Monday, April 10, 2006

Army has trouble retaining officers

In another sign that the repeated tours generated by the Iraq war are taking a toll on the long-term health of the military, young Army officers are leaving at an unusually high rate.

Last year, more than a third of the West Point class of 2000 left active duty at the earliest possible moment, after completing their five-year obligation.

It was the second year in a row of worsening retention numbers, apparently marking the end of a burst of patriotic fervor during which junior officers chose continued military service at unusually high rates.

Mirroring the problem among West Pointers, graduates of reserve officer training programs at universities are also increasingly leaving the service at the end of the four-year stint in uniform that follows their commissioning.

Naturally, the Army isn't taking this lying down:

To entice more to stay, the Army is offering new incentives this year, including a promise of graduate school on Army time and at government expense to newly commissioned officers who agree to stay in uniform for three extra years. Other enticements include the choice of an Army job or a pick of a desirable location for a home post.

The incentives resulted in additional three-year commitments from about one-third of all new officers entering active duty in 2006, a number so large that it surprised even the senior officers in charge of the program.

Those are excellent incentives, ones that I wish had been around when I was a young second lieutenant, and they have succeeded to some extent: retention rates are still better than they were immediately prior to 9/11. But the loss rate is rising rapidly despite the new incentives. The incentives just get junior officers far enough along their career path to make captain. And captain is where it starts to fall apart.

But the service's difficulty in retaining current captains has generals worriedly discussing among themselves whether the Army will have the widest choice possible for its next generation of leaders.

Exactly. Vietnam wrecked the military for a decade, as Congress cut the budget and it transitioned to an all-volunteer force that had trouble attracting good candidates because Vietnam had left its image in tatters.

Iraq is different in a couple of important ways: the public is doing a much better job of distinguishing between the warrior and the war, and Congressional support for military spending remains high. But like with Vietnam, an unpopular war of open-ended duration will drive away many of the best and brightest, robbing the military of future leadership.

This is the price we pay for using our military unwisely. It is why we should only put our soldiers in harm's way for the most defensible reasons. Not only is that a moral imperative; it is a practical one, too.

Update: As a sort of counterpoint to the above, USA Today reports that the Army is having better success retaining enlisted soldiers, helping to make up for shortfalls in recruiting.

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