Low morale saps US military might

The American soldier feels stressed by overwork and lack of clear purpose. Higher pay isn't enough.

Morale is one of the most powerful intangibles in warfare, a quality that has turned underdogs into the indomitable - and withered the most powerful empires.

And some say it's sinking to new lows in the US military.

George W. Bush, the Republican presidential nominee, has spotlighted the topic as he tries to indict his opponent, Al Gore, for poor military stewardship during the Clinton administration.

While the fixing of blame remains a matter for debate, officials and analysts generally agree that tumbling morale is one of today's most glaring military shortcomings.

Soldiers across the board are increasingly dissatisfied, according to surveys, and they are leaving the service at critical rates. Units are also "stressed out," researchers say, and not receiving the resources they think they need to succeed.

"Troop morale is low," explains an Army sergeant at Fort Meade, Md., who recently returned from an assignment in Italy. "You'd be surprised about how much guys sit around and talk about it. We think we deserve more money and more equipment. But whenever we ask for something, we get the short end of the stick."

Despite the clear partisan tone of the discussion, the problem runs beyond neglect at the hands of the Clinton administration.

If anything, morale is a sensitive barometer that indicates long-term shortcomings within the civilian leadership and the standing force of about 1.4 million. Analysts don't see an immediate threat to US security, but warning signals are growing.

A February 2000 study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington warned of "stress on personnel and families, problems with recruiting and retention, and, for some personnel, declining trust and confidence in the institution and its leaders."

Half of respondents in the survey said their unit did not have high morale, and two-thirds said stress was a problem.

Especially troubling, young leaders are leaving at an unprecedented rate. About 36 percent of lieutenants and captains expect to make a career of Army service, down from 52 percent a decade ago, finds a recent Army survey taken at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. (Senior Pentagon officials say this number has improved in recent months.)

In an Army Research Institute survey taken in October 1999 at Fort Benning, Ga., outgoing captains complained they were disillusioned with the Army mission and lifestyle, struggling to maintain a functional family life, and concerned about the shortage of career opportunities in the service.

Sacrificing, with goals unclear

Simply put, many officers don't know for what ends they are making such a huge sacrifice. "I want to be a father for my kids," complained one Fort Benning captain. "I knew the Army would be time-intensive, but the focus is not on taking care of families."

Like many of the military's problems, low morale can be traced to the rapid close of the cold war and the failure of American leadership to define a new role for its massive armed forces.

In the transition period stretching from Reagan to Bush to Clinton, personnel levels declined by 40 percent. Spending dropped 35 percent from its 1985 high, and has increased slightly in the last two years to just over $300 billion.

During the downsizing, which Democrats and Republicans supported, the American soldier went from being a homeland protector to a nomadic peacekeeper. His weapons, once on the cutting edge, began to rust.

He was sent to faraway places like Haiti, Somalia, and Bosnia, and was sometimes confused about his new role. With more jobs to do and less manpower, operations tempo reached a new high, and soldiers were ferried back and forth between far-flung assignments with little public understanding.

"From Day 1, the soldier is taught that their mission is to fight wars and win," says Peter Feaver, a military researcher at Duke University in Durham, N.C. "That's why they enlist. But [in the last decade] they have been given other things to do that prevent them from being ready for that primary mission. That's when morale comes into play."

A senior Pentagon official argues that just the opposite is true - that troops thrive on foreign assignments because they add a sense of adventure to the job.

"The most remarkable change in the military in the last 10 years is how operations other than wars have been legitimized," the official says. "Everybody wants American soldiers to keep the peace."

But the lower ranks disagree. "It's been tough," says an Army captain who was sent to Haiti in the early 1990s. "As soon as we got home we had to be ready to go out again - sometimes on an hour's notice."

Overseas duties

Meanwhile, the number of US forces permanently stationed abroad remains high - despite a significant drop-off in threat. There are about 260,000 forward deployed troops, most of them in Europe and Asia.

A US soldier based in South Korea said one of his greatest hardships was being separated from his family. About 56 percent of service members are married, up from 46 percent in 1973.

But the soldier in Korea, like others, tries to keep a positive outlook: "That's just part of being in the armed forces and defending our country and countries we support."

The high-flying US economy has not helped. Soldiers realize they can get better pay with perhaps less stress and more respect in the civilian job market.

"It's a snowball effect that goes beyond natural attrition," says Jim Tully, president of Orion International Consulting Group, a thriving 10-year-old firm that specializes in finding civilian jobs for military personnel.

One military intelligence officer complains that top military officials ignore their problems so they can paint a rosy picture for the civilian leadership. "I feel like the Pentagon is not speaking up for us," he says.

A retired admiral says upper brass is under increasing pressure to toe the party line. "The Clinton administration is unusual in how they've pounded the senior leadership into a docile frame of mind," he says. The Department of Defense has a schizophrenic way of dealing with the morale problem - sometimes it showers troops and recruits with pay incentives, sometimes it denies that anything is wrong.

"If morale is a problem, I wouldn't have a 57-to-60 percent retention [rate] in the Army," a senior Pentagon official says.

But David Segal, a military sociologist at the University of Maryland, says the problem is real and can't be fixed by higher pay alone, including the 3.7 percent pay raise President Clinton approved this year. "[Soldiers] are insulted with the perception at the Department of Defense that this whole problem can be solved by paying them more," Mr. Segal says.

The first step toward improving morale, he says, is to redefine the military's post-cold-war mission - to answer the question of "What are we doing here?"

Although morale is clearly lower than desired, the military still has a strong culture, analysts say. And soldiers - now more educated then ever - are adapting well to having women in the ranks, as well as to tacit acceptance of homosexuals.

Moreover, according to the CSIS survey, more than 85 percent of soldiers remain dedicated enough to put their lives on the line in combat and rescue missions "when vital or important interests are at stake."

*Michael Baker contributed to this story from Seoul, South Korea.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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