Who Will—and Can—Step Up to Be Tomorrow’s Soldiers?
The Armed Services are finding it increasingly difficult to find young men and women to fill their ranks, and it appears that this trend is likely to continue. Although defense experts have warned of the looming recruitment crisis our military faces, very few outside the Pentagon seem to be aware of its serious implications. Given that DOD is attempting to manage several active armed conflicts at the moment it’s understandable that recruitment issues aren’t front and center. But as we look to the future of our national security this is an issue that needs to be on our collective radar. This issue has a direct impact on several defense-related clients LRG serves and has been raised by military and political leaders at conferences our firm supports. More than a quarter of LRG’s employees are veterans as well, which has given us exposure to this issue on both the military and civilian side and we have spent significant time debating this important issue and discussing possible solutions. This post examines two of the most significant factors that will determine who among tomorrow’s youth are most likely to sign up for military service.
The Growing Civil-Military Divide
Since 1973, when the military ended the draft, it has relied on an all-volunteer force and has prided itself on working to recruit skilled candidates who are highly motivated to join its ranks. As a result, however, according to the Veteran’s Administration, only 7.3 percent of all living adults have military experience. And, of those, a majority are coming from military families, which is a troubling trend, pointed out retired Navy admiral and former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff James Winnefeld, Jr. Military service is in danger of becoming, in effect, a family business, involving only those with prior ties to the institution, most of whom come from only a few geographic areas of the country. This could ultimately lead to the creation of a warrior-class that is separated from the rest of society in both experiential background and mindset, leading to a military that lacks the diversity that is reflected in the rest of the population.
Equally troubling is that a large majority of young adult Americans no longer have a close familial connection to the military. In a recent Pew Research Center survey, 77 percent of adults 50 and older had an immediate family member who had served in the military. Among 18-29 year olds, that number drops to 33 percent. The danger here is that this lack of even indirect exposure to the military may lack any understanding of or interest in our national defense system, much less support for it. In short, “Service in the military, no matter how laudable, has become something for other people to do,” Robert Gates, who served as defense secretary in the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, said in a speech at Duke University in 2010.
This downward trend in military participation is also evident within our national leadership. In 1981, 64 person of congressman were veterans. Today that number has plummeted to 18 percent, The Economist reported. This means that only a small proportion of those who are charged with making key decisions regarding our national defense have direct experience and comprehension of its requirements and demands or of the challenges and potential consequences of going to war.
The Pentagon has estimated that approximately 71 percent of the nation’s 34 million 17-to-24 year old potential recruits would not qualify for military service. Health issues, including drug use, the lack of a high school diploma or GED and criminal convictions disqualify more than two thirds of that segment of the population. Obesity alone would disqualify a third. Add in face or neck tattoos and other physical appearance alterations such as ear gauges and the number of those unfit for military service climbs past 70 percent.
These trends are already deeply entrenched within our society and there is no easy course correction, but failure to address these issues will seriously jeopardize our nation’s ability to meet the security challenges of future conflicts.