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How much are we fighting for? With recruitment and reenlistment numbers sinking, are bonuses and death benefits really bribes to buy the bodies of the poor?

WHAT IS A POUND OF FLESH WORTH? IN Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, the wealthy Antonio secures a loan of 3,000 ducats by putting up 16 ounces of his skin and bones as collateral, and his friend Bassanio offers Shylock 10 times as much to redeem this portion of Antonio. In Stephen Frears' edgy 2002 thriller Dirty Pretty Things, the flesh merchants of an underground market in human organs offer desperate refugees and aliens a passport and safe passage to America in exchange for parts of their "illegal" bodies. Dears' tale is, of course, more realistic and frightening than Shakespeare's, for the traffic in human flesh will always recruit its victims from the ranks of the poor. What else do they have to sell?

These musings on buying bodies were prompted by recent stories about the White House and Congress raising the death gratuity paid to the families of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. The president's 2006 budget raises this one-time payment from $12,000 to $100,000 and increases life insurance coverage for combat troops from $250,000 to $400,000. Senate and House bills calling for similar increases offer families of those killed in the War on Terror an initial settlement of $500,000.

Sen. John Kerry recommended a similar increase in the "death gratuity" back in March 2004 but got no support. Congress also rejected calls for an increase in military death benefits last summer. Yet suddenly Republicans and Democrats are tripping over one another in a race to provide more death benefits to military families.

No doubt the White House and Congress want to show their support for the troops. Two years ago Congress chastised the Pentagon for considering scaling back combat pay raises, and last December Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was publicly reprimanded for failing to provide adequate protection for the troops. So it makes sense that battalions of legislators would scramble to sign on for these increases.

On top of that, a recent Rand Corporation study shows families of firefighters and police officers killed in the 9/11 attacks received an average of $4.2 million. By comparison the $12,000 death gratuity and $250,000 of life insurance coverage paid to families of the more than 1,600 soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan seems paltry and insulting.

BUT THERE COULD BE A MORE TROUBLING REASON FOR THE sudden, widespread support for increased military death benefits. It might be part of a wider effort to stem a growing recruitment crisis, in which case $100,000 begins to look more like a bribe than a gratuity.

Before last September every branch of the military was meeting or exceeding enlistment and retention quotas. Then the Army National Guard fell short for the first time in a decade, missing its recruitment goal by 5,000 soldiers. In October and November the Guard fell short by 30 percent, and the Army Reserve missed recruitment goals by 10 percent. By the end of December every reserve component except the Marines had failed to meet quarterly enlistment quotas, and in January even the Marines were in trouble. For the first time since 1995 the Corps, which regularly turns applicants away, missed its quota. That month the National Guard met only 56 percent of its recruitment goal.

The Pentagon sounded the alarm. Army Chief of Staff gen. Peter J. Schoomaker told Congress in November that recruitment problems were making it tough to deliver the fresh troops needed in Iraq. And in January the commander of the Army Reserve, Lt. Gen. James R. Helmly, sent Schoomaker a memo warning the Reserve was "in grave danger of being unable to meet other operational requirements" and was "rapidly degenerating into a 'broken' force."

Recruits for the Air Force and Navy, where casualty rates remain low, continued to flood in. But the Guard and Reserve, providing more than 40 percent of the troops in Iraq, were in trouble. Those who might have enlisted to pay for college now faced the prospect of one or two tours fighting a counterinsurgency war with no end in sight. And soldiers who would have joined the Guard after finishing their active duty tour worried about being shipped back into combat. Even gung-ho recruits usually attracted to the Marines knew that the corps, which makes up 21 percent of the troops in Iraq, was suffering 31 percent of the casualties.

However they voted in November, a growing number of the young men and women who would have enlisted in the military were choosing not to support the war in Iraq with their bodies. And a growing number of parents were discouraging their sons and daughters from service in those branches doing most of the fighting and dying in Iraq.

The Pentagon responded to the recruitment and retention crisis by calling for more troops and recruiters, voluntarily and involuntarily extending tours of duty, and offering enlistment and re-enlistment bonuses.

Schoomaker told Congress that "if the Army National Guard and Army Reserve cannot muster and provide the formations that are required, perhaps we need to increase the size of the regular army." Others suggested that the recent temporary increase of 30,000 active-duty troops be made permanent.

The Army National Guard added 1,400 recruiters to its forces in February, and the Army Reserve announced an 80 percent increase in its recruitment force.

Guard and Reserve troops completing the maximum 24 months in Iraq have been offered a tax-flee bonus of $1,000 a month to stay on, while the Army's "stop loss" policy forces thousands of soldiers who have completed their enlistments to remain on active duty until their unit is rotated home.

In December the Guard raised enlistment bonuses for new recruits from $6,000 to $10,000, and both the Guard and Army Reserve have upped enlistment bonuses for those with prior military service from $5,000 to $15,000. The Marines are offering enlisted combat veterans as much as $30,000 to sign up for another tour, and the Army expects to spend more than $1 billion this year on bonuses and benefits enticing people to enlist or re-enlist.

How, then, should we see the sudden popularity of an eight-fold increase in the death gratuity paid to the families of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan? Are we supporting the troops or offering them a financial incentive to put their bodies in harm's way?

In his memo to Schoomaker, Helmly raises concerns about offering cash bonuses as recruitment incentives. "We must consider the point," Helmly writes, "at which we confuse 'volunteer to become an American soldier' with 'mercenary.'" Opponents of Rep. Charles Rangel's call to reinstate the draft say America is better off with a volunteer army, but Helmly's memo asks just how "voluntary" enlistments are when recruits are enticed by large cash bonuses. And we need to ask whose sons and daughters are more likely to "volunteer" for extra and longer tours in Iraq in exchange for another $1,000 a month.

THE GROWING RECRUITMENT CRISIS means that support for the war in Iraq is declining among those being asked to place their bodies in harm's way. Most Americans may still believe we need to support the troops, but more and more of the young men and women who would be troops do not want to volunteer their bodies for this conflict. No doubt they are concerned about the costs. More than 1,600 are dead, more than 11,000 have been wounded, and one in five are returning from combat with post-traumatic stress disorder.

If America has good reason to ask our sons and daughters to offer their bodies up in this war, we must make a more persuasive case. If, instead, we try to bribe these men and women with bonuses and benefits, we will, as ever, end up buying--and burying--the bodies of the poor.

PATRICK MCCORMICK, professor of Christian ethics at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington.
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Title Annotation:culture in context
Author:McCormick, Patrick
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Date:Jul 1, 2005
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