Military enlistments up: Are these the first stimulus jobs?

After years of struggling to reach enlistment quotas, the U.S. military is finding itself with more volunteers than it can use. In fact, April enlistments were between 100 and 164 percent of original goals.

While undoubtedly indicative of very real worries about dying in combat, the insufficient enlistments of the past few years also suggest that many potential soldiers felt that they could do better in the private arena. With unemployment low and the economy booming, a military career may have seemed a dangerous and low-paying path.

In that context, one could argue that the increase in enlistments is, simultaneously, the final stimulus of the Bush presidency and the first stimulus of the Obama administration. President Bush's legacy of two wars has depleted military strength to the point that much of the Iraq War has been subcontracted to mercenary troops. Stop-loss policies and other "involuntary extension" programs notwithstanding, the Army's attempts to compete with other employers have been a failure. In fact, much like the rest of American industry, the military has occasionally found itself relying on undocumented aliens to fill its ranks. With the collapse of the economy, however, the military has begun to seem like a relatively high-paying, promising option.

Moreover, under Obama, the military has begun normalizing its use of immigrants, and has instituted a program that offers citizenship in return for military service. With signs that the stop-loss program may be winding down, military careers are looking more like a measured commitment and less like indentured servitude. Finally, the draw-down in Iraq appears to be moving according to plan, making a military stint far more attractive to potential recruits.

On the other side, the job market remains sluggish, making the military look like a very viable option for college graduates and others who are facing an uncertain future. In fact, the now-standard campus protests against recruitment are increasingly offering a backdrop to students who are attracted by the free health care, enlistment bonuses, education assistance, and other benefits offered by the military.

As some critics have pointed out, the massive increase in enlistments is indicative of a lack of employment options. While discouraging, this also suggests that President Obama's stimulus jobs, when they come, should find a willing and eager populace.

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