No Army for Young Men

Soldiers these days need less muscle and more maturity, so why do we still focus on recruiting 18-year-olds?

Military demographics change over time. Sixty-five years ago, the United States had a segregated military, but today people of every race, color, and creed train and fight side by side. Twenty-five years ago, women were excluded from half the occupational specialties in the Army and 80 percent of Marine Corps jobs; today, women can serve in all but a few combat-related occupational specialties. Just two years ago, gay and lesbian service members risked discharge; today, they can serve openly.

But there's one thing that hasn't changed much. Each year, the overwhelming majority of new military recruits are young and male. In that sense, the American military of 2012 still looks a great deal like the American military of the 1970s, the 1940s, the 1860s, or the 1770s. For that matter, it still looks a lot like virtually every group of warriors in virtually every society during virtually every period of human history.

It's time to question the near-universal assumption that the ideal military recruit is young and male. The nature of warfare has changed dramatically in the last century and the capabilities most needed by the military are less and less likely to be in the exclusive possession of young males. In fact, the opposite may be true: when it comes to certain key skills and qualities likely to be vital to the military in the coming decades, young males may be one of the least well-suited demographic groups.

For most of human history, having an army full of young men made lots of sense. As soldiers, young males have had two things going for them, historically speaking. First, they're usually stronger, on average, than any other demographic group: they can run fast and carry heavy loads. Second, they're (relatively) biologically expendable from a species-survival perspective: women of child-bearing age are the limiting factor in population growth. A society can lose a lot of young men without a devastating impact on overall population growth.

Today, though, these characteristics don't matter as much as they once did. Overall birthrates are much lower in modern societies than they were during earlier periods, but life expectancy is much longer. Early societies worried about sustaining their populations; today we worry less about ensuring population growth than about overburdening the planet's load-bearing capacity.

Simple brawn also offers far less advantage in our high-tech age. In modern warfare, brutal hand-to-hand combat is no longer the norm, and warfare is no longer a matter of sending out wave after wave of troops to overwhelm the enemy through sheer mass. Increasingly, modern warfare involves a mixture of high-tech skills and low-tech cultural knowledge rather than "fighting" in the traditional sense.

In fact, if the next few decades are anything like the last, most military personnel will never see combat. A recent McKinsey study found that the "tooth to tail" ratio in the active duty U.S. military was roughly one to three in 2008: for every service member in a combat or combat-support position, there were more than three service members in non-combat-related positions. A 2010 Defense Business Board study found that 40 percent of active duty military personnel had never even been deployed -- and that's during a decade in which the United States was at war in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Being young, male, and strong offers no particular advantage to an Air Force remote drone pilot or an Army financial services technician. Even for service members in combat positions, the physical strength that young men are more likely to possess no longer offers as much of an advantage: today's weapons are lighter and more portable than they used to be, and even the most impressive musculature is no match for an IED.

I don't mean to suggest that the physical strength of soldiers has become militarily irrelevant. Sometimes, military personnel -- particularly infantrymen -- still find themselves doing things the old-fashioned way: hauling heavy equipment up a winding mountain trail, or slugging it out hand to hand during a raid. Specialized groups such as Navy SEALs will also continue to value strength and endurance, and that's appropriate for their mission. But for increasing numbers of military personnel, the marginal benefits of sheer physical strength have plummeted relative to earlier eras -- and this trend seems likely to continue.

Experts don't agree on what the future of warfare will look like. Perhaps the age of counterinsurgency and stability operations isn't over: perhaps, despite the best intentions of current leaders, the United States will have more Iraqs and Afghanistans. But even if we don't -- especially if we don't -- we'll continue to want to leverage the capabilities of partners and allies. To do that, we'll likely rely more and more heavily on the kind of skills honed by the Special Forces community: specifically, the ability to operate effectively in small groups in foreign cultures, keeping a low profile while working closely with host nation militaries.

Or perhaps the future of warfare will be high-tech. Perhaps we'll increasingly have to grapple with cyberattacks, unmanned technologies such as robots and drones, or high-end asymmetric threats such as anti-access and area-denial technologies. And perhaps we'll see all these things at the same time: the high end and the low end, all mixed together.

No one knows precisely what warfare will look like in the decades to come, but I'm pretty sure I know what it won't look like. It won't look like tanks sweeping across the plains of Eastern Europe. It won't look like Gettysburg, and it won't look like Homeric conflict outside the walls of Troy.

In other words, it won't be the kind of conflict that relies on mass, or favors the brawny over the brainy. It won't be the kind of conflict at which young males have traditionally excelled.

On the contrary. The skills the military is most likely to need  in the future are precisely the skills that American young people in general -- and young males in particular -- are most likely to lack. The U.S. military will need people with technical experience and scientific know-how. It will also need people with foreign language and regional expertise and an anthropological cast of mind -- people who can operate comfortably and effectively surrounded by foreigners. And in the 24-7 media environment -- the era of the strategic corporal -- the military will, above all, need people with maturity and good judgment.

These, it hardly needs to be said, are not generally the qualities most closely associated with the 18-24 year-old male demographic. Don't get me wrong: I've known many 18-24 year-old young men with terrific judgment and technical or cultural sophistication. But statistically, those thoughtful and sophisticated 18-24 year-old men are surrounded by a lot of not-so mature or sophisticated peers. (Ever spent time in a frat house?)

The statistics make for gloomy reading. As David Courtwright, author of Violent Land: Young Men and Social Disorder, puts it, young men seem to have "an affinity for trouble." They're responsible for a disproportionate share of fatal auto accidents, for instance. Violent crime rates are higher among 18-24 year-old men than among any other demographic group, tapering off sharply after age 25 or so. 18-24 year-olds commit homicides at roughly twice the rate of 25-34 year-olds. Young males also commit an outsized percentage of property crimes, commit suicides at disproportionately high rates, and are disproportionately likely to have substance abuse problems.

Young men in the U.S. military aren't immune from these statistical trends. Although the military conducts psychological testing on would-be recruits and screens people out based on a wide range of risk factors (prior felonies, lack of high school diploma, and so on), miscellaneous bad behavior is still far from unheard of among young service members. Ask a master sergeant or a battalion commander how much of their time goes into dealing with the assorted messes young people -- especially young men -- manage to get into, and they'll tell you they see a seemingly unending parade of junior soldiers arrested for driving drunk, defaulting on loans, assault, shoplifting, domestic violence, and the like.

Don't blame the boys: the fault lies not in their characters but in their neurological development. The parts of the brain responsible for impulse control and the ability to see consequences and evaluate risks seems to develop more slowly in males than in females. In males, the development in the prefrontal cortex -- "the seat of sober second thought" -- isn't complete until age 25 or later.

Of course, there are plenty of young men out there who are responsible, mature, and intellectually sophisticated -- and even the most immature young men generally grow up to become responsible, sober-minded citizens. But in the meantime, why do military recruiters continue to primarily target young males? As the world grows more complex -- as the skills needed to ward off security threats become more subtle and varied -- wouldn't we do better to radically rethink military recruitment strategies?

If the military opened up more opportunities for service to older Americans -- or simply devoted far more resources to recruiting women and men over 25 -- we might find it far easier to turn the military into the agile, sophisticated machine we keep saying we want. Better still, why not reconsider the whole military career progression, creating more of a revolving door between the military and civilian world for people at all career stages -- and particularly for those with critical skills, be they linguistic or scientific?

Transforming the military personnel system is a vital project, but one that will likely take decades. For now, we can start small. How about military recruitment booths at the AARP?

Alex Wong/Getty Images

National Security

Shadow Wars

What's the difference between a spook and a special operator?

What happens when the covert goes semi-overt, and the overt goes semi-covert?

That's not one of those sadistic Sphinxian riddles designed to make children feel dim-witted -- It's one of the many unanswered questions created by recent seismic shifts in the national security landscape.

Particularly since 9/11, the lines between the military and the intelligence community have gotten fuzzy. The CIA has moved increasingly into paramilitary activities, while the military has moved increasingly into what look like covert intelligence activities. These trends are the result of natural (and largely praiseworthy) efforts by DoD and the intelligence community to respond to changing threats with creativity and agility -- but the end result is confusion and lack of accountability.

The covert goes (semi)-overt

Start with the intelligence community. After the CIA debacles of the '60s and '70s (Bay of Pigs, anyone? Poisoned cigar?), the intelligence community shifted away from lethal covert action. An executive order prohibited assassinations, and Congress tightened covert-action notification requirements. Yes, espionage remained a dangerous game, operating in a sort of legal twilight. But in the 1980s and '90s the intelligence community focused mainly on collection and analysis rather than on the covert use of force. The 9/11 Commission report concluded that prior to 9/11, many in the intelligence community in fact believed that using covert lethal force was prohibited.

After 9/11, this changed fast. CIA personnel were the first American government agents to enter Afghanistan, paving the way for Army Special Forces; in some cases, CIA personnel reportedly fought (and died) alongside Afghan Northern Alliance soldiers. CIA personnel also reportedly participated actively in the Battle of Tora Bora and Operation Anaconda, and in the years that followed, the CIA has substantially beefed up its paramilitary side, recruiting heavily within the military special operations community.

Today, the CIA is widely reported to engage in raids against high-value terrorist targets. In particular, the CIA is reportedly responsible for scores -- possibly hundreds -- of drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, and elsewhere. Collectively, CIA drone strikes are thought to have killed as many as several thousand people.

I keep using that weasely word "reportedly" because officially none of this is happening. Or, rather, although the government is happy enough to take credit for turning live terrorists into dead terrorists, the government officially insists, "Whether or not the CIA has the authority to be, or is in fact, directly involved in targeted lethal operations remains classified." What's more, "Notwithstanding widespread reports that drone strikes occur, the CIA has never confirmed or denied whether it has any involvement or intelligence interest in any of those drone strikes."

Still not clear enough for you? In response to recent Freedom of Information Act requests for records relating to drone strikes, the CIA was unambiguously ambiguous: "The CIA can neither confirm nor deny the existence or nonexistence of responsive records because the existence or nonexistence of any such records is a currently and properly classified fact that is exempt from release."

So is the CIA conducting lethal drone strikes, or not?

You be the judge. The investigative journalism group Pro Publica has compiled a detailed list of press reports in which anonymous senior officials have discussed those reported CIA drone strikes, together with seemingly confirmatory quotes from several guys who ought to know, including Secretary of Defense (and former CIA director) Leon Panetta and President Obama. 

In 2009, for instance, then-CIA Director Panetta responded to a question about CIA drone strikes by saying, "These operations have been very effective.... I can assure you that in terms of that particular area, it is very precise, and it is very limited in terms of collateral damage, and, very frankly, it's the only game in town in terms of confronting and trying to disrupt the al-Qaeda leadership." Hmmm.

Two years later, after taking over the helm at DoD, Panetta cheerfully told a military audience, "Having moved from the CIA to the Pentagon, obviously I have a hell of a lot more weapons available to me in this job than I had at the CIA, although the Predators weren't bad."

What happens when activities that are officially covert become so extensive and sustained that they essentially move into the overt world? Someone is using drones to go after Pakistani militants, and the U.S. military says it ain't them. After a decade of drone strikes and dead bodies, it gets harder and harder to insist that what the CIA is (reportedly!) doing is covert.

As former Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair put it in December 2011, "Covert action that goes on for years doesn't generally stay covert.... [I]f something has been going for a long period of time, somebody else ought to do it, not intelligence agencies."

But even as covert CIA lethal activities appear to have become more and more overt, more and more military activities appear to be moving into the covert realm. In particular, the role of special operations forces -- Navy SEALs, Army "Green Berets," Air Force Special Tactics, and the like -- has dramatically expanded in recent years, and special operations forces are increasingly engaging in activities designed to remain unattributable and unacknowledged.

The overt goes (semi)-covert

After 9/11, the expansion of special operations forces (SOF) activities was virtually inevitable. America's conventional general-purpose forces are fantastically good with tanks and artillery and moving large numbers of people and machines from one place to another, and as the 1991 Gulf War demonstrated, they can roll over enemy armies with ease. But as we know, terrorist organizations don't fight like conventional armies. They eschew uniforms and traditional military command structures and rely instead on stealth, subterfuge, and asymmetrical attack. They blend easily into local civilian populations. As a result, they often confound U.S. conventional forces.

Special operations forces, in contrast, were designed to handle unconventional threats. Various organizations within the SOF community emphasize different skills. SEALs take pride in their ability to conduct lightning raids on high-value targets. (The raid on Osama bin Laden's compound is a classic example.) Army Special Forces, meanwhile, emphasize their ability to keep a low profile and work closely with foreign armed forces, something that takes sophisticated linguistic and cultural skills as well as all-around military expertise. (Full disclosure: My husband is one of these guys, and he's awesome.) Other organizations within the SOF community bring their own unique skills to the table -- including, not coincidentally, skills related to the operation of armed drones.

Put all these skills together, and you have a group of military personnel with precisely the skills needed for the long war. No surprise, then, that both the Bush and Obama administrations have come to rely heavily on special operations forces. Army Special Forces helped Afghanistan's Northern Alliance defeat the Taliban in the fall of 2001, and SEALs played a crucial role during Operation Anaconda.

Since those early post-9/11 days, special operations forces have played an ever-larger role in an expanding number of countries. SOF personnel embedded in over a dozen U.S. embassies conduct counterterrorism-related information operations, and SOF personnel embedded with foreign militaries continue to serve as trainers and advisers. SOF personnel can offer quiet assistance to foreign governments interested in capturing or killing terrorists in their territory, and, if necessary, they can take direct action themselves. They have increasingly been relied upon to capture or kill suspected terrorists outside of "hot battlefields," sometimes through quick cross-border raids, and increasingly through the use of armed, unmanned aerial vehicles.

Much of the time, their precise role is -- of necessity -- kept secret. Foreign governments may want U.S. military help, but only if they can deny any American role. And when military operations raise difficult questions about sovereignty, keeping them secret is often less diplomatically embarrassing for all concerned. Still other military activities rely on secrecy even more directly: For instance, some foreign information operations may be ineffective if everyone knows that a particular radio show or television program is U.S.-funded.

Of course, engaging in covert activities has traditionally been an intelligence community job, not a military job. The CIA and other intelligence agencies must report to the House and Senate select committees on intelligence, but the military reports to the armed services committees, and both the Pentagon and the armed services committees have a strong aversion to letting the intelligence committees horn in on their territory. Regardless of who's doing what, though, all covert activity requires a presidential finding and subsequent notification of the intelligence committee (even if just the Gang of Eight) -- a fact that gives the Pentagon a strong incentive to insist that whatever it is that special operations forces are doing, it's not covert activities.

Conveniently, the Intelligence Authorization Act, which lays out most of the rules for covert activities, exempts "traditional military activities" from its definition of covert action. The definition and scope of "traditional military activities," however, remains hotly contested.

The increasing fuzziness of the line between the intelligence community and the military creates confusion and uncertainty: Who decides which agency should take the lead, and on what basis? How are activities coordinated and de-conflicted? What's the chain of command? What law governs each entity's activities? Must the CIA comply with the laws of war? Does covert military activity risk depriving the military personnel involved of protection under the Geneva Conventions? No one seems to know -- or at least, no one's saying.

All this creates a strange irony. As the administration continues to expand its use of lethal force overseas, the CIA is fighting to insist that its alleged drone strikes are and must remain covert. At the same time, the Pentagon is fighting to insist that its secret special operations missions should not be categorized as covert action. In both cases, the intent -- or at least the result -- is to shield the activities at issue from scrutiny. The CIA wants to keep journalists and the ACLU off its back; the military mostly just wants the intelligence committees to leave it alone.  

Regardless, the end result is the same: When the covert goes semi-overt, and the overt goes semi-covert, the public is left in the dark.

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