WASHINGTON – To the daily drumbeat of casualty reports from Iraq, young blacks and women are marching away from offers to join the Army (search).
These trends, combined with the negative effects of the Army's image as a last-resort career choice for what one study called the "average Joe," suggests the military's largest service may be entering a prolonged recruiting slump at a time when it is trying to expand its ranks.
The share of blacks in the Army's recruiting classes has plummeted by about one-third over the past five years. It has continued slipping this year despite more generous enlistment bonuses offered to all prospective recruits and an increase in the number of recruiters.
"More African-Americans identify having to fight for a cause they don't support as a barrier to military service," concluded an August 2004 study for the Army. It also said attitudes toward the Army among all groups of American youth have grown more negative in recent years.
"In the past, barriers were about inconvenience or preference for another life choice," the study said. "Now they have switched to something quite different: fear of death or injury."
Female recruits as a share of total Army enlistments have dropped 13 percent over the last five years and are in continued decline this year, the Army Recruiting Command (search) says.
For both groups, concern about being sent to fight in Iraq is the major turnoff, according to a series of unpublicized studies done for the Army over the past year and a half.
"Risks of military service, and particularly the Army, are perceived to far outweigh the rewards for the vast majority of youth," said the August 2004 study by GfK Custom Research Inc.
"Reasons for not considering military service are increasingly based on objections to the Iraq situation and aversion to the military," concluded a study by market research firm Millward Brown based on a survey last spring.
Although female soldiers are barred by law from assignments in direct land combat, they nonetheless have found themselves under attack by insurgents in Iraq (search), and 33 have died, including 21 in hostile action. That is far more than died in either the Vietnam War or the 1991 Gulf War.
"Over time, females are seeing less benefits to joining the Army and more barriers, particularly combat-related reasons," the Millward Brown study found.
Statistically, the fear factor is about twice as strong among potential recruits as a whole than it was in 2000, the GfK study found last August. The fear is evident in a high proportion of survey respondents who said their main reasons for not joining the military included: "I might be killed in combat," "I don't want to kill people," and "I might be captured or tortured."
The Army has suffered more of the 1,500-plus U.S. deaths in Iraq than any other service, and thousands more have been wounded. While Army leaders say deployed soldiers have shown a strong interest in re-enlisting, the strains of war seem to have become a barrier to new enlistees.
The Army's recruiting challenge is important not only to the long-term commitment in Iraq but also to the Army's goal of expanding by 30,000 soldiers. Through the first five months of the budget year which began last Oct. 1, the active Army is about 6 percent behind schedule to meet its 2005 recruiting goal.
Explaining the overall drop-off, Army officials cite an improving national economy that offers more career opportunities as well as concern about the war in Iraq.
Blacks make up about 23 percent of today's active-duty Army, but the share of blacks in the recruit classes of recent years dropped. From 22.7 percent at the time of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the share slid to 19.9 percent in 2002; 16.4 percent in 2003 and 15.9 percent last year, according to figures provided by Army Recruiting Command spokesman Douglas Smith.
The slide has continued, dropping to 13.9 percent as of Feb. 9.
A separate study, done shortly after President Bush declared major combat operations in Iraq had ended in May 2003, concluded, "Combat is the number one reason why" blacks don't want to join the Army.
The Army isn't the only service having trouble finding recruits. The Marine Corps fell slightly short of its recruiting goal in January — the first month that had happened in nearly a decade — amid parents' concerns about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, the Marines remain on target to meet their full-year goal.
The Navy and Air Force have had no problems meeting their goals.
The GfK study last August cited a survey that said 50 percent of youth rate the Army as their last choice for a military career. Compared with more favorable impressions of the Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps, the Army has much work ahead to change its image as the "average Joe" service, the study said.