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Guest Editorial

Incentives unlikely to sway wary Army recruits

BY DANIEL KLINE

A slightly better pay rate and a bigger signing bonus would not make me any more likely to enlist in the military at a time when joining up means a near-certain deployment in Iraq. Of course, I'm basically a coward who would probably not enlist even if my assignment was standing guard at the Playboy Mansion, but these incentives seem unlikely to sway the people who would actually consider serving.

Clearly the war has dampened the enthusiasm of potential recruits because, according to the Associated Press, for the first time since 1999, the Army failed to meet its recruitment goals. This happened despite an increase in the number of recruiters and a lowering of standards as to what makes an acceptable recruit.

To combat this decline, the U.S. Army has just released an elaborate plan designed to reverse the shortfalls in the recruitment of new soldiers. The proposal, which grants new enlistees higher bonuses, better pay and an array of fabulous prizes, fails to adequately address the obvious reason people are a mite hesitant to join the military.

Young people don't want to join the Army because if they do, they might die. Death has always been a risk of military service. But, with the war in Iraq, the conflict in Afghanistan and potential skirmishes with every villain short of the Legion of Doom on the horizon, the prospect seems greater than usual.

Previously the Army offered a balance of risk and reward. Certainly you might end up in a dangerous situation, but you also might serve your tour of duty in peacetime. The prospect of war was just a possibility to be weighed against the career opportunities, skills you would learn and other benefits the Army had to offer.

Now, joining the Army means you will almost definitely serve in hostile territory. For potential recruits the possibility of death becomes a lot less abstract when you see news reports about soldiers dying every day.

Perhaps more importantly, your potential death comes in a war that the American public has largely ignored. Whether you support the decision to remain in Iraq or disagree with it, the average U.S. citizen does not seem to care very much. The public clearly no longer believes the war has anything to do with protecting this country, and we're just not very concerned about whether a country that has shown no particular passion for freedom manages to become free.

This disinterest leaves potential recruits in the somewhat unique position of having to risk their lives for a cause that many at home find less than noble. A soldier accepts that he may die in defense of his country. It's harder to accept that you may lose your life defending a nation whose people don't want you there.

If the Army wants to hit its recruitment goals than it must refocus its mission and convince potential recruits that they will risk their lives for causes that both they, and the American people, believe in. Young people want to serve in a military that defends America, its people and its ideals. Asking them to serve under the current circumstances may simply be asking too much no matter how many incentives the Pentagon comes up with.

Daniel B. Kline is a freelance writer based in Connecticut. His book "50 Things Every Guy Should Know How to Do" will be released in April. He can be reached at dan@notastep.com.

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