Why Serve?

A basic need for America's armed forces today isn't how to counter a superpower. It's recruiting enough people of the right stuff to defend their country in uniform.

A Monitor series (August 5, 6, 9, and 10) by reporter Dave Moniz looks at ways to deal with the fundamental problem that wearing the nation's uniform has lost its appeal for most young Americans.

This doesn't mean the country's security is at risk anytime soon. The US armed forces vastly surpasses those of any other nation, or even a group of nations. The issue is whether the US can meet the demands of its alliances from NATO to South Korea while also taking on more and more peacekeeping roles.

The Army alone, since 1990, has taken on three times the number of foreign deployments as during the cold war.

Solutions to the military's personnel crisis are as multifaceted as the problem itself. For one, the services should recruit from American groups underrepresented in the armed services, particularly Hispanics. Congress is on track in bolstering military pay and improving military housing.

But more money alone won't solve the recruiting and retention problems. Without a reordering of resources, problems will only grow. Budgetary realities dictate that this shift toward personnel investments will come at the expense of some super-expensive weapons projects.

Partnerships between the military and industry may yield arrangements that serve both the country's need for manpower in uniform and companies' need for trained workers. More flexible enlistment agreements, to lure college grads who might be attracted by shorter-term assignments overseas, are worth trying.

The big global picture can't be forgotten either. Deployments during the '90s suggest that the 21st century is likely to serve up more fire-brigade missions - some of which will involve long-term commitments and working closely with other nations in "policing" hot spots. US security interests are becoming more entwined with other nations in global peacekeeping.

Most of all, to recruit young people, the military must revive the idealism of fighting to uphold freedom, relieve suffering, and oppose oppression.

No salary or lifestyle incentive will be enough for young people to risk their lives unless they are serving the higher ideals of America.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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