By James Durso
Next year, the U.S. military will spend an unprecedented $900 billion dollars of the taxpayers’ money but it continues to fail to interest young Americans in military service.
“Gen Z is unpatriotic!” and won’t join the military we’re told, but are they really?
If so, why?
It’s partly poor health and an inability to pass the qualifying physical exam, which has nothing to do with patriotism, but also an increase in mental health disorders and more common casual drug use. These are problems the military can’t fix, and the Pentagon will probably try more money and social media outreach on the latest China-owned short video app but that’s a band-aid fix, not a real solution.
Zoomers may be wary of American institutions, but they are not alone in that regard as it is a long-term trend in the U.S. A 2022 Gallup poll found, “Americans are less confident in major U.S. institutions than they were a year ago, with significant declines for 11 of the 16 institutions tested and no improvements for any.”
And considering how the military and national security establishment has performed since 9-11, what do they have to be patriotic about?
The country has been at war their whole lives, and for no discernable reason other than bureaucratic momentum and President George W. Bush’s vacuous claim about the motives of the 9-11 attackers: “They hate our freedoms.”
Since the 9-11 attacks, which no official was disciplined for, the country started a war based on a lie (Iraq) and suffered a humiliating loss (Afghanistan). The U.S. green lighted the NATO attack on the internationally-recognized government of Libya that caused an ongoing civil war and a refugee surge that upended politics in Europe, and may be partly to blame for the deaths caused by the recent flood.
U.S. officials knew things were going badly in Afghanistan but lied to the American people that NATO forces were “turning the corner” almost up to the day of the livestreamed retreat from Kabul.
The Southern border is no more, and the biggest threats to America are the national debt and drug addiction, not Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping.
Either U.S. leaders are unable to recognize real problems or they are gaslighting Americans while they try to improvise their way out of problems they helped create.
The military’s problems weren’t cooked up in the Kremlin, they are home grown.
To start, there is a plague of sexual assault in the ranks. According to the Pentagon, “the Department received 8,942 reports of sexual assault involving Service members as victims and/or subjects in Fiscal Year 2022, an increase of 1 percent from the 8,866 received in Fiscal Year 2021,” but at least the risk of sexual assault is no better or worse than in the civilian population, so there’s that.
However a 2022 Pentagon briefing disclosed that “Sixty percent of female service members also did not trust that the military would ensure their safety after reporting a sexual assault” so the real number of sexual assaults is likely under reported.
The suicide rate is likewise a blot on the services.
The suicide rate for young service members in 2020 was over double the rate for young civilians, and higher than all other groups in the civilian population, according to the Pentagon and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In September, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin directed actions to reduce the suicide rate, but it may not be a problem the military alone can solve. That said, it’s not the news a parent wants to hear when their child says he’s thinking of enlisting.
But there are some problems the Pentagon can control and there it is failing.
The military has been under pressure due to the substandard condition of its privatized family housing. And to add to that, just last month, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported that many barracks (that house unmarried soldiers) are unsatisfactory, with broken heating and air conditioning, doors and windows that don’t lock, and are infested by mold and rodents. In one macabre case, GAO was told “service members are responsible for cleaning biological waste that may remain in a barracks room after a suicide.”
In 2022, Navy Times reported that the Navy-run barracks at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center – the President’s hospital – lacked hot water and air conditioning, and may rooms had no locks on the doors. One building hadn’t had hot water since 2015. On a ship underway when the hot water goes out the Commanding Officer is immediately notified and it becomes a priority task for the ship’s Engineer.
While the Pentagon is supervising an all-hands effort to reduce suicides it has taken its hands off the wheel on housing for single soldiers. Why? Because it’s a bureaucracy that only reacts to bad headlines and congressional pressure. Then there is the “tough it out” aspect of military culture that normalizes dysfunctional practices when everyone knows they are wrong.
GAO helpfully published a follow-on report of recommended fixes to the barracks problem, but the military shouldn’t need to be told by a bunch of civilian auditors how to fix the barracks, however that’s where we are today.
And the military isn’t just failing to satisfactorily house its troops, its failing to properly feed them, too.
In August, Military.com reported that at Fort Hood, Texas, only two of the ten dining halls were open and those for reduced hours. The Army blamed a shortage of military cooks, but most every dining hall uses contractor cooks, so the real cause is either bad contract administration or the service isn’t paying enough to get better help.
The Army scrambled to open more dining halls, but this is a service-wide issue that may be linked to a 2016 project to reduce the number of dining halls and update food delivery to the troops but efforts like this often fall of the radar when the immediate financial savings are pocketed and the leadership’s attention wanders.
The “woke stuff” has been blamed for the recruiting crisis and it is definitely one of the causes, but the military’s inability to ensure the safety and welfare of its people will do more damage than transgender bathrooms.
There are fewer young Americans eligible to serve, due to physical fitness standards and prohibitions on drug use, and only 9% of 16-21 year old Americans have an interest in putting on the uniform.
And when the Pentagon asked young Americans, “What would be the main reason(s) why you would NOT consider joining the U.S. Military?” 70% replied “Possibility of physical injury/death” and 65% replied “Possibility of PTSD or other emotional/psychological issues.”
Those distressing numbers are likely due to the epidemics of suicide and sexual, and promotion of “wounded warrior” charities has probably made more prospective recruits aware of the severe injuries they may suffer. In short, is the GI Bill worth losing your legs?
And those potential recruits may be on to something: a recent report published by the Journal of the American College of Surgeons says that in a war against a near peer adversary, i.e., Russia or China, U.S. troops will suffer injuries more severe than those in Iraq or Afghanistan, that is “multiple high-velocity penetrating injuries, barotrauma, and blunt injuries from being thrown during the explosion, and traumatic brain injuries.”
In addition, U.S. forces won’t command air superiority so evacuation from the battlefield will be difficult if it is even possible.
The U.S. Army War College recently published a study that predicts a war with China (over some chip foundries in Taiwan) will see a casualty rate of 3,600 per day. At that rate, the U.S. would surpass the casualties in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in two weeks. The college opined that it may be time to consider “a move toward partial conscription [the draft].”
The military has traditionally relied on military families to provide recruits for the services, but the Secretary of the Army isn’t helping matters by declaring she wants to avoid relying on a “warrior caste” of families with a military tradition. It’s good that she wants to broaden interest in military service but not clever if it will discourage the ready pool of volunteers before she has alternates signed up.
However, that “warrior caste” problem may be solving itself as veterans are less and less likely to recommend military service to their kids.
We’ve all been told, “Live within your means.”
The reluctance of young Americans to enlist is a silent vote against putting their life and limb at the disposal of the Pentagon and a national security class that is always eager for someone else’s kids to fight in service of the “rules-based international order.”
We saw these guys in Iraq and they later resurfaced in Afghanistan: the toadies, wranglers, and intriguers who never seem to run out of at-bats no matter how many times they strike out.
Fewer enlistees may also shape Defense Department choices and recommendations to the President.
An undermanned Pentagon may feel it must take more risk in the early stage of a conflict to make gains before casualties pile up, but a riskier strategy may cause the other side to escalate, making a negotiated resolution harder to achieve.
On the other hand, a fully-manned military may make the brass think they have the support of all Americans when it really may because of a bad economy (which always helps enlistments).
Here’s a crazy idea for the Pentagon: size the force (and thus the strategy) to match the nation’s willingness to provide servicemen.
Then-Vietnam war protester John Kerry said, “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”
Well, we know the names of the last thirteen men and women who died for America’s mistakes in Afghanistan, and so do many young Americans who may look at their sacrifice as a foolish mistake, not an example of selfless service.
There is a lot the Pentagon can do to make young Americans interested in military service, but first it must:
- End the military’s epidemics of suicide and sexual assault, instead of hyping the nuisance of those right-wing extremists in the ranks who never showed up despite Secretary of Defense Austin’s extremism “stand down” and General Milley’s fascination with “white rage.”
- Stop lying and start learning from your mistakes. It’s OK, guys; everyone knows we lost in Afghanistan.
After America’s defeat in Vietnam, General Creighton Abrams, the Army Chief of Staff, boldly started the 20-year project of rebuilding the Army which was near collapse and haunted by defeat but also wracked by the social disruption of the 1960s.
The U.S. Army War College has published a study of the Iraq campaign, but are the services using efforts like this to reflect, publicly acknowledge their mistakes, eliminate weak programs, and, most importantly, promote the officers who can fight the next war, not the guys who did well in the last war?
- Fix the housing, messing, and the other unglamorous base support functions that are less fun the buying the next major weapon system that will fail to live up to expectations, such as the Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship.
The military leadership must prove it is worthy of the men and women it leads, and someday it may resemble what it aspires to be.
And the sooner it gets started the sooner it may have the military the country needs for deterrence and winning future conflicts.
This article was published by Defense.info