40 years later, they are giving a war and nobody is coming

Recruitment met with disinterest

WASHINGTON -- Disillusionment with the Vietnam War gave currency to the quip: "Someday they are going to give a war and nobody is going to come."

Forty years later, U.S. Army and National Guard recruiters are finding some truth to that jibe as they scramble to fulfill their recruitment quotas.

Fear of deployment to Iraq is a big reason cited by young people who aren't interested in enlisting.

Lt. Col. Joe Richard, a Defense Department spokesman, also attributed the drop in Army recruiting to the improving domestic job picture.

Army recruiters -- now numbering 6,000 across the country -- are making their enlistment pitch to reluctant parents to encourage their sons and daughters to sign up. Richard said the recruiter tells both the parents and their child "what it means to be a soldier" and to "do your duty for your country."

At the same time, the recruiting officer pulls no punches, he said, and will go out of his way to explain the dangers involved and the sacrifices required by military life.

"It's a critical decision in time of war," said Richard.

Many parents are just saying "no thanks," apparently attuned to President Bush's ever-changing rationale for the war and to the risks and rising casualty toll.

Young people were jumping enthusiastically on the anti-terrorist bandwagon when Bush claimed that the brutal Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction that threatened the United States.

When that pretext for war was unmasked, the president tried to justify the U.S. invasion and occupation of the oil-rich Gulf state as a means of spreading democracy throughout the Arab world.

There are now some 150,000 U.S. troops patrolling Iraq, with no timetable set for their return home. There is speculation that some will be withdrawn in September.

Army Secretary Francis Harvey plans to launch a national grass-roots campaign to drum up enlistments in the heartland, using luncheon speeches by military and community leaders at Rotary and Kiwanis Clubs.

He predicted a drop in enlistees in the all-volunteer Army for March and April. The Army was 1,900 short of its goal in February. The quota for this year is 80,000 enlistments.

Harvey told reporters Wednesday that he is concerned -- but not giving up. He said he was optimistic that the Army -- which has always met its enlistment goals since 1990 -- will still achieve its annual goal by the end of September, which is the end of the government's fiscal year.

But he said he doubted that the National Guard -- which has been in a slump -- would meet its requirements. The National Guard hoped to recruit 63,000 new members this year.

The Marine Corps also is finding the environment challenging and has reportedly failed to meet goals for January and February by some 6.5 percent.

Richard predicted that the Marines would meet their quota.

Pentagon officials are trying to sweeten the pot with lump-sum bonuses and college funds up to a maximum of $70,000 to encourage sign ups.

Black youths -- a mainstay in the Army in Vietnam -- look like they're sitting this one out. Edward Dorn, former undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, was quoted in The Washington Post as saying that whites were strong backers of the Iraqi invasion but that black Americans were not.

There are indications that women also are more hesitant today to join one of the military services than they were in the early days of the Iraq war.

All of which leads to the question of whether a draft is in the picture if manpower shortfalls continue in the military services. Pentagon officials say they are not contemplating a national change of heart on that score.

Harvey said: "The D-word is the farthest thing from my thoughts."

Compulsory military service is politically unpalatable -- and more so in an unpopular war. Although the administration has done a masterful job of shielding the public from photos of the coffins of the dead flown into the Dover, Del., military mortuary, the reality of war is getting through.

If the Army continues to be all-volunteer and enlistments keep falling, the good side of the equation is that it could force Bush and his saber-rattling strategists to slow down before launching another pre-emptive foreign adventure.

Bush may then try something new -- like peacemaking.

Helen Thomas is a columnist for Hearst Newspapers. E-mail: Copyright 2005 Hearst Newspapers.

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