Attrition: Recruiting Foreigners


December31, 2006: Now that U.S. Army brass have come out in favor of increasing the size of the force, there is all sorts of chatter about where the recruits are going to come from. Well, they're coming from the same place they've always come from. Today, the military has 2.2 million active duty and reserve troops, out of a population of 300 million. That means, out of every million Americans, 7,334 of them are military. But at the end of the Cold War, fifteen years ago, the military had 3.7 million troops, out of a population of 250 million. That was 14,800 military personnel for every million Americans. Then, and now, the military depended on volunteers. The "shortages of volunteers" the media talks about, does not exist. In the last fifteen years, the military kept raising its standards (mostly in terms of education, and scores on military aptitude exams) in order to exclude recruits it believed would be less successful as soldiers. Lower the standards back to 1991 levels, and you have all the troops you need.

But the military, particularly the army, likes the higher standards. This is something that is little discussed, and largely unknown outside the army itself, but those stratospheric recruiting standards has produced the most professional and capable military in American history. The people who really know this, from personal experience, are the senior NCOs, who were junior troops themselves fifteen years ago, and lived the differences. The older sergeants know that today's army has more dependable, smarter and effective troops than back then. And back then, the Vietnam vets were amazed at how much more effective the 1991 troops were in Kuwait, versus twenty years earlier in Vietnam. It's this troops quality, more than anything else, that has produced the phenomenally low casualty rate in Iraq and Afghanistan. An American soldier in Iraq is a third as likely to get killed or wounded, as one in Vietnam. Historically, that is not unusual. Throughout history, the more capable troops have suffered fewer casualties. But hardly anyone pays attention to history anymore.

Many senior officers in the army do pay attention to history, and want to maintain the highest standards. Thus there are now proposals to recruit more foreigners. Not just non-citizens with green cards (which comprise about two percent of the American military now), but foreigners who are not residents of the United States. This brought forth protests from those opposed to, well, whatever. Historically, the American military has usually had more foreigners in the ranks, than it does now. During the American Civil War, about twenty percent of the Union Army was foreign born troops. There were entire divisions of Irish, Germans or Scandinavians. For the rest of the 20th century, the all-volunteer military continued to have a higher (than today) percentage of foreigners. Recruiting foreigners would enable the army to get more, highly capable recruits, and ones with needed foreign language and cultural awareness skills. Naturally, they would have to speak acceptable English, just as resident foreigners in the United States, or citizens from Puerto Rico, must. The American military pay and benefits are competitive with U.S. civilian occupations, but to most foreigners, these pay levels are astronomical. The risk is low, as only about one in a thousand foreign born volunteers has died in Iraq or Afghanistan. All that, and you get to become a citizen of the United States after your four year enlistment is up. The only question is, which line would be longer at American embassies, the one for visas, or the one for military recruiting?




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