"Don't Dumb Down the Army"
Op-Ed, New York Times
February 17, 2006
Author: Kelly M. Greenhill, Research Fellow, International Security Program
DESPITE claims to the contrary by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, the Army is facing a manpower crisis. The evidence can be found in two separate reports released last month — one commissioned by the Pentagon, the other by Congressional Democrats — and in this simple fact: last year the Army accepted its least qualified pool in a decade.
The Army inducted both more recruits without high school diplomas and more youths scoring in the lowest category of the Army's aptitude test, so-called Category IV recruits.
Welcoming more such recruits into the military has obvious appeal at a time when recruitment numbers are slipping, while manpower needs remain acute. But the adoption of lower standards to fill the ranks is shortsighted and imprudent. Moreover, continuing or expanding this policy would be a mistake for the Army and for the recruits themselves. Pentagon officials should know this better than anyone: their previous experiments with lower standards were clear failures.
Four decades ago, during the Vietnam War, Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara created Project 100,000, a program intended to help the approximately 300,000 men who annually failed the Armed Forces Qualification Test for reasons of aptitude. The idea behind Mr. McNamara's scheme was that the military would annually absorb 100,000 of the country's "subterranean poor" — people who would otherwise be rejected.
Using a variety of "educational and medical techniques," the Pentagon would "salvage" these Category IV recruits first for military careers and later for more productive roles in society. Project 100,000 recruits — known as New Standards Men — would then return to civilian life with new skills and aptitudes that would allow them to "reverse the downward spiral of human decay."
Mr. McNamara further concluded that the best way to demonstrate that the induction of New Standards Men would prove beneficial was to keep their status hidden from their commanders. In other words, Project 100,000 was a blind experiment run on the military amid the escalation of hostilities in Southeast Asia.
Despite the skepticism of the military leadership and objections from some of Mr. McNamara's own advisers, the first New Standards Men began entering service in October 1966. By the time of the Tet offensive in 1968, approximately 150,000 had been inducted.
While standards were lowered for entry into the services, they were not lowered for acceptance to the military's technical schools. After basic training, only the most technically qualified moved onto advanced training. The rest ended up in "soft skill" areas, including supply, food service, clerical and, most significantly, the infantry.
In the program's first three years, nearly half of the Army's and well over 50 percent of the Marines' New Standards Men were assigned to combat specialties. The results were not surprising: a Project 100,000 recruit who entered the Marine Corps in 1968 was two and a half times more likely to die in combat than his higher-aptitude compatriots. After all, they tended to be the ones in the line of fire.
But Project 100,000 recruits fared poorly outside combat as well. A tenet of the program was that participants would be held to the same performance standards as their higher-aptitude peers. If they fell short, their only options were reassignment or remedial training.
Research conducted in the late 1980's revealed that across the services Project 100,000 recruits were reassigned at rates up to 11 times greater than their peers. Likewise, 9 percent to 22 percent of these men required remedial training, as compared to only one to three percent of their higher-category counterparts in the Army, Air Force and Navy.
Depending on the task, New Standards Men required up to four times as much training time and up to six times as much prompting as did their higher-aptitude counterparts. Their skills training dropout rates — and their arrest rates — were higher, too. In short, Mr. McNamara's enterprise, which was abandoned in 1971, did not prove especially beneficial to the military from either a skills or a manpower perspective.
But what about Project 100,000's effects on the Category IV recruits themselves? Did they reap the promised rewards of military service? If the program had been successful, the proof would have been higher rates of employment, earnings and education for New Standards Men as compared to their fellow low-aptitude, non-veteran peers.
Yet a 1991 study comparing Project 100,000 veterans and nonveterans with similar aptitude levels revealed that the former fared no better than their civilian counterparts and, in some respects, were worse off.
For instance, non-veterans were employed at higher rates, earned more and were more likely to own their own businesses than Project 100,000 veterans. Moreover, low-aptitude non-veterans had marginally higher average levels of schooling than did New Standards Men, more than 27 percent of whom never completed high school.
If Project 100,000 represented a real opportunity for self-improvement, why weren't most if not all of these men better off economically, educationally and socially after their service? There's no clear answer to this question. One possibility is that Project 100,000 veterans fared worse than non-veterans of similar aptitude because they also had to contend with the psychological repercussions of prolonged combat; another is that these veterans were simply less well-equipped to readjust to civilian life.
What is clear, though, is that Project 100,000 was a failed experiment. It proved to be a distraction for the military and of little benefit to the men it was created to help. Forty years later, amid new conflicts and a renewed manpower shortfall, we would do well not to make the same mistake again.
Kelly M. Greenhill is an assistant professor of government at Wesleyan and a research fellow at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.
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