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).
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. ..
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.
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  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.
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.”
- Women as soldiers – an update.
- Putting women in combat: a quick look at the other side of the debate.
- About the future of an American army with women as combat soldiers.
- Women in combat are the real Revolution in Military Affairs.
- News about the battle for women’s equality in our armed forces.
- 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).
- “Attitudes, Aptitudes, and Aspirations of American Youth: Implications for Military Recruitment”, 2003. Here is the introduction.
- “Evaluating Military Advertising and Recruiting: Theory and Methodology”, 2004. Here is the introduction.
- “The obesity epidemic: implications for recruitment and retention of defence force personnel” by R. McLaughlin and G. Wittert, Obesity Reviews, November 2009.
- “Unfit for Service: The Implications of Rising Obesity for U.S. Military Recruitment” by John Cawley (Prof Human Ecology, Cornell) and Johanna Catherine Maclean (now Assoc Prof of Economics, Temple U), June 2011.
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.