Why Would Anyone Want to Join the U.S. Military?

In a recent memo, the U.S. Army revealed the service, facing what it called “unprecedented challenges” in recruiting, will fall about 10,000 soldiers short of its planned end strength for this fiscal year. Next year could be even worse. The upshot is that the service will have a total force of 466,400 this year, down from the expected 476,000, which could further decline to between 445,000 and 452,000 soldiers in 2023.

Army officials blame a convergence of circumstances: a shrinking percentage of young Americans fit for service; an inability to recruit in high schools during the COVID-19 pandemic, when many students attended school virtually, resulting in “a decline in academic and physical fitness levels”; and an improving U.S. job market. 

But the memo acknowledges much deeper problems, including a “knowledge gap” that has prevented the U.S. military from reaching many Americans, an “identity gap” that keeps potential recruits from seeing themselves in the service or understanding its culture, and most importantly, a “trust gap.” According to the Army memo, “Younger Americans are losing trust and confidence in many American institutions, including the military.”

In a recent essay for American Greatness, Victor Davis Hanson noted the precipitous decline in support for the military, an institution that has maintained the high respect of the American people for decades. In its poll of attitudes toward the U.S. military, the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation found that the percentage of Americans expressing a great deal of trust and confidence in that institution had fallen from 70 percent in 2018 to 45 percent in 2021. What accounts for that decline? Is there a connection between Americans’ loss of confidence in the military and the military’s current recruiting problem? Hanson suggests that there is and offers a number of illustrations. Allow me to expand on his view.

People join the military for all sorts of reasons. Economic circumstances play a role, but so do patriotism and the search for adventure. In a recent issue of the Claremont Review of Books, Michael Anton offers a good description of the sort of people who traditionally have joined the military: men, especially, who recognize the inherent dignity and necessity of the martial virtues. These are the Americans Walter Russell Mead has called “Jacksonians,” committed to their family, tribe, and nation—fierce when provoked, eager to avenge an insult, but also willing to live and let live if only others will too. They believe in the sort of military “ethos” that underpins unit cohesion and military effectiveness. This ethos, which has served the Republic well, is based on trust among soldiers, between superiors and subordinates, and, at the societal level, between soldiers on the one hand and citizens on the other.

The Military Ethos and the Functional Imperative

This mutual trust and the acceptance of a distinct military ethos is necessary if the military is to carry out what Samuel Huntington in his classic study of U.S. civil-military relations, The Soldier and the State, called its functional imperative—the ability of the military to respond to external threats to the United States. The military must be capable of deterring war or winning it if it comes. The key is military effectiveness.

It has long been accepted that to execute the military’s functional imperative on behalf of the nation, it must maintain an ethos distinct from that of liberal society. Indeed, a liberal democracy faces a paradox when it comes to the relationship between the military and society at large: the former cannot govern itself in accordance with the democratic principles of that society.

Behavior that is acceptable, indeed even protected, in civil society is prohibited in the military. The military restricts its members’ freedom of movement and speech, and it prohibits certain relationships among members, such as fraternization. It stresses virtues that many civilians see as brutal and barbaric because the military is one of the few jobs where you may have to tell someone, “go die.”

If the military fails, the society it protects may not survive. And long experience has taught us that certain kinds of behavior are destructive of good order, discipline, and morale, without which a military organization will certainly fail. The goal of military policy must be victory on the battlefield, a purpose that cannot be in competition with any other, including the provision of entitlements, “equal opportunity,” or diversity. Indeed, the battlefield mocks “diversity,” especially when it is treated as a stand-alone goal. Unfortunately, many of those in positions of responsibility—including far too many senior members of the military itself—seem to have forgotten this imperative.

The Military and the Societal Imperative

This attitude is the result of another set of social forces that Huntington identified. These he called the societal imperative, “the social forces, ideologies, and institutions dominant within the society.” He identified two components of the societal imperative: first, the U.S. constitutional structure, the legal institutional framework that guides American politics and military affairs; second, the dominant ideology shaping political affairs, which Huntington identified as liberalism, “the gravest domestic threat to American military security,” due to its anti-military character. The problem for Huntington was that in the long run, he believed the social imperative would prevail over the functional imperative, undermining the martial virtues necessary to ensure military effectiveness.

Huntington argued that America’s liberal anti-military ideology tended to produce two outcomes. When the external threat was low, liberal ideology sought “extirpation,” the virtual elimination of military forces. When the external threat was high, liberal ideology pursued a policy of “transmutation,” refashioning the military along liberal lines by stripping it of its “particularly military characteristics.” Today, we have transmutation on steroids.

“Diversity” and All That

The latest manifestation of transmutation is the military’s worship of “diversity,” which now trumps military effectiveness as a policy goal. But attempts by the military to address an alleged lack of “diversity” in the ranks can actually make things worse by pushing “identity politics,” which, by suggesting that justice is a function of attributes such as skin color rather than one’s individuality, tends to divide people rather than unify them. Identity politics undermines military effectiveness, which depends on cohesion born of trust among those who operate together.

Because of its commitment to unit cohesion, the U.S. armed services have been at the forefront of achieving harmony and cooperation among what used to be considered true “diversity”: one of all races, ethnicities, religions, and regions. As the late military sociologist Charles Moskos observed 25 years ago, the U.S. Army was then the only American institution in which black men routinely gave orders to white men. In fact this was true of all the services. Although far from perfect, military service has been a “school of the nation.”

For most of American history, those in the military stood up for the military ethos, explaining to the fellow citizens why it was critical to military effectiveness. Sometimes they prevailed; sometimes they lost. It was for this reason that the military has remained one of the most respected institutions in America. But as the poll that Hanson cited in his AG article, this seems to be changing and it may very well be contributing to the military’s recruiting problems

The commitment to “diversity” at all costs is today’s party line within the Pentagon. No one wants to be accused of racism or sexism so too many officers hold their tongues as the rank and file are indoctrinated by critical race theory (CRT) ideologues. Those who don’t can find themselves sacked.

A Hotbed of “Extremism” and “White Supremacy”?

Another factor in a declining interest in military service is the calumny—increasingly popular on the Left—that the military is a hotbed of “extremism” and “white supremacy.” This last issue is of particular concern to those who believe that cohesion based on mutual trust is a part of the military ethos. Like identity politics, the claim that the military is now populated by right wing extremists and white supremacists does not unify, it divides, undermining trust among service members.

The source of the extremism claim seems to be the fact that some veterans were among the rioters who unlawfully entered the Capitol on January 6, 2021, the persistent assertion that Donald Trump appealed to extremist groups, and Trump’s popularity with the military. But the real problem is that political and military leaders have failed to define their terms. They have failed to identify incidents that constitute extremism or racist behavior. Is it resistance to CRT indoctrination? Is it conservative political views? Will the social media of military members be scrutinized? By whom?

Of course, there have been serious racial incidents involving military service members in the past. Military leaders never condoned such behavior and were quick to deal appropriately with the perpetrators. But such incidents have also been rare. The idea that racism and extremism are somehow pervasive throughout the military is a slander.

Undermining Trust

The claim that extremism and white supremacy are widespread in the military undermines trust on two levels: first, between the American people and the military as an institution; and second, between the military rank-and-file and their leadership.

Americans hold the military in high regard, perhaps too high. But if civilians have tended to place members of the military on a pedestal, implying that extremism and white supremacy are rampant in the military can only engender disrespect for the military on the part of the American people and lead to condemnation. And this will lead to both reduced recruiting and lower retention rates.

Regarding trust within the force, what is the rank-and-file soldier to think when both politicians and especially senior officers seem to suggest that supporting President Trump or traditionally conservative ideas such as gun rights and smaller, less intrusive government might make him or her a threat to the country? What will be the consequences for morale and discipline if the ranks believe that senior leaders have sold them out by their seeming willingness to go along with such accusations? 

What do the rank-and-file think of the silence from senior officers, both active and retired, in response to this latest slander against the American soldier? While real instances of extremism and white supremacy must be identified and perpetrators separated from the service—a longstanding practice—claiming that white supremacy and extremism are rampant in the military is nothing less than a calumny. Political leaders and senior officers owe it to the country in general and the military in particular to define extremism, identify actual cases, and provide data supporting their claim that a real problem exists. To do otherwise is to condone this calumny against those they claim to lead.

I am personally aware of increasing disillusionment among service members who feel betrayed by their senior leadership. The sense of patriotism that inspired so many to join the service is undermined when soldiers come to believe their senior officers are willing to sacrifice them to trendy political ideas.

The suggestion that white supremacy and extremism are rampant in the military undermines the military ethos. The U.S. military claims to be a “profession.” But instead of defending its professional ethos, the Pentagon is revealing itself to be just another failed government bureaucracy pursuing its budgetary self-interest. This perception can only hurt recruiting.

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About Mackubin Owens

Mackubin Thomas Owens is a retired Marine, professor, and editor who lives in Newport, RI.

Photo: Ben Hasty/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images

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