Trying to appeal to woke young people will only make the recruitment problem more severe.
By Owen West (former Assistant SECDEF) and Kevin Wallsten
The divisiveness of American politics has undermined our military in a way the Pentagon doesn’t understand or refuses to acknowledge.
To attract Generation Z recruits after President Biden’s election, the military changed its marketing strategy.
Starting in 2021, the military released advertisements emphasizing individualism and diversity over assimilation into a cohesive force with shared martial values.
The Army called its campaign “a distinct departure” from traditional recruiting.
Yet the military’s recruitment crisis has only grown worse.
Generals blame an increasingly overweight, overmedicated and undereducated youth pool.
Those factors have contributed for years, but here’s the essential problem now: Young white Democrats have lost faith in their country and are rejecting military service.
The data are clear, but the Pentagon hasn’t dealt with the glaring political gap.
One of the oldest and most reliable youth polls, Monitoring the Future, has for decades shown only small differences in the propensity to serve.
As recently as 2015, 19% of young white male Democrats wanted to serve, compared with 20% of blacks, Latinos and white Republicans.
No more. By 2021 white Democrats had plunged to 3%, about one-fourth the level among black and Latino men, and one-eighth that of white Republicans. That’s a loss of about 45,000 young men interested in serving.
The total recruiting gap across the Army, Navy and Air Force combined is about 30,000 people.
Why did this happen? Because American patriotism is dissolving.
Yet Gen Z has been wrongly categorized as monolithically unpatriotic. In fact, beneath its dismal headline is a political divergence.
Only 12% of Democrats 18 to 24 are “extremely proud” to be Americans, compared with 42% of Republicans in the same age bracket.
If you’re not proud of your country, you won’t fight for it. Wokeism has driven young left-leaning whites away from the military.
(STARRS NOTE: The BELIEFS of what wokeism teaches (our country is ‘systematically racist’ and bad) may be driving them away, but the FORCING of the woke ideology on people has driven young right-leaning whites away from the military! See our new video: What’s happened to our Military)
Reinvigorating patriotism among Democrats starts with the president; the military has no cure for societal divisiveness.
But the military can’t afford to lose the citizens who are most loyal to it—extended military families, which produce 80% of recruits.
There are clear warnings that military families are questioning the values of the institution.
In 2021, 65% of teens in military households said they wanted to serve. One year later, that figure was 44%. Further alienating this cohort would be catastrophic, necessitating a limited draft to plug holes.
To solidify its traditional support, the military needs to end its naïve attempt to lure young liberals by featuring drag queens, rainbow bullets representing “pride,” and anime depicting the military as a refuge from childhood trauma.
As Bud Light and other companies have discovered, running woke campaigns risks losing core customers.
Internally, the military has to roll back divisive policies that challenge traditional military values.
For decades, it was common to hear from senior officers and noncommissioned officers that troops were all just shades of green.
Colin Powell said that “race, color, background, income meant nothing” in his Army.
In the past few years, however, the Pentagon has mimicked the social changes sweeping through the academy.
The Pentagon’s diversity, equity and inclusion policies—and the proliferation of DEI officers throughout the ranks—have heightened individualism and rendered obsolete the principle that the U.S. military is a colorblind meritocracy.
By contrast, the Marine Corps exceeded its 2022 recruiting goals by sticking to its traditional recruiting model.
The Marines focused on recruiting those eager to serve, emphasizing team over self and discipline instead of rose gardens.
One result is that Latinos will comprise 25% of enlisted recruits.
The traditional ethos of duty, honor and country remains the basis for our ethnically diverse military, a distinct American advantage.
Mr. West served as an assistant defense secretary, 2017-19. Mr. Wallsten is a professor of political science at California State University, Long Beach.
What People Are Saying
(Comments from the comment section of the article)
“The author get most of this correct but leaves out one important aspect: the politicization of the senior officer ranks where DEI is over indexed to the extreme.
We see this play out in many ways but the recent CNO selection where the President overturned his own SECDEFs recommendation for someone else whom I’m sure is a capable officer, but doesn’t have the same command and warfighting experience as the person she beat out for the role.
This does two things. It causes high performing junior officers to leave which then has a knock on effect for senior and junior enlisted alike and also general morale and unit cohesion. The article essentially gets at this with its Marine Corps example.
But what was missed, is how this also causes those of us who served previously to maybe not encourage our sons and daughters to serve as we did. Because like it or not, the military is a family business these days. The percentage of those serving with a relative who also served is off the charts. I say this as someone who served and whose sons both serve now.
The military is for raining death and destruction down on our enemies so that our Republic and our Constitution can survive those who try to destroy them. Nothing else. We all bleed red.”
“You’re right. And there is another aspect that most people don’t realize. Over the last two decades, a number of general and flag officer positions have been filled with members of the Senior Executive Service (SES), and many new positions have been created for them as well. Now we have senior leaders in the military who have never worn the uniform, never been part of the military culture, and who tend to become more politicized. Plus they don’t rotate at the frequency of military officers. If the goal is a less politicized military, these positions need to be rolled back.”
“There is no place in an effective US military for Political affiliation. The nature of the business has and will continue to attract ‘conservatives’ in the majority – either you support an effective military or we continue using it for Social Engineering perpetuated by ‘politicians in uniform’ (see Milley for the latest example). It is human nature to want to be part of something bigger than ourselves, with standards that differentiate us from the masses – return to proven, unwavering standards and our recruiting ills will go away. And most importantly our military will most effectively defend our nation – the only standard that should matter in our military, regardless of party affiliation.”
“Couldn’t agree more with the drop in recruits from military families. We have three people where I work, who were recent military retires, who will not let their kids go in the military. The woke crap that requires someone be a certain sexual orientation, a certain race, or a certain sex to promote is BS. The most talented should promote period. Another point that hasn’t helped was the military was forcing Covid 19 vaccines on the healthiest part of our society.”
“We have four sons. Since they were young, we encouraged them to someday consider military service, especially the Marines. Now, we’re telling them if they want to serve, the Coast Guard is an excellent and honorable way to serve.”
“I served in the USAF during the Korean War (1951 -55). The people most at home were those from the American South, which had a rich tradition of military service. I can’t think of a better way to alienate this potential recruiting pool than renaming bases that have un-woke names and histories. Let’s hear it for cognitive dissonance!”
“Many if not most young people like to think of themselves of having potential, at least, to be tough and brave. By accepting gays and transgenders, the military has softened it’s tough guy image. Reality may not have changed much, but perception of it has, and perception counts. Potential recruits look elsewhere.”
“This is not by accident. The Progressive’s destruction of each institution and belief that supported American success – education, history, religion, capitalism, family, patriotism, law enforcement, equality were an essential component of their destructive agenda. The military is now in shambles, underfunded, innovation starved, arsenal depleted, SPR evaporated and most important a focus on wokeness over lethality. The failure of this recruiting strategy is intentional and the result is potentially catastrophic. The proof of that unfortunately will come to late as for the first time in our lifetimes, our homeland is actually vulnerable. Thanks Joe, Austin and Mark. You have accomplished what our enemies could never do.”
“If DEI is replacing meritocracy, it’s toxic – in the military or elsewhere. In the military, it can be a matter of life or death.”
“Not surprising the military can’t reach its recruitment goals. Insidious woke ideology that teaches the US is systemically racist, including the Constitution, capitalism and even math, is pervasive in our education system. Why would you want to risk your life to defend a country you despise? Generational military families who produce many recruits are alienated by this woke culture being forced on the institution. Who wants to serve in a military more dedicated to promoting gender nihilism than protecting the nation?”
“Anything less than meritocracy undermines military lethality. DEI ideology is a cancerous culture that permeates engagement decisions down to the soldier on the battlefield, especially once it becomes engrained into the chain of command. It promotes division and discord in the ranks and undermines the pride in wearing the Nations Cloth. It undermines belief in a common cause and having your buddy’s six. Who among us would fall on a grenade for such low ideals?”
“The actual problem may well be that a lot of potential recruits are looking at the ways we have used our military forces for the last half century, and asked themselves why they should volunteer for the kind of misunderstood, fruitless, and misguided military adventures in which we’ve involved ourselves, sometimes finding out afterwards that the government had lied to us about what they knew or suspected about these adventures. I speak as one who spent four years active duty in the US Army between 1967 and 1971, and so I can speak at first hand. No rational nation should ask its young men and women to spend their courage, to die, or to be wounded in mind and/or body in such morasses as we have.”
“The progressive left is successfully engineering a fundamental transformation of America into a country that no one would defend.”
“The marketing strategy is only a result of the larger problem, the loss of mission focus. One is reminded of a letter Randy West sent in response to an editorial “Bad Marks for a Good Military” (Nov. 7, 2017). His letter appeared in the Nov. 14, 2017 edition under the title “Let the Military Focus on Essential Missions”. (Mr. West flew 127 combat missions over North Vietnam from the USS Kitty Hawk). That editorial and Mr. West’s letter appears after a spate of US Navy ship collisions. His point was the same . Senior leadership of the Navy had refocused training from bridge command and control to diversity training. Where are the Black Jack Pershings, Blood & Guts George Pattons, and Bull Halsey’s? Fortunately, the USMC has not lost its Chesty Pullers.”
“I know that since this administration came into power, I’d do anything to keep my children out of the military.”
“More evidence that wokeism is really a form of national suicide. In the 1930s Stalin “reorganized” the USSR military from the top down for his political objectives. When Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa in 1941, the rot and corruption in Stalin’s army was revealed and thousands died. Team Biden is doing the same thing to the US military. What happens next is no mystery.”
“The WSJ runs one of these about every two weeks, and they all seem to miss an important point. About 25-30% of recruits use to be come from families of prior service personnel. That’s over. Those former veterans are dissuading potential recruits because of the lack of confidence in the current administration and its choice of general officers. No one seems to notice the precipitous decline in enlistments since 7 Jan 2020. All of a sudden, the recruit pool became exponentially more fat and stupid. The Defense Department became fixated of changing installation names, trying to fathom ‘white rage’ , scouring the ranks for ‘extremists’, helping enlistees with their gender transitions, fighting climate change, lowering standards and focusing on becoming a Job Corps with guns. The decline will continue and more fruitless editorials will follow for years to come. See you all in the comments, again, two to three weeks from now when all the experts still can’t see the elephant in the room.”
“The military has succeeded in spite of DEI. Integration worked. Affirmative action worked to some degree. But DEI will destroy the military because of its insistence on equity rather than equality. Equality means if you work you can get ahead. Equity means that no matter what you do, your skin color is the most important about you. Pure horse hockey.”
“No one I have heard is against racial integration in the armed forces or anywhere else. The pushback is when race and gender is the sole criteria for advancement. Meritocracy counts on the battlefield. We demand the ablest to lead our protectors.”
“Agree totally. You want everyone doing their best to make you safe, and you make them safe. Dangerous “woke” makes you hesitate, second-guess your mission bc your not confident in the chain of command. The chain of command sets the culture. The culture affects how you perform in the field, which affects the success of the mission outcome.”
“The recruitment problems of the all-volunteer military are anything but new. They are also not just attributable to one political party. Reagan inherited a military very similar to the one we see today, lacking in morale and poorly led. It took tremendous effort and dedication to turn it around, but he succeeded through a single means. He demanded strict accountability for performance at every level of the chain of command. Part of that accountability was in demanding focus on mission, nothing else. He did not always succeed at that, Representative Pat Schroeder’s demands for progressive social goals were often problematic and always bait for the media.
If you want to find the cause of a failure in patriotism amongst recruitment aged young people, just look around. What is the overwhelming message being transmitted to those impressionable minds from the media, the education establishment, political leaders, even the churches. Does any of it contain a scintilla of content that would lead someone to conclude that serving one’s country has merit. Can they clearly see that if they don a uniform and put their lives on the line, they will be well led by military and political leaders?
We are in a very deep hole here and getting out, if it is still possible, will not be easy or cheap. The problem is much larger than military recruitment. Our whole society has lost its bearings. Start with accountability. Without it, we have nothing.”
“Nothing new. In the early 1990s, the Commandant of the Marine Corps Carl Mundy was skewered on “60 Minutes” for the lack of minority promotions. Shortly thereafter, promotions for lieutenant colonel were announced and several minority officers I knew, with questionable credentials, were promoted. There was rumbling in the ranks that the promotion boards were swayed in some way by headquarters. There is no proof, if course, but the timing was suspicious.”
“Worse yet, do we want the fate of the nation’s security to rest with the general focused on using the correct pronouns?”
“No one is saying a person of color cannot be the best, most qualified candidate. But, unless you are living in a “progressive” cult bubble, you cannot deny that many lesser qualified people are promoted BECAUSE of their race, or gender, or whatever, and not for their qualifications. For example, some people call it a “targeted” hire, meaning that skin hue is the priority. Calling someone “racist” because they understand this fact is the last resort of the “liberal” whose argument simply does not fly. Stop smearing and try thinking.”
“Yes, promoting people because of their race, is racist. And it does lead to legitimate doubt about any group who is promoted to fill a quota. That’s not racism, it’s logic.”
“Every promotion “given” to someone BECAUSE of something other than merit is a stab in the back to America. These *^$%%# have taken what could arguably have been the most successfully color blind institution in the nation and made it into a farce.”
“I personally do not want to put my life at risk under the command of someone who got the position because they were “stylish” vs competent. And sadly now, EVERY POC will be seen as a “social” promotion, even those who achieved their position through merit.”
“At Biden’s order about 9 months ago they made decision preference to make race/sex based promotion an open criteria…… no longer hidden or implied. They also changed the promotion path in several branches of the service to make it easier for officers with ZERO combat experience to make it to the highest echelons of command.”
“Once you stop and consider they are out to do harm to the nation vs. just being incompetent…. far more of their decisions make sense.”