How To Erode the World’s Greatest Military

The U.S. Army has met only 40 percent of its 2022 recruiting goals.  

In fact, all branches of the military are facing historic resistance to their current recruiting efforts. If some solution is not found quickly, the armed forces will radically shrink or be forced to lower standards—or both.  

Such a crisis occurs importunely as an aggressive Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea believe the Biden Administration and the Pentagon have lost traditional U.S. deterrence.  

That pessimistic view abroad unfortunately is now shared by many Americans at home. In 2021, the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute conducted its periodic poll of attitudes toward the U.S. military. The result was astonishing. Currently, only 45 percent of Americans polled expressed a great deal of trust in their armed forces. Confidence had dived 25 points since an early 2018 poll. 

Military officials cite both the usual and a new array of challenges in finding suitable young soldiers—drug use, gang affiliation, physical and mental incapacities, and the dislocations arising from the COVID pandemic and vaccination mandates. But they are too quiet about why such supposedly longer-term obstacles suddenly coalesced in 2022—as if their own leadership and policies have had no effect in discouraging tens of thousands of young men and women to join them. 

The Greatest Skedaddle in Modern American History 

A year ago, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Joint Chiefs Chairman Mark Milley were assuring the country not to worry over Joe Biden’s strange ideas of abruptly pulling out all U.S. troops from Afghanistan. The radical step was purportedly to coincide with Biden’s planned 20-year celebratory event marking his role in ensuring an iconic end of the war on terror that began on September 11, 2001.  

What followed was the worst U.S. military humiliation since Pearl Harbor.  

U.S. forces abandoned hundreds if not thousands of American contractors and loyal Afghan employees, a $1 billion embassy, a huge $300 million refitted air base, and reportedly somewhere between $60-80 billion in military equipment and infrastructure. That sum was nearly double all the current military assistance sent to Ukraine.  

Thirteen Americans were murdered by terrorists during the chaotic flight. In response, the United States mistakenly blew up 10 innocent Afghans after misidentifying them as ISIS terrorists. The horrific scenes at the Kabul airport surpassed the 1975 catastrophic ending of the Vietnam War on the U.S. embassy roof.  

The global aftermath was eerie. Russia in a few months thereafter invaded Ukraine. Iran proudly announced it would soon have enough fissionable material to make a nuclear weapon. North Korea resumed its provocative missile launches. China openly talked of storming Taiwan.  

The common denominator was the global perception that any president and military responsible for such colossal, televised incompetence would or could neither deter enemy aggression nor protect allied interests.  

In response, widely reported furor arose among the ranks of some American officers and the enlisted. Mid-level officers especially claimed they were ignored after warning that the abrupt withdrawal was suicidal, that Pentagon grandees were lying about the dire facts on the grounds in efforts to lubricate the Biden agenda, and that thousands of Americans and loyal Afghans would be cast adrift, along with our NATO allies.

The shame of defeat and the cloud of incompetence from Afghanistan have continued to harm recruitment efforts of the military. 

The White Rage Unicorn 

About a year ago Austin and Chairman Milley took time out from assuring Americans that all would be well in Kabul, to testify before Congress about the Pentagon’s effort to address “white rage” in the six-month aftermath of the January 6 riot.  

Both were also asked to explain why the armed services were recommending soldiers read inter alia the often-discredited “antiracist” theories of Ibram X. Kendi. His polarizing doctrine asserts that the entire U.S. system of government, all social and political life, and our very culture are racist to core. As a result, Kendi’s solution requires radical and overt racial preferencing and discrimination supposedly to fight such an insidious system.  

Yet what was startling about the two officials’ testimonies was the utter lack of data showing any general trends that white soldiers were any more or less likely to practice racial discrimination or chauvinism than other ethnic and racial groups in the military. An array of officers defended various workshops and course work at the military academies purporting that white rage is an existential problem in the military.  

The subtext of the entire testimony debacle was that the two titular heads of the military wished to reassure progressive majorities in the U.S. Congress that they were sympathetic to the woke movement and, along with other high-ranking officers, wanted publicly to virtue signal to that effect.  

In their emphasis on diversity, equity, and inclusion—the latest euphemisms for using race and gender quotas to assure proportional or even reparatory representation—throughout the officer corps, Austin and Milley seemed entirely oblivious that the U.S. Army depends on generations of family loyalty to the armed forces. Such heritage and legacy considerations have ensured a steady stream of recruits for front-line combat units.  

In other words, over generations the same families, drawn from mostly middle-class cohorts, have served disproportionately in combat units in Vietnam, the various Iraq conflicts, and Afghanistan. Indeed, if the military was consistent in its racial fixations, it might have noted that white males—the purported targets of the Austin and Milley efforts to ferret out supposed white rage cells— died in three wars at roughly twice their numbers in the general population. 

Current analysis of the recruiting crisis reveals what almost any observer would have predicted a year earlier from the haughty virtue signaling of Austin and Milley: traditional military families are not sending their sons and daughters into the ranks. It is not the danger of combat or the rigor of military life that families fear, but the suspicion their offspring will be targeted for ideological indoctrination and coercion that is either extraneous or antithetical to military efficacy. 

Traditionally, 40 percent of new recruits cite the military service of their parents—not to mention their veteran grandparents. Currently only 13 percent of new recruits arrive from such military families. Yet Austin and Milley made no connection between the Pentagon fixations on current hot-button social issues and its apparent inability to secure an honorable and safe withdrawal from Afghanistan. 

The Weaponization of the Pentagon 

There is a general perception in and outside the military that the top ranks of the services are increasingly politicized. High profile officers have used the great authority, influence, and power of the Pentagon in polarizing progressive advocacy roles from transgenderism to abortion—to the detriment of military efficacy and lethality. Much of unhappiness with the military arises partly from the woke hysteria, the institutional disdain for Donald Trump and his response to it, and the perceived rewards for those retired military lobbyists and corporate board members who reflect a new woke creed.   

The nadir in politicization came in 2021 when it was revealed that Milley secretly contacted his Chinese communist counterpart during the height of the 2020 presidential election. Milley claimed he believed that his own commander-in-chief, Trump, was unstable. And so, after his layman’s diagnosis, he wished to assure the People’s Liberation Army’s ranking officer that he would tip the Chinese off about any thought of a preemptive American strike on China. Milley also ordered his own subordinate theater officers to report to him first should Trump contemplate any nuclear action against China. 

Upon public disclosure of those facts, Milley should have been summarily fired. By law, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs is an advisory official only. The position enjoys no operational command.  

Milley violated the chain of command by usurping theater authority that was not his. Nor can a military long exist, if its iconic leader freelances in contacting enemy counterparts without the knowledge of the commander-in-chief.  

Can we imagine the outrage that would now ensue, if Milley should once again warn his Chinese counterpart that another president, Joe Biden, in the chairman’s own opinion, suffers bouts of cognitive debility and early onset senility, forcing Milley to take matters in his own hands? Yet such freelancing insubordination is now Milley’s legacy.  

In fact, some in the retired U.S. military for over four years systematically violated the Uniform Code of Military Justice, sometimes to the extent of engaging in a sort of coup porn. 

In a Washington Post op-ed, retired generals Paul Eaton, Antonio Taguba, and Steven Anderson melodramatically and without evidence warned the nation of a supposedly impending coup should their commander-in-chief Donald Trump be elected again in 2024. 

In August 2020, two retired officers John Nagl and Paul Yingling, wrote an op-ed urging Milley to simply remove Trump from office should Milley himself feel such a move was necessary after a disputed election. That was a de facto call for a possible coup d’état. But it was not unique.

Earlier, civilian Rosa Brooks, a former Obama-era Pentagon legal official, published an inflammatory call to arms in Foreign Policy. She discussed three major possible avenues to remove newly inaugurated Donald Trump from the presidency. One of her alternatives was a military coup.  

For the entire Trump presidency, retired four-star generals and admirals had routinely smeared their commander-in-chief as a veritable Nazi, a Mussolini-like figure, an abject liar, and comparable in his policies to the architects of the Nazi death camps. One retired admiral called for the removal of Trump “the sooner, the better” as if regularly scheduled elections were insufficient remedies. 

Aside from clear violations of Article 88 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, these officers were oblivious that nearly half the country supported the president and his policies. And so, millions of people would logically conclude that the highest-ranking retired officers, and by extension the culture of the current military, had nothing but contempt for their own views and voting decisions. Alienating nearly half the country is not a wise strategy of military recruitment.

Nor is hypocrisy. The perceptions in the ranks have grown that applications of the law are asymmetrical and politically warped. Article 88, applicable to retired generals and admirals, prohibits military officers from using contemptuous words about top civilian elected and appointed officials. It says nothing about the spouses of said officials.

None of the retired officers who in the media libeled their commander-in-chief from 2017-2021 faced any consequences—reprimands, court martials, or sanctions from doing business with the Pentagon from their corporate billets. Yet one recently did.  

The U.S. Army just fired retired consultant Lt. Gen. Gary Volesky from a contractual position with the Pentagon because he poked fun at First Lady Jill Biden. Note that Volesky did not suggest Jill or Joe Biden was a Nazi, a fascist, or liar —much less that her husband should be removed from office “the sooner, the better.” Retired General Volesky’s crime was mocking Jill Biden’s purported hypocrisy on the recent overturn of Roe v. Wade

Unfortunately, the crisis in the U.S. military transcends even the Afghanistan misadventure, unsupported accusations against an entire demographic, the erosion of military familial loyalty, freelancing politicized officers, and asymmetrical applications of laws and codes. 

Fairly or not, the perception among the public and our enemies is that the U.S. military has become a political entity with an agenda that transcends defending the U.S. and its interests. 

Its perceived main agenda by half the country is progressive social justice, administered top-down from a cadre of elites who can implement controversial policies through the chain of command without the messy work of the Congress—to the delight of the Pentagon’s newfound sunshine friends on the woke Left. 

Such military social engineers unfortunately appear to share contempt for a large group of Americans who voted for a president they despised. And this is a fact warmly welcomed by our worst enemies abroad.

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About Victor Davis Hanson

Victor Davis Hanson is a distinguished fellow of the Center for American Greatness and the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. He is an American military historian, columnist, a former classics professor, and scholar of ancient warfare. He has been a visiting professor at Hillsdale College since 2004, and is the 2023 Giles O'Malley Distinguished Visiting Professor at the School of Public Policy, Pepperdine University. Hanson was awarded the National Humanities Medal in 2007 by President George W. Bush, and the Bradley Prize in 2008. Hanson is also a farmer (growing almonds on a family farm in Selma, California) and a critic of social trends related to farming and agrarianism. He is the author of the just released New York Times best seller, The End of Everything: How Wars Descend into Annihilation, published by Basic Books on May 7, 2024, as well as the recent  The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won, The Case for Trump, and The Dying Citizen.

Photo: Jeffrey Greenberg via Getty Images

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