By Richard Epstein, Hoover Fellow
The United States military position is of increasing vulnerability as the Army, Navy, and Air Force all fail to meet their annual recruitment goals.
It is no accident, for the situation dates back to the botched withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan in August 2021. It is hard for young men and women to want to join a service that was humiliated by an operation that left thousands of Afghans in the lurch—only to be executed after receiving the Taliban’s worthless promise of amnesty.
Acts of this sort have long-term consequences, including precipitating what is now widely acknowledged to be an ongoing recruitment crisis for the military that could jeopardize the status of the all-volunteer force that has been a staple of American policy for fifty years.
The shortage is fed by a general loss of confidence in the military by the American public—the number stands at 60 percent, the lowest in over two decades.
There are, as ever, multiple innocent explanations for the shifts in supply and demand, so the now-chronic shortages can be attributed in part to other socioeconomic factors beyond the ability of the military to recruit.
The low unemployment rate offers potential recruits an enlarged set of nonmilitary options.
A second factor is the apparent increase in parental pressure to attend college before settling on a career, which reduces the supply for military positions.
There are additional difficulties on the supply side. High on this list are the declining fitness of potential recruits, who grapple in increasing numbers with obesity, drugs, and criminal records. This effect is then compounded by a reduced willingness to serve.
It is possible of course to increase the number of recruits by lowering the standards for enlistment, as is being done, but only at the cost of a likely reduction in the performance levels of the military services.
And it is also possible to sweeten the pot for potential recruits by offering them signing bonuses of up to $50,000, which, however necessary, counts as an open admission that all is not well within the system.
These alternative explanations for faltering recruitment do not directly point a finger at the military and how it conducts its operations. But government policies have helped to distort military priorities.
There is a real sense that the budget cuts for the military are great enough that they will harm overall preparedness, with shortages in new equipment, a higher level of repairs, and extended tours of duty to offset shortages in equipment and personnel.
Beyond that, the Biden administration is well-known for its fierce (and misguided) commitment to take control of global warming, which it regards as a “clear and present danger” to the United States. This devotion has the administration lurching toward declaring the climate situation some kind of national emergency by pointing to the recent disaster in Maui, even as it becomes blindingly clear that massive mismanagement of the fire area by both the government and the public utilities suggests a complete and inexcusable failure to remove vast accumulations of dry grass.
That same fixation describes the Department of Defense with its overwrought commitment to energy “resilience,” which in all likelihood will further impair the overall military preparedness to respond to the immediate threats that confront the United States everywhere from Middle East to Ukraine and the China Sea. Who wants to join a loser?
Indeed, it is possible to home in directly on actions taken by the Biden administration for their deleterious effects on US military recruitment.
One key element was the military’s strict vaccination policy, introduced in August 2021 for COVID-19, which allowed for few if any exceptions for medical or religious reason.
Some 60,000 National Guard and reserve soldiers were cut off without pay and benefits, and, as of April 2022 at least ≈8000 military personnel were separated from the service under general (less than honorable) discharges.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin urged throughout that the vaccine policy was wise, and backed off only when Congress demanded it. And even then, no reinstatement was offered to those who had been separated from the services.
Throughout it all, Austin paid scant attention to the evidence of risks presented by Senator Ron Johnson’s submission of further information about vaccine side effects, including myocarditis, which tends to affect healthy younger individuals.
The point here is not to adjudicate the medical issues but to note that the low mortality rate from COVID-19 among healthy personnel argues against compulsory vaccination. The public disapproval of the military’s mandatory vaccination policy had to have given many individuals a good reason to stay out the services.
There were institutional issues as well.
For many decades, each of the service academies had a Board of Visitors (BoV) who served without pay and whose major function was to supply public advice that could be relied on by the president, Congress, and the academies.
But the very independence of these BoVs was seen as a threat by the Biden administration, which wanted “to clean house of Trump appointees.”
President Biden thus first took steps to suspend their operation. He then dismissed all the Trump appointees whose three-year terms had not expired by sending them this ultimatum: quit by 5 p.m. today or be fired at 6 p.m.
Actions like this have never been taken by any president ever, including Donald Trump, and they represent a systematic effort to expand executive power in a way that wrecks a well-designed system that uses rotation in office as a check on arbitrary power.
I protested this action on this website when it happened, and for my pains have for the past two years worked in court to stop this general practice—unwisely sustained in Stirrup v. Biden—before this well-established institutional structure is wrecked by unilateral presidential misconduct.
Actions like this do not have any direct adverse effects, but they negate the ability of the BoVs to give independent advice to the academies just when that advice is most needed.
For instance, there is a major crisis in confidence about the form of education that is supplied at the service academies, particularly on the role of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI).
The issue here is framed by an executive order of June 2021 from the Biden administration to advance DEI throughout the federal government. He starts from the unsubstantiated premise that “the enduring legacies of employment discrimination, systemic racism, and gender inequality are still felt today” and then claims that he wants a nation “where qualified people from every background and walk of life have an equal opportunity to serve our nation.”
That formulation is admirable if it is applied evenhandedly to allow the most qualified individuals to receive key positions and promotion inside government and the service academies.
But it turns out that there is many a slip between this general pronouncement and its supposed implementation, which in the eyes of many informed observers has transformed the service academies into “woke” institutions which sport Marxist and other faddist notions.
That is the clear message offered by an anguished letter prepared in May 2023 by 162 former admirals and generals to the House of Representatives, which starts with a renewed defense of the military as a “meritocracy” in which “advancement [is] based solely on merit and ability. Service Members (SMs) were judged not by the color of their skin but by their character, duty performance, and potential.”
It then attacks DEI for dividing people into “identity classes” who are then pitted against each other. That letter does not give chapter and verse of the kinds of practices that it vigorously condemns, but there are ample other sources that give voice to the same set of concerns which substantiate that claim.
Thus, the Air Force Academy governance insists that cadets use words that “include all genders” and do not refer to “mom and dad,” the latter resting on the insight that:
“Some families are headed by single parents, grandparents, foster parents, two moms, two dads, etc.: consider ‘parent or caregiver’ instead of ‘mom and dad,’ ” the presentation states. “Use words that include all genders: ‘Folks’ or ‘Y’all’ instead of ‘guys’; ‘partner’ vs. ‘boyfriend or girlfriend.’”
Consider this transparent effort to break down traditional categories by manipulating language. This is an example of Orwell’s “Newspeak.”
The ideology behind such orders insists that sex differences are largely irrelevant, and thus consciously substitutes words with less specificity for those in common usage—all for the dangerous purpose of reshaping social categories in ways that defy common sense and experience.
The use of such language is the opening wedge to a totalitarian regime of instruction.
Thus, one anguished Air Force cadet wrote that he was subjected to DEI instruction that had nothing to do with the vision of equal opportunity but that featured “training [which] always made white people look like oppressors and minorities as victims,” with devastating consequences to the morale inside the academy.
In light of that bombardment, how could any white men think that they have what the Biden administration promises—a fair opportunity for advancement?
And how are all cadets supposed to thrive in an environment that is suffused with this new set of overt racist norms and practices?
How can the military think that it can maintain its standards of excellence in the face of this kind of bullying?
Military families are a key source of the next generation of leaders, and current service members subjected to this kind of coercion are not likely to look kindly on the deterioration of military norms when they come to advise their children on career choices.
The moral rot must stop.
Those serving in today’s military forces are incapable of correcting it.
President Biden must clean house by installing a new team that will work overtime to restore the norms that once defined military excellence.