Peace Time: September 27, 2002

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The peacetime military is a young organization with a high turnover in personnel. To maintain a strength of 1.4 million men and women, the armed forces have to recruit 200,000 new people each year. It costs about $40,000 each to get these folks through their first few months of training. About 16 percent of those in the armed forces are teenagers. About two thirds of those in uniform are on their first enlistment (usually four years). They are an above average group, with 66 percent scoring above average on aptitude tests. Some 93 percent of recruits are high school graduates (and those that aren't have to get higher scores on aptitude tests and provide proof that they have been able to hold a job.) But the biggest problem with all this youth is that about a third of the new recruits don't complete their first enlistment. About ten percent of the new recruits don't even make it through their first two months of training ("boot camp"). About a third don't make it because of inability to do what's expected of them. This can range from being unable to meet the physical standards to unwillingness to accept military discipline. Another quarter of the drop outs have medical problems that makes them unsuitable for military service. Nearly as many are found to have enlisted fraudulently (a background check is completed only after the new trooper has been in the service for a few months), either because the recruit lied, or the recruiter tried to paper something over. Recruiters are under a lot of pressure to "make quota" and cutting corners with marginal recruits is a constant temptation. The remaining 20 percent of those not completing their initial enlistment do so for a variety of reasons ranging from behavior (homosexuality or other unacceptable behavior), criminal conviction, hardship (family problems) and so on. All this is costing the military over three billion dollars a year.

A major, and correctable, problem is that so many recruits arrive in such poor physical condition. Since the 1950s, kids have spent more hours in front of the television. Video games and computers have only decreased the amount of physical activity kids get. Women, who comprise about fifteen percent of the military, have greater problems with physical conditioning, even though separate, and lower standards, are established for them. But women, in most other respects, are somewhat higher quality recruits than the men. However, the generous attitude towards unmarried mothers creates lots of problems when troops have to go overseas. Some eight percent of army troops are unmarried mothers and some times the moms have to choose between being the kids and doing their military job.

The services have come up with some practical solutions to these problems. Potential recruits are invited to a day or two of "familiarization" activity (mini boot camp) so that they can better decide if they are really up for this. Initial training now has the option to take those recruits who are in really poor shape and put them through several additional weeks of physical training to get them in shape. This has worked quite well, with two thirds (or more) of those getting the extra training, finishing boot camp instead of washing out. 

But the military has been unable to get the wash out rate much below 30 percent. It was as high as 40 percent in 2000, just as the economy went into recession. Since then, a tighter job market and the after-effects of September 11, 2001 have made it easier to retain troops. But once the economy picks up again, so will the drop out rate. On the positive side, the willingness to set standards, and loose so many recruits who don't make them, has resulted in a very high quality military. While commanders are always under a lot of pressure to keep the attrition down, and some keep troops they should let go, the volunteer military is working. And the American experience is not unique. The British, who went all volunteer over a decade before we did, have similar problems. Such attrition is apparently the price you pay to be free of conscription.

 


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