Recruitment for the armed services is picking up this year. Even the Army, which has lagged furthest behind its recruitment goals, anticipates surpassing its targets by September.
That's good news in itself, and it's attributable to a combination of better pay, alluring educational benefits, and improved ways of catching the eyes of young prospects, such as updated, high-energy Web sites for each of the services.
It's also news with a political edge. Inevitably, the presidential campaign will field the question of a "hollow" military. That's a description congressional critics, mostly Republicans, love to pin on the defense policies of the Clinton years.
But it's far from a simple case to make. Even the current recruitment uptick throws some suspicion on the "hollow" charge, since that charge assumes a military so stressed no one wants to join it.
Spending is one supposed element of hollowness. By this measure, the military was at its most hollow back in 1976, when Defense Department budget authority was $287 billion, measured in fiscal year 2001 dollars. In 1985, the height of the famous Reagan buildup, the figure was $448 billion. By the last budget of President Bush, the military had $334 billion (the total was already dropping fast). And for the last five Clinton years (with a GOP-led Congress) it has hovered right around $300 billion.
So who hollowed out the budget? It was a joint effort, based, reasonably, on deficit-reduction mandates and a changing security picture worldwide.
That changing picture is another key element in a supposedly overstressed military. The charge is that US soldiers have had to take on more and more obligations overseas with fewer and fewer resources.
In fact, three obligations have consumed the lion's share of resources: the continued commitment to guard the Gulf and restrain Saddam Hussein, the peacemaking (and keeping) task in Bosnia, and the short air war and not so short on-the-ground commitment in Kosovo.
The first two of these situations spanned administrations. And would any administration have handled them differently, or avoided them?
Extended overseas commitments supposedly discourage potential recruits. But there's evidence the prospect of significant missions abroad attracts some recruits as well.
The simple fact is that the US military remains far and away the world's biggest and best. Hollowness is not really the issue. The issue is how to shape and use this force in today's changing world.
Here's hoping the presidential candidates frame the defense debate in those more solid terms.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society