The US military’s #1 challenge in the 21st century: recruiting a few good people

Summary: The US military faces many problems in the 21st century, but perhaps none more serious than the need to recruit sufficient numbers of the high quality people it needs. They face two kinds of difficulties. This post discusses not just the small problems that get all the attention, but also the large but seldom mentioned ones. At the end are links to a wealth of research about these matters.

“If we put the Pentagon’s personnel managers in charge of the Sahara Desert, they would run out of sand in five years.”
From an analysis by John. J. Sayen (Lt. Colonel, USMC, retired). He is author of 2 books about US army infantry in WWII (1942 – 1943, 1944 – 1945).

Women for the USMC


The news often surprises us because we don’t see the years of preparation laid for it. Like today, with conservatives baffled that the US military, among the most conservative of American institutions, is determined to recruit homosexuals and women. Has Obama purged the officer corps of real Americans, substituting leftists? (Spoiler: no.)

The answer is simple and obvious: these are desperate measures in response to the shrinking pool of eligible young men. The problem has been masked by the economic weakness since 2007 and the reductions in force following our failed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

However, studies since the 1990s have warned of the problem (see the links at the end). Or rather, they have warned about the two problems imperiling recruitment to the US armed forces.

The small problem

The small problem is that too few young Americans meet the standards of the armed forces. Generations of public policy have given American a large underclass, whose children are poorly educated, swept through our criminal injustice system, and turn to drugs (since they have so little opportunity). This gets the attention, as in this week’s “Here’s why most Americans can’t join the military” by Blake Stilwell in the somewhat megalomaniac-named website We Are The Mighty.

For a good summary of this see this excerpt from the Air Force Times on “How Do We Recruit, Train and Retain the Right People for the Future Force?”, Panel Discussion at Transformation Warfare 2007 Conference on 20 June 2007. ..

Women in the WAC

Most of today’s youth are not eligible for military service because they are too fat, too weak, not smart enough and prone to drug-use and criminal behavior, according to a panel of senior military officers.

“We are all victims of our own past success.  We all have a conscript mentality that there’s a never-ending supply of perfect high school graduates that are over the horizon coming at us to fill every job we have,” said Vice Adm. John Cotton, commander of the Navy Reserve.  “I’ll tell you what, we’re about to be shocked, because they are not there.”

Cotton spoke on a panel on recruiting and retention with officers from the Marines, Army and Air Force at a conference on “transformation warfare” hosted by the U.S. Naval Institute and the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association in Virginia Beach.  72% of American youth between 17 and 24 years of age are not eligible for military service for fitness, academic and law enforcement deficiencies, Cotton said, citing national statistics that some 30% of male youths drop out of high school.

Stephen Duncan, a Naval Academy graduate and former assistant defense secretary for manpower and reserve affairs, moderated the panel discussion on recruiting and retention.  “You can talk about acquisition and technology and all that is important but, as John Paul Jones said, ‘Men mean more than guns in the rating of a ship,’ ” Duncan said.  “A lot of other general officers have said the same thing. We win or lose based on our people.”

For more about this see Will the aging and urbanization of America limit the size of our armed forces?


The Big Problem

Too few Americans want to serve unless driven to it by lack of economic opportunity elsewhere. The underlying problem is described by Matthew J. Morgan in “Army Recruiting and the Civil-Military Gap“, Parameters, Summer 2001. Morgan is the author of A Democracy Is Born: An Insider’s Account of the Battle Against Terrorism in Afghanistan (2007). He served 7 years in the US Army, including as a Captain in Afghanistan.

I want you

Despite the public confidence in the military institution, however, there appears to be a deficit of social capital to support the armed forces. One reason for this may be a declining civic participation among Americans generally. As Andrew Bacevich has written, “In a society in which half of the eligible voters did not even bother to show up at the polls in the [1996] presidential election, the notion of an obligation to participate in the country’s defense has become an anachronism, an oddity from another time.”  James Kitfield has referred to a “nearly unbridgeable cultural divide” between American society in general and the US military.

… Dramatic sociopolitical changes dating to the end of World War II (increased hedonism, greater personal expression, opposition to the military lifestyle, resistance to authority, and increased moral criticism), started the decline of mass armies in Western industrial nations, and over the past 30 years the process has become increasingly apparent. The end of conscription in most of the West is a response to these pressures. This offers an alternative explanation to the relevancy of the civil-military rift to recruiting: a decline in the acceptance of military authority, which is a factor frequently associated with youth attitudes against military service.

In addition to changes in attitudes toward authority, changing political beliefs also are affecting the military’s ability to attract new personnel. William Mayer’s work has shown that a strong case can be made that there has been a trend toward more liberal positions on most social values. American society may be more liberal and individualistic now than when Huntington’s theory of objective civilian control was first formulated in The Soldier and the State. This shift may have special significance for the civil-military gap, because while a plurality of civilian leaders are classified as liberals, only a small fraction of military officers are in that category.

… On a more fundamental level, basic assumptions and values are influencing the propensity for military service. William Bennett has documented a “palpable culture decline” and an actual shift in the public’s beliefs, attitudes, and priorities over the past decades. This shift in popular values might affect the civil-military gap and military recruiting. For instance, a growing affinity for free will and individual expression damages both the ability of citizens to understand the military culture and the likelihood that they would become a part of it. Research has shown that young Americans who expect to serve in the military place a lower priority on personal freedom than do their peers. As more and more Americans place a higher priority on personal freedom, fewer expect to find themselves in uniformed service.

Youth attitudes are shifting to take them further from the military perspective. Interviews with youths on the subject revealed several characterizations. “They don’t like to be told what to do.” “Most teenagers don’t want to commit to anything.” Teens “don’t like getting up early.”  Such attitudes don’t comport well with a military career.

… In addition to physical and intellectual separation, the modern force is not demographically representative of the population at large.  John Lehman argues that “we have created a separate military caste.”  He points out that while most American community leaders have had military experience, few of their children have.  Exacerbating the situation is the fact that cadets and midshipman who are children of career military parents are present in record numbers at the service academies.

There is significance in these trends. An insulated military has reduced visibility in the civilian population, and a relatively invisible military is going to engender little support and understanding for its budgetary and recruitment needs in a population that expects lower expenditures on the military in peacetime.

Other perspectives on military recruiting

Fully integrating women into the military probably will take decades, perhaps generations. Seeing that their difficulties recruiting the necessary numbers of skilled people will only grow — standards had to be reduced at the peak of our post-9/11 wars — the generals appear to have decided to start the process now.

For another perspective on nations’ ability to draft men for combat see Martin van Creveld: learning to say “no” to war — about the slow steady increase in reasons to avoid combat that western societies consider legitimate.

Our military leaders might be thinking about longer-term needs: opening all jobs to the military is a major step to overturning Rosker vs. Goldman, and including women in selective service. Such wars seem unlikely today, but the future is always unknown.  Update: DoD’s leaders are already talking about it. The White House has set the wheels in motion.

The next generation US army? By Herbie Knott / Rex Features ( 126927d )


No matter how loudly conservatives scream, these trends force our military leaders to broaden the pool of people from whom they recruit. These measures might prove inadequate to fill the ranks with quality recruits, so that bolder steps become necessary. Such as recruiting foreigners, with citizenship as the reward. Or they might fill the front lines with young people from the inner cities, shifting their training and discipline to the harsher techniques used by the 19th C British military.

If these steps prove insufficient, American might adopt another British tool: use foreign units as shock troops (e.g., the Gurkha). Empires need armies to fight the foreign wars for the benefit of their ruling elites. Their success at recruiting, training, motivating, and retaining these troops shapes not only their foreign policy — but their domestic policies as well.

That’s a subject to discuss on another day.

For More Information

The Economist looks at this problem: “Who will fight the next war?“. A veteran officer describes his experience: “The military’s real problem: Fewer Americans are joining” — “When I was a commander in Iraq, many of my men were unfit for the battlefield. My unit needed them anyway.”

Please like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, and post your comments — because we value your participation. For more information see all posts about women soldiers, especially these…

  1. Women as soldiers – an update.
  2. Putting women in combat: a quick look at the other side of the debate.
  3. About the future of an American army with women as combat soldiers.
  4. Women in combat are the real Revolution in Military Affairs.
  5. News about the battle for women’s equality in our armed forces.
  6. Martin van Creveld looks at Amazons: women warriors in the real world.

Studies about the coming crisis of military recruitment

Demographic Trends and Military Recruitment: Surprising Possibilities“, George H. Quester, Parameters, Spring 2005 — This is essential reading for anyone interested in this topic.  He suggests several interesting ways to adapt our military to a changed demographic reality, such as more use of women and immigrants.

This article will attempt to project current demographic trends in the United States and abroad, along with several related determinants, a substantial distance into the future, so as to explore some possibly surprising implications for the recruitment of armed forces. The most important of these demographic factors will be the “graying” of the population, in America and all the advanced industrialized countries, as lower birthrates and longer life-spans project that a larger proportion of the total population will be above what was viewed, until recently, as the normal age for retirement.

In many of the advanced countries, the total of younger people will actually decline as an absolute number. In the United States and in several other advanced countries, this total will not absolutely decrease, but it will certainly decline as a percentage of the overall population. Other important demographic trends will include the worldwide shift of population to urban areas, and the continued high birthrates in many underdeveloped countries, with a bias in some areas toward preventing the birth or survival of female children.

Here are two valuable and comprehensive research reports, the type of work foundational to any solutions, both edited by Paul Sackett and Anne Mavor for the Committee on the Youth Population and Military Recruitment of the National Research Council (part of the National Academies).

Other studies

Who serves in the military today?

Who Serves in the U.S. Military? The Demographics of Enlisted Troops and Officers“, Shanea Watkins, Ph.D. and James Sherk, Heritage Foundation, 21 August 2008.

Who Joins the Military?: A Look at Race, Class, and Immigration Status“, Amy Lutz, Surface (of the U of Syracuse), Winter 2008.

Military Recruitment 2009: Who joined the Army this year?“, National Priorities Project — “NPP looked at the demographics of these Army recruits to see if they reflected those of the nation. More recruits continue to come from the South, and more recruits come from rural than urban areas.  Indeed, Secretary Gates in a recent address noted these very trends and voiced concern that a “narrow sliver of our population” is fighting our wars.”

Military Recruiting 2010“, National Priorities Project, 30 June 2011 — Who are the recruits to our military? Where do they come from?

Women in the U.S. Military: Growing Share, Distinctive Profile“, Eileen Patten and Kim Parker, Pew Research, 22 December 2011 “Compared with their male counterparts, a greater share of military women are black and a smaller share are married.”

2012 Demographics Report” by DoD — Avoids including any indicators of social class.

WAVES recruiting poster

16 thoughts on “The US military’s #1 challenge in the 21st century: recruiting a few good people”

  1. Why would any sane person want to join the U.S. military when it betrays and lies to everyone from the lowest private to the highest general?

    From the cover-up of Pat Tillman’s friendly-fire death to the whitewashing and burial of the mass rape of female recruits by other U.S. soldiers, from throwing generals like John Riggs and Erik Shinseki under the bus for the crime of telling civilian leaders the truth that many more troops were needed in the Iraq occupation of 2003 to the slap on the wrist afforded to corrupt incompetents like General Petraeus, the U.S. military had fulsomely demonstrated that anyone would be insane to trust of believe its promises to its personnel.
    Americans aren’t stupid. They can read. Articles like “Soldiers With Brain Trauma Denied Purple Hearts, Adding Insult to Injury” and “Documents Show the VA Debacle Began Under George W. Bush” have appeared throughout the media. Why would anyone who reads the newspapers or watches TV or surfs the web want to join the U.S. military when they know they’ll be used, abused and thrown away like used toilet when the military is finished with them?

    When VA doctors deny vets with brain injuries needed care by claiming their symptoms are “purely psychological,” or when headlines like “VA Scandal: Testing and Care Rationed “Because of Dollars and Cents” point out that the VA lies and scams its vets in order to sustain unacceptable waiting times for treatment to save a few bucks, Americans know what’s up.
    The attitude of civilian leaders toward the military today remains what it was in the 1970s:

    “Military men are dumb, stupid animals to be used as pawns for foreign policy.”
    — Henry Kissinger, Bob Woodward & Carl Bernstein, The Final Days (1994) Chapter 14, pp. 194-195.

    1. Thomas,

      “Why would any sane person want to join the U.S. military when it betrays and lies to everyone from the lowest private to the highest general?”

      For the same reason people do dirty nasty jobs throughout history. Such as police, mining, garbage collecting, fisherman and logging (my oldest cousin, best of our generation, died in a logging accident). For the money.

      For much of the underclass the military is the only ticket out. Jessica Lynch joined the Army to become a cook.

    2. Thank you for bringing up the brain injury issue. My father entered a nursing home recently due to dementia, possibly due to a concussion from a bicycle accident, and I stumbled on this issue myself while reading about dementia and head trauma.

      I find the claim that veteran homelessness and other issues may be due to brain injury completely credible. Brain damage can have all sorts of weird consequences, many of them related to behavior. It is not just old people who don’t recognize their children. New evidence has come out partly due to studies of the football players and one very persistent researcher, that concussions are far worse for your long term health than was previously thought. The . Right now, this kind of brain damage can only be diagnosed after death, but my understanding is that we are quite close to being able to find evidence of dementia while people are still alive.

  2. Fabius Maximus,

    “Has Obama purged the officer corps of real Americans, substituting leftists?
    …these are desperate measures in response to the shrinking pool of eligible young men.”

    You’ve certainly shown that the concerns of our military about how many people are available for military service, but I don’t find it to be a very solid rationale behind the behavior of the US military as it involves the increased usage of women and homosexuals in expanded roles.

    It is clearly a factor, but it doesn’t seem to be such a dominate factor for several reasons.
    1) no official source has acknowledge this rationale. No general is claiming this and no defense civilian is saying that increased use of women or homosexuals is being done because we need the manpower.
    2) the official rationale has been very specific about this being about the military conforming to society’s desired values.
    3) “72% of American youth between 17 and 24 years of age are not eligible for military service for fitness, academic and law enforcement deficiencies, Cotton said, citing national statistics that some 30% of male youths drop out of high school.”
    An availability of 28% for military service is actually more than enough to meet the needs of a military that barely reaches the size of 1% of the total population (3 million including national guard part-timers) versus a population of 330 million.
    4) None of the recent changes have actually really added to the applicant pool more than just made available new career paths to existing pools. This is a fairly weak measure to attract new talent. No one in our culture is thinking military and just opening up combat schools for women and allowing gays to openly serve is barely going to increase the applicant pool by the thousands let alone tens of thousands.

    There’s a lot to appreciate about this post and a lot of things that are worth exploring and understanding because our military is in trouble and the civilian-military gap represents a pretty serious challenge. I just think your ultimate conclusion is not fully supported here.

    PF Khans

    1. PFK,

      Since such a wide range of research disagrees with you — some of which I gave links to — I’ll take a pass on responding. Also, points 3 and 4 are clearly wrong.

      One additional detail: opening all jobs to the military is a major step to overturning Rosker vs. Goldman, and including women in selective service. That alone is a major accomplishment.

    2. Fabius Maximus,

      I read the reports that you looked at. I’ve read a number of papers on the subject of military recruitment and retention when I served in the Army. From “Unfit for Service” – “The reason is that militaries must be able to expand greatly and rapidly to meet emerging national security threats.” This is the basis for all of these papers about too many obese children in America. It’s also the basis of your concern about selective service. We may have to mobilize a lot of citizens and put them in uniform, but seriously, this will be the biggest challenge in this?

      Not the political process of restarting the draft? Not the military bureaucracy trying to handle a gigantic mass of people efficiently after not doing that for three generations? Not the national consensus about the draft being something that we should never do?

      First of all, from the conclusion of “The obesity epidemic: implications for recruitment and retention of defence force personnel”. “This review has highlighted the lack of information available to address the issues of obesity and subsequent health in military personnel, obesity status and work performance (absenteeism and discharge), and obesity status and physical performance in the military. Thus, it is not currently possible to report on the implications of obesity for recruitment, training and workforce maintenance in the military.”

      Look, they don’t know that this will actually be as big a deal. We do know that the way our political system is corrupted will have implications for this. We do know our inability to articulate strategy and have a political elite that wants to micromanage wars rather than plan them has implications for this. Obesity is only a maybe, probably.

      Since you have yet to convince me that the scenario in which we would need so many bodies is even politically feasible or else one in which we will be more interested in national survival than any one individuals fatness or stubbornness, I can only think of the present and the existing threats that present themselves.

      While our military is currently only able to fight “one Major Regional Conflict” at a time, I see no reason to panic. The risk of more than one popping up that we need to be involved in is way down. There are no Nazis to fight and no Soviets. We do not need a military capable of fighting this way in the near term.

      So how are these “desperate measures”? We are not under attack nor are we reasonably expecting an attack soon so I challenge the desperate nature of these changes.

      You say “No matter how loudly conservatives scream, these trends force our military leaders to broaden the pool of people from whom they recruit. These measures might prove inadequate to fill the ranks with quality recruits, so that bolder steps become necessary. Such as recruiting foreigners, with citizenship as the reward. Or they might fill the front lines with young people from the inner cities, shifting their training and discipline to the harsher techniques used by the 19th C British military.”

      When in the “Unfit to Serve” report it says, “For comparison, the second most common reason is smoking marijuana, which leads to rejection of 12.6% of applicants”. Why not just allow people to serve who’ve smoked marijuana? Why not decriminalize certain drugs? Are we so desperate that we add women to our combat arms (and draft) but not the hillbillies who’ve done meth?

      The US government, military and citizen population have made choices. The ones we are making now about who gets what in the military are not desperate, not essential, not vital, and not inevitable. They are calculated efforts to shore up political bases in one area at the expense of political bases in others for obscure reasons that make money for lots of connected people.

      1. PFK,

        It’s good to see that you have solutions for the problems that vex the US military’s leadership. However, I must point out that people take measures that they consider desperate based on THEIR views, THEIR values, and THEIR plans — not yours. So your rebuttal is, to be kind, a bit off-target.

  3. Editor,

    Some comments from Argentina,

    1)I think that the US mantains its conventional forces to keep the forms, the nominal face, the appearances.

    2)Women in conventional forces, useless, except very few exceptional women

    3)Inserting a meta here, it is heard a lo t that the way to bring peace to USA is to take their gun rights, what nobody talks about is that giving guns to every household would work even better and faster.

    4)Taking from 3, check how the Swiss defense is domestically set in case of invasion or attack, its a very good model.

    5)When you start with a bad question, there is no good answer, examples “whats the best way to destroy my hand with a hammer?” or “What are the challenges of the US military?” The actual, real, interesting question is: Why does the US military have SO many problems?

  4. Matt W asks: Doesn’t a smaller military mean less expense and (hopefully) fewer stupid and unnecessary wars?

    That’s a common misconception. No, actually reducing the number of people in the U.S. military has for decades now gone hand-in-hand with increasing the number of expensive weapons. Chuck Spinney has hammered away at this for many years. It’s a fiscal and military-preparedness death spiral, because reducing personnel to pay for ever more costly weaponry means that the weapons systems get so expensive that spare parts can’t be paid for. Thus, the American military winds up both understaffed and increasingly unready to actually fight because its weaponry is in a state of disrepair.
    As just one example, consider the hangars full of F-18s which had been gutted and stripped of avionics and spare parts in Iraq in order to keep the rest of the F-18s flying because the Pentagon couldn’t afford the money for the spare parts. This problem has only gotten worse with the B2 stealth bomber, the F35 raptor, the Cobra assault choppers whose helicopter blades have a tendency to delaminate and which are consequently held together with duct tape, etc.

    Chuck Spinney and Don Vandergriff and William S. Lind and many others have pointed out for decades that U.S. military policy today offers the worst of both worlds: understaffing combined with exponentially increasing costs, resulting in increasing lack of military readiness.

    See the entire hour Bill Moyers devoted to Chuck Spinney’s criticisms of U.S. military procuirements and preparedness: “Inside the Pentagon: 30-Year Insider Chuck Spinney on the Health of America’s Defense Systems,” August 2003.

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