Nick Turse on 12-Pentagon Steps to a Misfit Military

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Recently, the Washington Post, and then the New York Times, reported a top-secret assessment by the Marines’ Chief of Intelligence that focused on the catastrophic situation of his undermanned Corps in the heartlands of Iraq’s Sunni insurgency. He concluded, according to the Post’s Tom Ricks, that “the prospects for securing that country’s western Anbar province are dim and that there is almost nothing the U.S. military can do to improve the political and social situation there.”

Couldn’t get much worse, you’d think. Then, Major General Richard C. Zilmer, the senior Marine commander, decided to “dispute” both news accounts. His argument, according to Michael Gordon of the Times was that “he had sufficient forces to carry out his mission but that the mission did not include defeating the insurgency.”

Come again? Fortunately, in a front page piece, “Growing Concern: Terrorist Havens in ‘Failed States'” on the possibility that Iraq, Lebanon, and Afghanistan might all turn into the kinds of terrorist safe territories that only Afghanistan had been prior to September 11, 2001, the Wall Street Journal’s Yochi J. Dreazen and Philip Shishkin sum up the latest “desired endstate” of the Bush administration this way: “U.S. officials acknowledge their main goal in Iraq now is to prevent it from turning into a place run by fundamentalists who export terrorism to the region.”

Um, come again? That’s the “strategy for victory”? Well, what can you expect from an overstretched empire enmeshed in a grinding, hopeless set of wars, with increasingly strained ground forces. The U.S. Army, its equipment wearing down and with almost no nondeployed combat-ready brigades at hand, now has “fully two-thirds” of its active forces officially classified as “not ready for combat.” (And that’s considered good shape, compared to the state of the completely overstressed National Guard.)

With military stress and strain in mind, it’s great to welcome Nick Turse back to the writing ranks of Tomdispatch. He’s re-upped after a stint co-reporting and co-authoring a powerful series on American war crimes in Vietnam at the Los Angeles Times. Below he gives new meaning to the military recruitment side of imperial overstretch. Tom

Dirty Dozen
The Pentagon’s 12-Step Program to Create a Military of Misfits
By Nick Turse

Military recruiting in 2006 has been marked by upbeat pronouncements from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, claims of success by the White House, propaganda releases by the Pentagon, and a spate of recent press reports touting the way the military has made its wo/manpower goals.

Military recruiting in 2006 has been marked by upbeat pronouncements from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, claims of success by the White House, propaganda releases by the Pentagon, and a spate of recent press reports touting the way the military has made its wo/manpower goals.

But the armed forces have only met with success through a fundamental “transformation,” and not the transformation of the military — that “co-evolution of concepts, processes, organizations and technology” — Rumsfeld is always talking about either.

While the Secretary of Defense’s longstanding goal of transforming the planet’s most powerful military into its highest tech, most agile, most futuristic fighting force has, in the words of the Washington Post’s David Von Drehle, “melted away,” the very makeup of the Armed Forces has been mutating before our collective eyes under the pressure of the war in Iraq. This actual transformation has been reported, but only in scattered articles on the new recruitment landscape in America.

Last year, despite NASCAR, professional bull-riding, and Arena Football sponsorships; popular video games that doubled as recruiting tools; TV commercials dripping with seductive scenes of military glory; a “joint marketing communications and market research and studies” program actively engaged in measures to target for military service Hispanics, drop outs, and those with criminal records; and at least $16,000 in promotional costs for each soldier it managed to sign up, the U.S. military failed to meet its recruiting goals. This year those methods have been pumped up and taken over the top in twelve critical areas of recruitment that make the old Army ad-line, “Be All That You Can Be,” into material for late night TV punch lines of the future.

1. Hard Sell

When not trolling for potential soldiers via video games, websites, or most recently the social networking site and text messaging, the Armed Forces employ recruiters who use old-fashioned hard-sell tactics to cajole impressionable teens into enlisting. Recently, one New Jersey mother told her local newspaper about the Army’s persistence in targeting her 17-year old daughter. When the mother finally asked the Army to stop calling her child, the recruiter argued vigorously against it. The mother, who otherwise praised the military, was nonetheless aghast at the recruiter’s tactics. “That’s what frightened and enraged me. This military person telling me that I have no rights over my child,” she said.

Teens are also subject to military advertising and high-pressure tactics at school. The Boston Globe recently wrote that recruiters were now setting up booths in “cafeterias in high schools across the nation.” While the State Journal-Register of Springfield, Illinois reported that local recruiters were “visiting each school about every three to four weeks.” At one school, administrators were forced to “clam[p] down on aggressive recruiters” and bar at least one from ever returning to campus.

2. Green to Gray

The military has always filled its rolls primarily by targeting the young, but these days the “old” are in its sights, too. In 2005, the Army Reserves increased their maximum enlistment age from 35 to 40; then, later that year, to 42. This year, regular Army green went grayer as well with a similar two-step increase that boosted active duty enlistment eligibility to 42 years.

3. Back-Door Draft

Another group of old-timers has recently been targeted by the military: the Marine Corps Individual Ready Reserve (IRR) — troops who have left active-duty status and transitioned back into civilian life. In August, the Marines announced that they would begin making up for a shortage of volunteers by “dipping into [this] rarely used pool of troops to fill growing personnel gaps in units scheduled to deploy in coming months.” As the Boston Globe noted, it was “the first time since the invasion of Iraq three years ago that Marine commanders have taken the extraordinary step of drafting back into uniform those who have left the ranks.”

For its part, the Army, according to the Washington Post, “has used its IRR several times since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. It has mobilized about 5,000 soldiers from that pool over the past five years, most of them since the middle of 2004.” CBS News reports that, from the Army Reserve, “approximately 14,000 soldiers on IRR status have been called to active duty since March 2003 and about 7,300 have been deployed to Iraq.”

4. Rubber-Stamp Promotions

Earlier this year, the Army admitted that, to maintain desperately needed numbers, it was forgoing almost any measure of quality when it came to its officer corps. According to 2005 Pentagon figures, 97% of all eligible captains were promoted to major — a significant jump from the already historically high average of 70-80%. “The problem here is that you’re not knocking off the bottom 20%,” one high-ranking Army officer at the Pentagon told the Los Angeles Times. “Basically, if you haven’t been court-martialed, you’re going to be promoted to major.” Despite near-guaranteed promotions, the San Antonio Express-News reported that the “Army expects to be short 2,500 captains and majors this year, with the number rising to 3,300 in 2007.”

5. Foreign Legion

In July, testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness David S. C. Chu listed a series of inducements currently offered to get foreigners to risk life and limb for Uncle Sam. These included: “President Bush’s executive order allowing non-citizens to apply for citizenship after only one day of active-duty military service,” a streamlined application process for service members, and the elimination of “all application fees for non-citizens in the military.”

While noting that approximately 40,000 non-citizens are already serving in the U.S. Armed Forces, Chu offered his own solution to the immigration crisis. With the services denied the possibility of a draft, he made a pitch for creating a true foreign legion from a group “potentially interested in military service,” the “estimated 50,000 to 65,000 undocumented alien young adults who entered the U.S. at an early age.” Chu then talked-up legislation like the DREAM Act — which would give illegal aliens the opportunity to, among other options, join the military as a vehicle to conditional permanent resident status.

In addition to proposing a possible source of undocumented cannon fodder that might prove less disturbing to Americans than their own sons and daughters, Chu noted that the “military also has initiated several new programs, including opportunities for those with language skills, which may hold particular appeal for noncitizens.” Just in case noncitizens aren’t thrilled to the depths by the chance to serve with the occupation forces in Iraq, the Army promises expedited citizenship, quick advancement, and a host of other perks — including a boatload of cash. In addition to “foreign language proficiency pay while on active duty,” those willing to sell their “Middle-Eastern language skills and join the U.S. Army as a Translator Aide in Iraq and Afghanistan” will receive an enlistment bonus of $10,000 — a sizable sum given yearly per capita incomes in those countries which hover in the $800-$2000 range.

6. Mercenary Military

To solve its wo/manpower woes, the military has also enhanced its lure at home — in the form of “more recruiters and more financial incentives.” In some cases, this can mean enlistment bonuses as high as $40,000 for those documented but poor Americans looking to put themselves directly in harm’s way for three years as an Army infantryman or explosive ordnance disposal specialist — markedly more than 2005 per-capita yearly income for African Americans ($16,874), Hispanics ($14,483), and even non-Hispanic Whites ($28,946).

According to a recent Associated Press report, the Army is doling out yet more fistfuls of taxpayer dollars to entice troops to reenlist — “an average bonus of $14,000, to eligible soldiers, for a total of $610 million in extra payments.”

Marine reenlistees seem to rake in the biggest bucks of all. This July, Maj. Jerry Morgan, who runs the Selective Reenlistment Bonus Program, told Stars and Stripes that “the maximum bonus has been raised to $60,000 for Marines” serving in five critical military occupational specialties.

Add to these sums promised benefits of up to $71,424 and $23,292, for active duty and reserve personnel respectively, to “help pay for college” and you’ve got a potentially life-changing bribe, provided you still have a life when that college acceptance finally comes through.

7. Abuse of Power

More recruiters waving more money has its pitfalls. Last year, amid a swirl of complaints as recruiters struggled to meet monthly goals (including tips to potential enlistees on how to pass drug tests), the Army suspended all recruiting activities for a one-day nationwide “stand down” to reexamine its methods and retrain its men. Just last month, however, the Government Accountability Office issued a report showing that “between fiscal years 2004 and 2005, allegations and service-identified incidents of recruiter wrongdoing increased, collectively, from 4,400 cases to 6,500 cases; substantiated cases increased from just over 400 to almost 630 cases; and criminal violations more than doubled from just over 30 to almost 70 cases.”

What also came to light last month, courtesy of the Associated Press was this revelation: “More than 100 young women who expressed an interest in joining the military in the past year were preyed upon sexually by their recruiters.” According to one of the victim’s lawyers, a recruiter “said to her, outright, if you want to join the Marines, you have to have sex with me. She was a virgin. She was 17 years old.” Another teenage victim spelled out the situation quite clearly, “The recruiter had all the power. He had the uniform. He had my future. I trusted him.”

8. Civilian Headhunters

Not surprisingly, given tough times and an administration that never saw anything it couldn’t imagine privatizing, the private headhunter has landed on the military recruitment landscape. According to Renae Merle of the Washington Post, as part of a pilot program that began in 2002, two Virginia-based companies, Serco and MPRI Inc., “have more than 400 recruiters assigned across the country, and have signed up more than 15,000 soldiers. They are paid about $5,700 per recruit.”

While these companies rake in the recruitment money, the mercenary recruiters themselves reap cash bonuses, free gas cards, and suede jackets. They can augment their base salary by about $30,000 a year by successfully shuttling large numbers of aimless kids and others into the Armed Forces. As has been true with the military’s use of private contractors in all sorts of roles in recent years, this step has drawn ire. According to Rep. Janice D. Schakowsky (D-Illinois), “The use of contractors for this sensitive purpose, dealing with the lives of young people, is troublesome.” She was particularly worried by the lack of oversight. Quality-control has been another issue. While an Army report recommended continuing the $170 million program, it also noted that the civilian headhunters “enlisted a lower quality of recruit.”

Yet the Army’s less than complimentary assessment of the private sector’s performance didn’t sway its officials from announcing in August that they had awarded MPRI “a firm-fixed price requirements-type contract for $11,196,996 as the base-period portion of an estimated $34,272,571 contract (if all options are exercised) for recruiting services to be performed at any of the Army’s 1,700 recruiting stations nationwide.”

9. How Low Can You Go?

Lowered standards have hardly remained the property of privateers these days. As Brad Knickerbocker of the Christian Science Monitor noted, “The Army has had to recruit more soldiers from the ‘lowest acceptable’ category based on test scores, education levels, personal background, and other indicators of ability.” Even Undersecretary of Defense Chu admitted in July that almost 40% of all military recruits scored in the bottom half of the Armed Forces’ own aptitude test.

Other how-low-can-you-go indicators of the military’s desperation are now regularly surfacing in news reports. Here are two examples:

Last year, the New York Times reported that two Ohio recruiters were quick to sign up a recruit “fresh from a three-week commitment in a psychiatric ward even after the man’s parents told them he had bipolar disorder — a diagnosis that would disqualify him.” After senior officers found out, the mentally ill man’s enlistment was canceled, but in “[i]nterviews with more than two dozen recruiters in 10 states,” the Times heard others talk of “concealing mental-health histories and police records,” among other illicit practices.

In May of this year, the Oregonian reported that Army recruiters, using hard sell tactics and offering thousands of dollars in enlistment bonus money, signed up an autistic teenager “for the Army’s most dangerous job: cavalry scout.” The boy, who had been enrolled in “special education classes since preschool” and through “a special program for disabled workersha[d] a part-time job scrubbing toilets and dumping trash,” didn’t even know the U.S. was at war in Iraq until his parents explained it to him after he was first approached by a recruiter. Only following a flurry of negative publicity, did the Army announce that it would release the autistic teen from his enlistment

10. Armed and Considered Dangerous

In 2004, the Pentagon instituted a “Moral Waiver Study” whose seemingly benign goal was “to better define relationships between pre-Service behaviors and subsequent Service success.” That turned out to mean opening the recruitment doors to potential enlistees with criminal records. In February of this year, the Baltimore Sun wrote that there was “a significant increase in the number of recruits with what the Army terms ‘serious criminal misconduct’ in their background” — a category that included: “aggravated assault, robbery, vehicular manslaughter, receiving stolen property and making terrorist threats.” From 2004 to 2005, the number of those recruits had spiked by over 54%, while alcohol and illegal drug waivers, reversing a four-year downward trend, increased by over 13%.

In June, the Chicago Sun-Times reported that, under pressure to fill the ranks, the Army had been allowing in increasing numbers of “recruits convicted of misdemeanor crimes, according to experts and military records.” In fact, as the military’s own data indicated, “the percentage of recruits entering the Army with waivers for misdemeanors and medical problems has more than doubled since 2001.”

One beneficiary of the Army’s new moral-waiver policies gained a certain prominence this summer. After Steven D. Green, who served in the Army’s 101st Airborne Division, was charged in a rape and quadruple murder in Mahmudiyah, Iraq, it was disclosed that he had been “a high-school dropout from a broken home who enlisted to get some direction in his life, yet was sent home early because of an ‘anti-social personality disorder.'” Recently, Eli Flyer, a former Pentagon senior military analyst and specialist on “the relationship between military recruiting and military misconduct” told Harper’s Magazine that Green had actually “enlisted with a moral waiver for at least two drug- or alcohol-related offenses. He committed a third alcohol-related offense just before enlistment, which led to jail time, though this offense may not have been known to the Army when he enlisted.”

With Green in jail awaiting trial, the Houston Chronicle reported in August that Army recruiters were trolling around the outskirts of a Dallas-area job fair for ex-convicts. “We’re looking for high school graduates with no more than one felony on their record,” one recruiter said.

The Army has even looked behind prison bars for fill-in recruits — in one reported case, a “youth prison” in Ogden, Utah. Although Steven Price had asked to see a recruiter while still incarcerated and was “barely 17 when he enlisted last January,” his divorced parents say “recruiters used false promises and forged documents to enlist him.” While confusion exists about whether the boy’s mother actually signed a parental consent form allowing her son to enlist, his “father apparently wasn’t even at the signing, but his name is on the form too.”

11. Gang Warfare

According to the Chicago Sun-Times, law enforcement officials report that the military is now “allowing more applicants with gang tattoos because they are under the gun to keep enlistment up.” They also note that “gang activity may be rising among soldiers.” The paper was provided with “photos of military buildings and equipment in Iraq that were vandalized with graffiti of gangs based in Chicago, Los Angeles and other cities.”

Last month, the Sun-Times reported that a gang member facing federal charges of murder and robbery enlisted in the Marine Corps “while he was free on bond — and was preparing to ship out to boot camp when Marine officials recently discovered he was under indictment.” While this particular recruit was eventually booted from the Corps, a Milwaukee Police Detective and Army veteran, who serves on the federal drug and gang task force that arrested the would-be Marine, noted that other “[g]ang-bangers are going over to Iraq and sending weapons back gang members are getting access to military training and weapons.”

Earlier this year, it was reported that an expected transfer of 10,000-20,000 troops to Fort Bliss, Texas caused FBI and local law enforcement to fear “a turf war” between “members of the Folk Nation gang[and] a criminal group that is already well-established in the area, Barrio Azteca.” The New York Sun wrote that, according to one FBI agent, “Folk Nation, which was founded in Chicago and includes several branches using the name Gangster Disciples, has gained a foothold in the Army.”

12. Trading Desert Camo for White Sheets

Another type of “gang” member has also begun to proliferate within the military, evidently thanks to lowered recruitment standards and an increasing urge by recruiters to look the other way. In July, a study by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks racist and right-wing militia groups, found that — due to pressing manpower concerns — “large numbers of neo-Nazis and skinhead extremists” are now serving the military. “Recruiters are knowingly allowing neo-Nazis and white supremacists to join the armed forces and commanders don’t remove them from the military even after we positively identify them as extremists or gang members,” said Scott Barfield, a Defense Department investigator quoted in the report.

The New York Times noted that the neo-Nazi magazine Resistance is actually recruiting for the U.S. military “urg[ing] skinheads to join the Army and insist on being assigned to light infantry units.” As the magazine explained, “The coming race war and the ethnic cleansing to follow will be very much an infantryman’s war It will be house-to-house until your town or city is cleared and the alien races are driven into the countryside where they can be hunted down and ‘cleansed.'”

Apparently, the recruiting push has worked. Barfield reported that he and other investigators have identified a network of neo-Nazi active-duty Army and Marine personnel spread across five military installations in five states. “They’re communicating with each other about weapons, about recruiting, about keeping their identities secret, about organizing within the military.” Little wonder that “Aryan Nations graffiti” is now apparently competing for space among American inner-city gang graffiti in Iraq.

Force Transformation

When the American war in Vietnam finally ground to a halt, the U.S. military was in a state of disarray, if not near-disintegration. Uniformed leaders vowed never-again to allow the military to be degraded to such a point.

A generation later, as the ever less appetizing-looking wars in Iraq and Afghanistan spiral on without end, an overstretched Army and Marine Corps have clearly become desperate.
At a remarkable cost in dollars, effort, and lowered standards, recruiting and retention numbers are being maintained for now. The result: U.S. ground forces are increasingly made up of a motley mix of underage teens, old-timers, foreign fighters, gang-bangers, neo-Nazis, ex-cons, inferior officers and a host of near-mercenary troops, lured in or kept in uniform through big payouts and promises.

In the latter half of the Vietnam War, as the breakdown was occurring, American troops began to scrawl “UUUU” on their helmet liners — an abbreviation that stood for “the unwilling, led by the unqualified, doing the unnecessary for the ungrateful.” The U.S. ground forces of 2007 and beyond, fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan, or any other war du jour may increasingly resemble the collapsing military of the Vietnam War, the band of criminal misfits sent behind enemy lines during World War II in the classic Vietnam-era film, The Dirty Dozen, or the janissaries of the old Ottoman Empire.

With a growing majority of Americans opposed to the war in Iraq, even ardent hawks refusing to enlist in droves, and the Pentagon pulling out ever more stops and sinking to new lows in recruitment and retention, a new all-volunteer generation of UUUU’s may emerge — the underachieving, unable, unexceptional, unintelligent, unsound, unhinged, unacceptable, unhealthy, undesirable, unloved, uncivil, and even un-American, all led by the unqualified, doing the unnecessary for the ungrateful. Current practices suggest this may well be the force of the future. It certainly isn’t the new military Donald Rumsfeld’s been promising all these years, but there’s no denying the depth of the transformation.

Nick Turse is the Associate Editor and Research Director of He has written for the San Francisco Chronicle, the Nation, the Village Voice, and regularly for Tomdispatch. Articles from his recent Los Angeles Times series, “The War Crimes Files” can be found here.

Copyright 2006 Nick Turse