The Boston Globe
Appreciation for troops emanates from trailBy Peter S. Canellos, Globe Columnist | December 18, 2007
WASHINGTON - Two weeks ago at a Town Hall meeting in Hooksett, N.H., Senator John McCain of Arizona paid tribute to the US military: "These men and women are the best-trained, most professional, and bravest we've ever had."
His audience instantly applauded. It's a line McCain uses regularly, and it always receives a strong response. Seemingly all of America - and especially its political leaders - wants to honor the troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, to make certain that their sacrifices are appreciated and understood.
McCain, the father of two sons serving in the Navy, even points out that Democrats and Republicans are united in supporting the troops and ensuring that they receive the best possible treatment for their injuries, and the most enthusiastic support from the home front.
The waves of appreciation for the military emanating from the campaign trail are a welcome curative to the treatment of Vietnam-era veterans like McCain himself. They returned to a country that considered them reminders of a war that many wanted to put behind them.
But there are political agendas at work in both parties' expressions of devotion to those fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. And their politically calibrated reluctance to draw attention to problems that may reflect badly on the troops could have the perverse effect of damaging the military.
The most immediate problem is the declining standards for Army recruitment. In October, the first month of a fiscal year in which the Army is increasing its size, it met its recruitment goals - but only by accepting a large number of recruits who failed to meet the requisite standards for fitness, substance abuse, and lack of criminal records.
In all, more than one of every five recruits obtained a waiver after failing to meet the usual standards. That was twice the share that was granted waivers before the Iraq war, which has made many potential recruits leery of joining the Army. Meanwhile, the number of enlistees who have earned a high school diploma has also dropped in recent years.
The lowering of standards would be more acceptable if the Army could, through training, instill upstanding values in its soldiers, regardless of what they were like before entering. Certainly, many young men and women have turned their lives around by joining the military. People overcoming poor physical fitness, a history of substance abuse, or brushes with the law have always been given a chance to serve their country.
|The American people ... also have a reason for avoiding any unpleasant truths about Army recruitment and training: The only alternative to the current system is a draft ... |
But the Globe reported this week that the Army has failed to prevent tens of thousands of enlisted men and women from cheating on their promotion exams for sergeant - a clear violation of military law. No one in the Army hierarchy has offered an explanation for the failure to address the problem beyond the usual bureaucratic obstacles to change. But some officers noted in interviews that the Army would naturally be reluctant to crack down on thousands of soldiers at the same time as recruiters struggle to attract new enlistees.
Meanwhile, political leaders would naturally feel awkward pressuring the Army either to crack down on cheaters or to raise its recruitment standards at the very moment they are trying to appear supportive of the troops.
For Republicans, an admission that standards are unraveling, at least in some areas, would prompt the reasonable conclusion that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have overstretched the forces - something that President Bush and his allies refuse to acknowledge.
For Democrats, an admission that standards are unraveling would risk an accusation of insensitivity to the troops. It would put the Democrats in the awkward position of pointing out flaws while their rivals across the aisle are celebrating the patriotism of those who serve.
The American people who are not in the military also have a reason for avoiding any unpleasant truths about Army recruitment and training: The only alternative to the current system is a draft, and the public overwhelmingly opposes such a move.
Until the people in the world outside the military are willing to do the job of the military, they risk appearing impolite - or ungrateful - if they question the way the military handles itself.
So from Congress to the White House to town meetings across the campaign trail, candidates and their supporters have been extolling the excellence of the military while perpetuating a sense of denial about the Army's recruitment and training flaws.
There are many ways to support the troops, and honoring their sacrifices is only a start.
Peter S. Canellos is the Globe's Washington bureau chief. National Perspective is his weekly analysis of events in the capital and beyond.
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