, people who want to stay in are being screened, in order to decide who can stay, and who isn't meeting the higher standards.

In some cases, the higher standard means little more than agreeing to train for a new job. The last decade has seen a major shift in job skills needed. There is a bigger demand for people with computer and electronics related skills. The war in Iraq forced the army to demobilize many artillery units and form more military police and intelligence units. The air force and navy are going through a technological reformation which is, for example, reducing the need for clerical workers (more automation) and aircraft maintainers (fewer aircraft), and increasing demand for computer, intelligence, and electronics experts.

But perhaps most importantly this is an opportunity to increase the quality of the leadership. Many NCOs and officers who just get by are finding out that this is no longer good enough. Retiring, or not renewing contracts on these troops, makes it possible for more capable leaders to get promoted. Many of these hotshot NCOs and officers believe that there is not enough pressure to get rid of the deadwood. Despite the fact that better quality leaders save lives in wartime, and get the fighting over with more quickly, there is a traditional resistance to getting rid of a lot of older leaders. The military always has a hard time dismissing officers and NCOs who have given years of loyal and diligent service, often at the risk of their lives, and almost always at great cost to their families.

Thus the current situation is an opportunity to greatly increase the effectiveness of the armed forces but at a cost many, but certainly not all, senior commanders are reluctant to pay. Meanwhile, all troops are more aware that they are now very much in a meritocracy where only the best performers will be able to keep their jobs. Commanders like it because it means far fewer discipline problems. Anyone who is troublesome or not doing their work is simply dismissed from the military. There are always more eager troops willing to make an effort to stay in.

 


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