The Military

Trump’s growing military problem

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Despite the historically isolationist “America First” theme, President Trump is sticking to his campaign position that the U.S. military has become “depleted,” “obsolete” and too small to protect U.S. interests.

The president is planning a “historic” military build-up, adding 80 more Navy ships, 100 more Air Force combat aircraft, and substantially enlarged Army and Marine forces. The price tag, in the hundreds of billions of dollars, may not go down well with the House Freedom Caucus. But squeezing a few hundred billion dollars out of the deficit hawks may prove easier for Defense Secretary James Mattis than dealing with the human side of the build-up.

To boost the active-duty force by 150,000 new troops, Mattis’s first move will be to ensure that good soldiers continue to re-enlist. As any businessperson knows, employee turnover is expensive. Hiring and training new personnel costs money and doesn’t always work out well. Although the military spends millions each year to boost satisfaction and morale, prospects for troop retention have taken a nosedive.

{mosads}Active-duty troops have become increasingly unhappy: 91 percent of troops called their quality of life good or excellent in 2009, but five years later only 56 percent felt that way, according to surveys by Military Times. And intentions to re-enlist dropped from 72 percent to 63 percent. 


Observers believe the drop is tied to stagnant military pay. The 2014 and 2015 pay increases of 1 percent were the smallest in four decades, and last decade’s average pay increase was 4 percent, compared to 1.3 percent since 2011. Troops have noticed: Only half as many rated their pay as good or excellent in 2014 compared to 2009 (44 percent vs. 87 percent). 

In addition to the retention problem, Mattis will have to deal with a shrinking pool of qualified potential recruits. As the obesity epidemic has undermined America’s health in recent decades, fewer young people meet recruitment weight standards: 20 to 50 percent of applicants are now too heavy (depending on the service branch). And another 25 percent are disqualified for drug use or a criminal record. In fact, only 13 to 20 percent of young people are not going directly to college and qualify for service by meeting weight, health, conduct and entrance exam criteria.

Even without the additional pressure of a military expansion, recruitment offices will soon need to accept lower-quality recruits than in the past, according to a comprehensive and respected report on recruitment by CAN Corp. There’s a perfect storm of competition from civilian employers in our reasonably good economy, a shrinking number of qualified applicants and stagnant pay. The military will likely be issuing more and more waivers for minor physical problems, conduct violations or mediocre scores in order to hit recruitment targets.

All that would be enough to make recruiting another 150,000 soldiers difficult. But Mattis has one more challenge: Never before has a new president been poised to turn large numbers of young people away from military service.

Trump’s approval ratings have been low, but his ratings among groups such as Asian-Americans, African-Americans and Hispanics are in the basement. Only 18 percent of nonwhite Americans approve of his job so far. With so little confidence in the president, it is hard to imagine many nonwhite families will be encouraging their sons and daughters to enlist and put their lives in Trump’s hands.

During the presidential campaign, Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, father of a Marine, said that Trump as commander in chief “scares me to death.” Many Americans are now concerned that Trump’s impulsive and provocative style will cause unnecessary international conflicts that are not in our best strategic interests. He has angered potential enemies like China, as well as long-term friends like Australia and Mexico.

In what would have been shocking front-page news at any other point in the last 200 years, politicians and the public in our closest ally, the United Kingdom, have voiced opposition to the president speaking to parliament or staying with the queen at Buckingham Palace. His track record provoking enemies so far raises the fear that military conflicts may result from his aggressive style, rather than from a strategic decision to protect U.S. national security.

Potential military recruits will also be considering the possibility they might be used as pawns serving Trump’s own financial interests.

Although Trump claims there is no such thing as a conflict of interest for the president, that is only true in a legal sense. A law doesn’t yet exist regulating the president’s private interests, such as the existing laws and regulations for scientists, doctors, dentists, therapists, lawyers, financial advisers and most government employees and elected officials. But the absence of a law doesn’t mean Trump hasn’t violated, in the most serious way, fundamental ethical principles concerning the separation of private interests from public duty.

Trump has dozens of investments, deals and loans in countries like Pakistan, Turkey and the Philippines. At any moment over the next four years, these regional hot spots could erupt and demand a decision about sending soldiers into combat. Already there have been questions about financial interests, such as the Istanbul Trump Towers, affecting Trump’s acceptance of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan widespread political purge in Turkey and excluding certain Muslim-majority nations from his seven-country travel ban. Just the appearance of unethical conflicts of interest may lead some of our best, most conscientious young people away from military service. 

To launch a build-up, Mattis has an uphill battle: He needs to overcome budget resistance in Congress, raise pay and convince current troops to re-enlist, and compete with civilian opportunities for a declining supply of qualified potential recruits. But the hardest task may be convincing large numbers of the healthiest, most patriotic and best-behaved young Americans to put aside unprecedented levels of mistrust and join the armed services under Commander in Chief Donald Trump.


Mark Feinberg, Ph.D., is a research professor of Health and Human Development at Pennsylvania State University. He is the developer of evidence-based prevention programs such as Family Foundations and SIBS, and has a small business that trains military family service providers in supporting couples becoming parents.

The views of contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

Tags Donald Trump Military Tim Kaine

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