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Just Say Yes

06.29.2005 | POLITICS

Remember that brilliant idea Nancy Reagan had for battling the nation's youth drug problem? Instead of treatment programs, a new wave of after-school funding, an increased education budget, or anything else substantive, Nancy's plan was three words whispered to reporters in the breaks between meetings with her tailors and her pedicurist.

Just Say No was the outstanding comic legacy of the Reagan presidency, one of the great out-of-touch policy ideas since Marie Antoinette. If you were old enough to go potty by yourself, you were old enough to laugh at Just Say No.

Twenty years and a few million teenage crack addicts later, that same crew that gave us Just Say No is watching the boomerang come back. Twenty years ago, the yacht-and-Lexus set went to its poor people and asked them nicely to stop taking those darned drugs. Faced with potentially calamitous army-recruitment shortages, it is now asking them nicely to get their balls blown off in Iraq. It's just as funny this time, only this time, the joke's on them.

The army-recruitment-shortage story is gaining more and more traction in the mainstream press, but still remains largely underground. As a media phenomenon it falls under the category of one of those things that everyone would like to ignore, but simply cannot--like AIDS or global warming. While the Jessica Simpsons, Michael Jacksons and Terri Schiavos of the world heroically maintain their tenuous grasp on the front pages, the inside sections are beginning to pile up with some troubling numbers.

Army recruitment figures for May marked the Pentagon's fourth consecutive monthly shortfall. Just 5039 new recruits shipped off to basic training, well below the "target" of 6700. The May shortfall left the Army with 40,965 total recruits for fiscal year 2005, meaning that the Pentagon now has just four months left to roughly double that figure to meet its goal for this year (it needs about 39,000). The recruitment figures have been between 30 and 40 percent short for each of the past five months.

But the numbers only tell part of the story. Far more compelling is the bureaucratic desperation that one can easily detect between the lines of the army's recruitment efforts in the last year. For instance, the recruitment figures for May were technically only short 25 percent, a significant improvement over recent months. Except for one thing: The original target number for May was 8000, not 6700. The army changed the number at the last minute, in a transparent attempt to report an improving recruitment climate. Minus the change, the recruitment shortfall was 37 percent.

Statements by army officials in recent months have hinted at an agonizing struggle within the Pentagon to find someone out there to blame for the recruiting shortfall. The strategy they have apparently settled on is to blame what they call "the influencers"--the media, teachers and parents--for failing to convince young people to go to Iraq. Major General Michael Rochelle, the Fort Meade--based official in charge of recruitment, said recently that the "influencers" have effected what amounts to a blackout of information about the benefits of army service.

"It's getting harder because of the influencers who are discouraging young people from simply acquiring information" about the Army, he said. "Influencers not wanting recruiters to call, not wanting recruiters to sit down and talk."

Yes, it must be tough to get that message across to young people--especially with just $250 million for your advertising budget, with federal laws that force all schools participating in No Child Left Behind to give recruiters access to high school grounds and student records, and with billions of dollars in cash bonuses to hand out to high school grads in an economic environment where even a Wal-Mart cashier's position is considered a good job. Perhaps No Child Left Behind II will require schools to let recruiters physically sit on the chests of students at graduation ceremonies; until then, the unfair disadvantage unfortunately persists.

The army has already tried all the conventional bribes to service, has already bent every existing plank in its bureaucratic structure to try to boost recruitment numbers. If you don't want to take your chances with a two-year commitment, it now offers an 18-month gig, meaning you can go straight to war from basic training, skipping the traditional unit training that recruits used to go through before deployment. It is mulling a change in its policy of only accepting high school grads (the GED will soon be sufficient) and is reconsidering its traditional opposition to certain kinds of criminal histories.

Then there are the bonuses. New recruits can now secure up to $90,000 in cash and college tuition bonuses the moment they sign on the dotted line. Last year, I walked into a recruitment office in Orlando with a cigarette between my lips and wearing a Frankie Goes to Hollywood t-shirt; within 10 minutes of hearing that I had a college degree, recruiters had offered me $20,000 in cash and a fast track to Special Forces. Since then, the bonuses, especially for college, have vastly increased; and yet the numbers continue to plummet.

We all know where this is headed. Sooner or later there is going to be a serious discussion in this country about a draft. I imagine that process will go something like this: The Republicans will fiercely resist any talk about it, while the "pragmatic" Democrats, ever on the lookout for an opportunity to look tough, will drag them kicking and screaming into dat dere brier patch. Before you know it, the thing will actually be on the fucking floor. A year ago this only looked like the most extreme paranoid fantasy of the antiwar crowd, but how does it look now?

That process is already underway. Republicans continue to be quiet about a draft, but influential Democrats are beginning to talk about it. "We are going to have to face that question," said Joe Biden two weeks ago, when asked about the draft on Meet the Press.

In the meantime, responsible parties in government are clinging, hilariously, to the "If you build it, they will come" theory of war recruiting. John McCain, on Meet the Press last weekend, told Tim Russert with a straight face that the recruitment problem was rooted in the fact that, after 9/11, the American people were "never given a chance" to serve. According to McCain, we should have expanded the Peace Corps and Americorps after 9/11, which would have resulted in a by-osmosis increase in army recruits.

Says McCain: "We should have said... we're going to give you all a chance to fight as foot soldiers in the war on terror.'"

Biden, meanwhile, says the problem is just that George Bush has not asked people to serve. "If [Bush] would just level with the American people about how hard this is going to be... the American people will respond."

But if asking nicely doesn't work, the army is apparently ready to let loose some new rhetorical weapons. In a Knight-Ridder story last week, an army recruiter named Timothy Waud in Simi Valley, California, offered a new argument to the parents of America's young:

"(Parents) say they don't want to send their son or daughter off into danger," he said. "There's a lot of misconceptions about Iraq. Frankly, percentage-wise you face more of a risk driving on the freeways out here."

Military service in Iraq: safer than playing in traffic! Goddamn, I wish I had teenage children!

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