St. Louis Post-Dispatch
August 20, 2006
Pg. B3

Dumbing Down G.I. Joe

'Be polite, be professional and have a plan to kill everyone you meet.'

By Kevin Horrigan

Last Wednesday, Bryan Bender reported in the Boston Globe that the Pentagon quietly has begun reviewing its mistakes in Afghanistan and Iraq. A major goal is improving counter-insurgency tactics; that is, fighting a low-grade war against insurgents who disappear into an indigenous population.

Col. Peter Mansoor commands the Army-Marine Counterinsurgency Center at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. The story quotes him thusly: "The challenge is to train the force not what to think, but how to think. Counterinsurgency is a thinking soldier's war. It is graduate-level stuff. There is public relations, civil affairs, information operations. It is not easy.

"To read Bender's story is to be reminded -- and to be grateful -- that the Army has a corps of super-bright young officers who know how to read a scoreboard. Unfortunately, they're not in charge yet.

Also on Wednesday, David Wood of the Baltimore Sun reported, "At a time when the Defense Department is calling for the 'best and the brightest' to fight today's tricky and unconventional wars, the Army is quietly signing up thousands of low-scoring recruits, who historically have performed less well, in order to meet its recruiting goals."

Let's see . . . one of the lessons of the last three years is that we're going to need smarter soldiers. So let's lower the standards.

Wood reported that by the time the federal fiscal year ends Sept. 30, the Army will have signed up 3,200 "Category IV" recruits, kids who scored below the 31st percentile on the Armed Forces Qualifications Test given to all recruits. Just two years ago, only 500 "Category IV" recruits were allowed to sign up.

College kids are not beating a path to recruiting offices. Nor are young people with the technical or trade skills needed in the job market. The Iraq war has made recruiters' jobs a lot more difficult. Despite enlistment bonuses and other perks, if the Army had not lowered its standards, it would have missed its goal of recruiting 80,000 new soldiers this year.

If you add this year's 3,200 Category IV recruits to the 2,900 who signed up last year, it means that for the next three years the Army will field two brigades' worth of soldiers who finished in the bottom 30 percent of all those taking the test.

We're not talking about the entrance exam for Mensa, either. Actual real sample questions:

"Water is an example of a (A) crystal. (B) solid. (C) gas. (D) liquid."

"A chisel is used for (A) prying. (B) cutting. (C) twisting (D) grinding."

Now, it's true that a dumb soldier is not necessarily a bad soldier; nor is a smart soldier necessarily a good one. Audie Murphy dropped out of school in the eighth-grade, and he won every medal there was to win, including the Medal of Honor. But do you really want your son or daughter going to war with an eighth-grade drop-out on the off chance he's the next Audie Murphy?

Murphy's job in World War II was to carry a rifle and use it to kill people in gray uniforms. Today's eighth-grade dropout -- those among the bottom 30 percent on the AFQT -- can read about his job, assuming he can read well enough, in the draft of the new Army-Marine Counterinsurgency Manual, available on the Web at www.fas.org/irp/doddir/army /fm3-24fd.pdf. Here's some of what it says:

"Soldiers and Marines must understand the following about the population in the area of operations (AO):

"How key groups in the society are organized; relationships and tensions among them; ideologies and narratives that resonate with the groups; group interests and motivations; means by which groups communicate; the society's leadership system.". . . [E]ffective counterinsurgency requires a leap of imagination and a peculiar skill set not encountered in conventional warfare. Soldiers and Marines at every echelon [must] possess the following within the cultural context of the AO: a clear, nuanced, and empathetic appreciation of the essential nature of the conflict; an understanding of the motivation, strengths, and weaknesses of the insurgents; knowledge of the roles of other actors in the AO."

In Iraq, the closest thing to this is this bit of wisdom, which is commonly passed from officers to their troops: "We're here to win hearts and minds. Be polite, be professional and have a plan to kill everyone you meet." If you're walking patrol in Baghdad, you deserve to know that the guy who's got your back also has a clue.

But if the smart guys aren't signing up, and the wars of the future are going to be low-intensity counter-insurgency operations, then what? A draft? That's about as likely as eliminating from the half-trillion dollar defense budget all those exotic weapons systems designed for the wars of the past. The Pentagon and the Capitol Building are full of people whose careers depend on these programs. Counter-insurgency operations don't need a lot of fancy weapons, but neither do they yield a lot of campaign cash from the people and companies who build fancy weapons.

I bring this all up because sometime this fall, you're going to hear a politician tell you that he supports the troops. After the cheers dies down, you might want to find out if he knows what that means.