updated 3/8/2005 8:01:23 AM ET 2005-03-08T13:01:23

Young blacks have grown markedly less willing to join the Army, citing fear of being sent to fight a war in Iraq they don’t believe in, according to unpublicized studies for the military that suggest the Army is entering a prolonged recruiting slump.

Fear of combat also is a leading reason fewer young women are choosing the Army, the studies say. Although female soldiers are barred by law from assignments in direct combat, they nonetheless have found themselves under attack by insurgents in Iraq, and 32 have died.

“More African Americans identify having to fight for a cause they don’t support as a barrier to military service,” concluded an August 2004 study for the Army. It also said attitudes toward the Army among all groups of American youth have grown more negative in recent years.

“In the past, barriers were about inconvenience or preference for another life choice,” the study said. “Now they have switched to something quite different: fear of death or injury.”

Statistically, the fear factor is about twice as strong among potential recruits as a whole as it was in 2000, the study said. That and other studies, all of which are posted on an obscure Defense Department Web site, cited the Iraq war as a major turnoff for many.

The Army has suffered more of the 1,500-plus U.S. deaths in Iraq than any other service, and thousands have been wounded. Some soldiers will serve their second tour in Iraq this year. While Army leaders say soldiers have shown a strong interest in re-enlisting, the strains of war seem to have become a barrier to first-time enlistees.

Expansion goal
The Army’s recruiting challenge is critically important not only to the long-term commitment in Iraq but also to the Army’s goal of expanding by 30,000 soldiers. Through the first five months of the budget year which began last Oct. 1, the active Army is about 6 percent behind schedule to meet its 2005 recruiting goal.

Explaining the overall drop-off, Army officials cite an improving national economy that offers more career opportunities as well as concern about the war in Iraq.

Blacks make up about 23 percent of today’s active-duty Army, but the share of blacks in the recruit classes of recent years dropped. From 22.7 percent at the time of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the share slid to 19.9 percent in 2002; 16.4 percent in 2003 and 15.9 percent last year, according to figures provided by Army Recruiting Command spokesman Douglas Smith.

The slide has continued, dropping to 13.9 percent as of Feb. 9.

A July 2004 study of parents’ influence on young people of recruiting age found that black parents have more say in their child’s career decisions than is the case with white parents. Also, black parents trust the military less and have more moral objections to military service.

Easier wars in the 90s
The Army isn’t the only service having trouble finding recruits. The Marine Corps fell slightly short of its recruiting goal in January — the first month that had happened in nearly a decade — amid parents’ concerns about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, the Marines remain on target to meet their full-year goal.

The Navy and Air Force have had no problems meeting their goals.

A separate study, done shortly after President Bush declared major combat operations in Iraq had ended, concluded, “Combat is the number one reason why” blacks don’t want to join the Army.

Smith, the Army Recruiting Command spokesman, said the current, reduced level of black recruits is closer to the percentage of young blacks in the eligible population. “Our strategy of being representative of America is working,” he said.

As recently as 2001, before the global war on terrorism, young people tended to think of military service as less risky. The 1991 Gulf War had ended after only 100 hours of ground combat with relatively few deaths, and no American soldier died in the 1999 air war over Kosovo.

Females also are getting harder to recruit, with the share of females in Army recruiting classes falling for four years running, from 21.6 percent in 2001 to 19.2 percent last year. It has slipped still further this year to 17.1 percent.

“Over time, females are seeing less benefits to joining the Army and more barriers, particularly combat-related reasons,” concluded another study done for the Army last spring by the market research firm Millward Brown.

Another study cited a survey that said 50 percent of youth rate the Army as their last choice for a career.

“There is a lot of work to be done, and it will take a lot of time to make major changes in the Army experience and the Army’s image,” that study concluded. “Risks of military service, and particularly the Army, are perceived to far outweigh the rewards for the vast majority of youth.”

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