Join the Army if you fail," Bob Dylan sang in 1965, and his cheeky lyric reflected a certain reality. For decades, the U.S. military - while always attracting a share of high-achieving patriots - was often seen as a place where dropouts, misfits and delinquents could get a dose of structure and discipline. Not so in America's professional, all-volunteer military, where soldiers, sailors and Marines are expected to meet high standards, including a record of obeying the laws of the land they are sworn to defend.
But a war that had to be fought (in Afghanistan) and a war that never should have been fought (in Iraq) have left the Army and Marines today hard-pressed to meet recruitment targets. And so the standards have slipped. Last week, it was revealed that the number of Army recruits admitted on "conduct waivers" - those with criminal records - increased by about 25 percent last year over 2006. Most were for misdemeanors, but the Army more than doubled the number of recruits with felony convictions.
The United States' image overseas is poor, and each service member is an ambassador for American values. In such an environment, giving ex-offenders a chance at self-improvement can no longer be part of the military's mission. Indeed, it's deeply troubling that today's high-tech military - where even ordinary soldiers are expected to operate sophisticated equipment - needs to lower its standards to admit not just ex-convicts but many who failed to complete high school.
The fact that fewer qualified Americans are willing to serve is a reminder of how disconnected most are from the suffering and sacrifice of those serving in Iraq. Quickly ending our misadventure there will bring many benefits, not least an opportunity to begin to repair our once-proud military to face the tough tasks the future no doubt holds.