The War in Iraq may end sooner rather than later Ė not because prominent congressmen or military experts say we should get out, and not because the American public is losing patience. It will end relatively soon because we canít afford the price tag of recruiting enough soldiers to fight it.
Our soldiers comprise whatís called an "all-volunteer" army. But the job of soldiering is "voluntary" the same way any paid job is voluntary. Youíre not forced to do it. Youíre paid to do it. Since Richard Nixon ended the draft in 1973, most of the people who join the military do so because itís the most attractive job available to them.
Some are motivated by patriotism, of course, but letís not kid ourselves. People facing a choice between a job in the private sector thatís near home and safe, and one in the military thatís thousands of miles away and may not be safe, will choose to remain civilians Ė unless the military job pays more. And for any given age and level of education, it does.
When the economy is expanding and private-sector jobs are becoming more plentiful, as they are now, the Pentagon has to pay even more to attract additional recruits. Thatís why the latest defense appropriations raises military pay 3.1 percent every year for the next five, considerably faster than civilian pay is expected to rise.
Cash isnít the Pentagonís only lure. The military is also offering signing bonuses up to $30,000 for jobs in high demand. You can get up to a $150,000 cash bonus for re-enlisting if youíre with the Special Forces. And all recruits are eligible for up to $50,000 to offset the costs of higher education and up to $65,000 to pay back college loans. Not to mention generous housing, child care, and health benefits.
But not even all this is enough.
According to new report just from Congressís General Accountability Office, the Pentagon is falling far behind its targets for recruiting and re-enlisting soldiers for vital combat positions Ė including as few as a third of the Special Force soldiers and intelligence specialists it aimed for last year. All told, the military has failed to fully staff over 40 percent of its combat and non-combat specialities.
Why? According to military experts, the war in Iraq and Afghanistan is scaring many potential recruits away. Even though only a portion of our 1.4 million active-duty personnel serve in a war zone or hardship area, the job of a soldier seems far more dangerous these days.
Itís the law of supply and demand. If we want more people to sign up, and stay signed up, weíve got to pay them even more. But hereís the catch. Try paying them much more and we run into an incontrovertible obstacle called the federal budget deficit.
If you havenít heard, the deficit is out of control. Thatís why Congress and the White House are trying to put a cap on military spending, not increase it. The Pentagon is already scaling back or jettisoning major weapons systems that had been on the drawing boards. Thereís no money left for substantially higher pay and benefits for the troops.
Donít expect the White House and Congress to reinstate the draft. That would bring public hostility for the Iraqi War to the boiling point. So with no more money in the kitty to recruit all the Americans who needed to "volunteer" to continue to fight the war, what will happen? The war will come to an end.
Robert B. Reich, a professor at Brandeis University, is the author most recently of "Reason" (2004, Alfred A. Knopf). He was secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration.