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An army in need

TOP ARMY and Defense Department officials admitted publicly this month what other officials have said privately: the Army, the Army Reserve, and the Army National Guard will all likely fail to meet their recruiting goals for this year. This is a result of the increasingly unpopular war in Iraq. Since US troops will almost certainly be in Iraq for years to come, the Pentagon has got to devise new means to keep its ranks full if the United States is to meet all its national security commitments, from Afghanistan to Korea.

Through June, officials said, the active-duty Army had enlisted just 47,121 of the 80,000 it hoped to have signed up by Sept. 30, the end of the recruiting year. If that goal is not reached, it will be the first year since the economic boom year of 1999 that Army recruiting falls short. The Defense Department's chief personnel official, David S. C. Chu, made no bones in testimony before the House of Representatives that it is the war that is holding down enlistments. ''Due to the realities of war," Chu said, ''there is less encouragement today from parents, teachers, and other influencers to join the military."

Back in the days of a conscription Army, the chief ''influencer" was a letter to young men from the president that began ''Greetings." Trying to fight an unpopular war in Vietnam with a draft Army became untenable for Washington when opposition to the draft spurred students to join massive protests and parents to support antiwar political candidates. In 1973, the United States switched to an all-volunteer military. Now this force, too, is proving vulnerable to an open-ended guerrilla war fought with diminishing home-front support.

The Defense Department is asking Congress to approve several steps to boost enlistments. One is to accept recruits as old as 42 provided they can meet physical fitness standards -- up from the current maximum of 35. Another plan is to assist recruits in the payment of their mortgages, up to $40,000. This would be on top of a maximum of $104,000 in recruitment inducements, including education benefits of $70,000 and an enlistment bonus of up to $20,000. For some time the Pentagon has been promoting the shift of personnel from the oversubscribed Navy and Air Force to the Army, in what it calls the ''blue to green" program.

One sensible, humane, and no-cost way to expand the ranks would be to eliminate restrictions on gay and lesbian troops, who can serve now only if they are not openly homosexual. But an Army spokesman, Lieutenant Colonel Bryan Hilferty, said that is not under consideration. Perhaps ''Don't ask, don't tell, don't wheeze" will be the policy of this older but still intolerant Army.

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