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Resilient soldiers

The military's recruiting woes continue, but the retention numbers are encouraging. That's what year-to-date Pentagon figures on re-enlistments show, giving the lie to those who would demean the military with claims that the Iraq war is demoralizing the troops.

All the active-duty services are expected to meet or exceed their 2005 retention goals -- keeping servicemen already in uniform, as distinct from recruitment -- and all met or exceeded their July goals. So the Pentagon announced two weeks ago. Most tellingly, all 10 divisions of the Army have surpassed their year-to-date re-enlistment goals. Figures for battle-hardened divisions bear this out: They are currently enjoying some of the highest re-enlistment rates. In some cases, divisions are exceeding their retention goals by as much as 20 percent to 30 percent. The year-to-date figures for the reserve components are not yet complete but probably will not be as strong, although July's retention firgures for National Guard units were an encouraging 105 percent of requirements. This is particularly encouraging because the Guard recruits many older men (and women) who don't really expect to go to war. The overall picture demonstrates that our fighting forces are rallying to the sound of the guns in Iraq, not shying from it.

First-time recruiting is a different story, of course. As of the end of July, the Army had reached only 89 percent of its year-to-date goal, better than the 83 percent it had attracted by the end of May but still measurably below the requirements. The National Guard and Reserves are performing even more poorly, at 80 percent and 82 percent of their year-to-date targets, respectively.

Recruiting failures aside, the retention story says something significant about the American fighting forces -- that the war is actually encouraging them. The reason is clear to people who actually know some servicemen: Professional soldiers join the military to defend the country. They know fighting is part of the job. "I don't know why the media insists on trumpeting the idea that all of us are tired and worn out and just want to stop fighting," asks Sgt. Joe Roche in an essay on the opposite page. The answer is mirror-imaging: Soldiers are not combat-shy the way some elite opinion-makers assume they would be.

We bring all this up because two notions -- the idea that the Iraq war is destroying morale, and the suggestion that the country is throwing unknowing youths against their will into battle -- crop up regularly in war critics' arguments. Both tend to elide recruitment and retention as though they were one in the same. Academics and activists alike have succumbed to it. In a January op-ed essay in the New York Times, Cindy Williams of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology asserted that both the Army and the National Guard face "recruitment and retention problems... as a result of the war in Iraq." Then there is that other Cindy, decamped at Prairie Chapel Ranch, who argues that the American war machine is chewing up the young and sending them unwillingly to their deaths.

The recruitment problem is real and serious, and the Iraq war does appear to be dissuading prospective recruits from enlisting and striking fear in the hearts of parents who contemplate losing a son or daughter in war. But it's a slander against our troops to suggest that American soldiers are demoralized by the war. They aren't. The math shows that our fighting forces are strong, able and willing. The nation is lucky to have such citizens.

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