It seems that the U.S. Army has once again lowered recruiting standards in order to meet the manpower exigencies of the Iraq War. Fred Kaplan goes through what this is likely to mean in terms of the performance of our troops in Iraq. Read him for the gory details, but the short version is: nothing good. What’s more, the context for this is a prolonged counterinsurgency of the sort that, as General Petraeus’ field manual makes clear, requires soldiers who are smarter than we’ve usually relied upen even as, in reality, they’re getting less smart. Kaplan observes:
Petraeus and officers who think like him are right: We’re probably not going to be fighting on the ground, toe-to-toe and tank-to-tank, with the Russian, Chinese, or North Korean armies in the foreseeable future. Yet if the trends continue, our Army might be getting less and less skilled at the “small wars” we’re more likely to fight.
This is all true. But I also think that this turn of events is not only bad news for our prospects in Iraq, but bad news for counterinsurgency enthusiasts in general. After all, these recruiting issues aren’t something that just happened out of the blue. The proximate cause of the bad-for-counterinsurgency recruiting situation is the fact that we’re trying to wage a counterinsurgency. And it’s not just the rank and file, either. Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl, one of the Army’s handful of top counterinsurgency thinkers, decided he’d rather work at a think tank. The Army we had in 2003 didn’t have enough of the right kind of people to do counterinsurgency well, and the effort to do counterinsurgency has pushed the trends in the wrong direction.
Furthermore, the five years or so we’ve been fighting in Iraq is actually small beer by the standards that counterinsurgency theory suggests is necessary. So how are we supposed to prevent this kind of counterinsurgency-induced collapse in capacity to do effective counterinsurgency? The job is, after all, by its very nature pretty arduous and unpleasant the kind of thing that most people with bright prospects elsewhere are going to wind up avoiding in favor of more pleasant opportunities elsewhere. This is true of even very public-spirited people who are going to be able to think of plenty of other ways to serve their community, their country, or the world that don’t involve the kind of sacrifices entailed by repeated deployments to a war zone. There will be exceptions, of course, but an effective military requires more than exceptions — it’s by definition a mass institution.
The exception, of course, is that in a situation of genuine national emergency you can convince/conscript pretty much whomever you want into military work. But it’s hard to imagine the United States being faced with a serious domestic insurgency. And it’s also very hard to imagine an insurgency abroad rising to that level of threat.