By Tom Philpott
Deep into a four-hour congressional hearing centered on why the active Army and its reserve components are missing recruiting goals, Rep. Vic Snyder, D-Ark., turned a spotlight on the elephant in the room.
The war in Iraq, Snyder said, is unpopular with many Americans, a fact that needs airing given the all-volunteer nature of the U.S. military.
Until that moment, in Tuesday’s House armed services subcommittee hearing, blame for recruiting shortfalls had focused on negative news coverage of the war, an improving economy, the pace of military operations and an unexplained drop in propensity of parents and other “influencers’’ of American youth to recommend military service.
Nothing was said of a nation that, polls show, is souring on a war that was launched to destroy Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and shifted, after none was found, into an open-ended occupation and a Herculean effort to turn a fractionalized Muslim nation into a democracy.
Snyder, senior Democrat on the panel, finally raised what other lawmakers, two senior defense officials and 10 star-rank officers had ignored in their own remarks.
“I don’t think I agree with the view that somehow all we have to do is change the news reporting that comes from Iraq and Afghanistan and that’s going to take care of our problems,” Snyder said. “First of all, there ain’t no one in this room going to change the news reporting. These folks are professional journalists. They’re reporting what they think is the news.
“But there’s a deeper issue,’’ Snyder continued.
An advantage of civilian control of the military, he said, is that the commander in chief and the Congress, not the military, is responsible if force is used in ways not supported by a large segment of society. That division in the nation doesn’t make military service any less noble or honorable, Snyder said, but it shouldn’t be ignored.
He hears about it from parents who have children serving in Iraq but who opposed the original decision to invade.
“We need to step forward and recognize that even in this time of disagreement over where our foreign policy is going, it helps all of us to have the military be as strong as it can be,” Snyder said.
Earlier in the hearing, panel chairman Rep. John McHugh, R-N.Y., asked the service personnel chiefs to explain why, through June of this year, the active Army brought in only 86 percent of the recruits it needed, the Army National Guard only 77 percent and the Army Reserve 79 percent.
David C. S. Chu, under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness, cited a growing reluctance among “older advisors’’ to American youth to encourage military service. He also pointed to a strong economy; the strain of current operations “although not as large a factor as some commenting on the situation would believe,” and a slow response by his department and the Army to a worsening recruiting climate, with recruit bonuses and more recruiters.
Army personnel chief, Lt. Gen. Franklin L. Hagenbeck, pointed to a strong job market and noted that Iraq and Afghanistan had negatively impacted youth and influencers. He too hit “skewed’’ news coverage that doesn’t match the perspective of returning soldiers who say “it’s not the same war, in the same place, that I just spent the last 12 months in.”
If the situation in Iraq is as bad as portrayed in the news media, suggested Lt. Gen. H.P. Osman, Marine Corps deputy commandant for manpower and reserve affairs, his service wouldn’t be meeting its retention goals, especially among returning Marines.
Recruiting is a challenge and “recruiters are working as hard as they ever have … The problem is the influencers,’’ Osman said.
Chu later corrected the record to say recruiter access to high school students actually has improved significantly over the past four to five years. But the news reporting, Chu agreed, hasn’t been balanced.
“This generation of young Americans has changed the landscape of the Middle East,’’ said Chu. ”Fifty million people today have a chance at freedom that they did not have three years ago.’’
Tom Philpott can be contacted at Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, Va. 20120-1111, or by e-mail at: