By Ryan McMaken
September 14, 2023
By the middle of 2022, it was already become apparent that the US military was having problems meeting recruitment goals. In August last year, The AP reported that the Army would have to cut force size, and an army spokesman admitted the Army was facing "‘unprecedented challenges' in bringing in recruits." This came even with new larger enlistment bonuses. The problem, however, wasn't as acute for the Air Force, Navy, or Marine Corps.
Since then, things haven't gotten any better for recruiters. Now, recruitment shortfalls have spread well beyond the Army. The New York Post reported last week:
Much of the military will fall short of recruitment goals by as much as 25% this year …
The Army, Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard are all expected to fall short of their recruitment goals this year, they told The Post. …
A spokesperson for the Air Force said they will likely miss their goal of 26,877 new recruits by 10%. The Coast Guard said they will likely only fill 75% of the number of full-time, non-commissioned recruits they need.
And as of April, the Navy, which has over 300,000 active duty personnel, was behind by 6,000 new recruits this year, and the Army by 10,000 out of their 65,000 goal.
2023 is the first time the Air Force has missed its recruiting goals since 1999.
Apparently, potential recruits aren't buying whatever it is the military is selling these days as reasons for signing away one's freedom to federal bureaucrats for a period of years. After all, the military is the only job that one can't quit at any time, so any intelligent person will think long and hard before signing up.
There are many reasons for the recruitment problem. The decline in mental and physical fitness is real, and many young people are disqualified from a military job even before applying. Many others are put off by what appears to be an overtly politicized and partisan military. Pentagon leaders appear to be doubling down on ideological crusades more and more. Even while it faces a recruiting crisis, the military still refuses to provide back pay to service members who were forced out for declining the experimental covid vaccines. Unquestioning compliance with vaccine mandates, of course, is a cause near and dear to the current administration. Then there are the "woke" crusades in which military brass use drag queens as Navy recruiters and create recruitment ads tailor-made for LGBT personnel. The military wants to let you know they'll affirm your gender transition— unless, of course, that gets in way of conscription. (The Pentagon claims the "woke" issue isn't having much effect on recruitment.)
But there are other more deep-seated problems as well. There is growing evidence that the American public no longer reveres the military as it once did. Moreover, it is more abundantly clear than ever that military service has nothing to do with defending the United States or its people. And then there is the often-seen "problem" of low unemployment and the fact the private sector is drawing the best workers away from military careers.
The Public Is Losing Faith in the Military
Compared to institutions like public education, public health, and Congress, the military remains quite popular. However, the historical trend in public views of the military is clearly downward. In 2021, "About 56 percent of Americans surveyed said they have ‘a great deal of trust and confidence' in the military, down from 70 percent in 2018." The trend hasn't changed since 2018. According to a Gallup poll, people who say they have a "great deal/quite a lot" of confidence in the military fell from 69 percent in 2021 to 60 percent in 2023. The all-time low, accoriding to Gallup was in 1981 in the wake of the Vietnam War and Watergate.
The dwindling regard for the military is certainly not alien to young potential recruits, and talk of the recruiting crisis regularly features concerns about current young men and women being insufficiently "patriotic" or willing to "serve their country."
This presents a real economic problem for recruiters. A potential recruit who regards military service as ideologically distasteful cannot be easily enticed with a few offers of recruiting bonuses or a GI Bill. After all, the military has long relied on convincing recruits they will gain psychic profits on top of whatever monetary pay they receive. To capitalize on this, recruiters will say things like "you're serving your country" or "you're fighting the bad guys" or "you'll make your father proud." But what if people stop believing that stuff? It's going to take a lot of money to sweeten the deal for potential recruits who are smart enough or well-educated enough to have other options.
Moreover, it's easy to see why many young people don't find military service especially enticing. The US military lost in Iraq and Afghanistan, and hasn't won a major war since 1945. More clever potential recruits are likely to notice that the US invasion of Iraq was no more morally justified than the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Potential recruits with critical thinking skills might also notice the military is itching to turn American soldiers into fodder for Russian artillery. In previous ages, the usual regime propaganda might have worked to convince potential recruits that "we're fighting the Russians in Ukraine so we don't have to fight them in Kansas City." It's a variation on a common lie that warmongers tell Americans. But now, the military can't even take for granted that conservatives—historically a key demographic for recruiters—will believe it anymore. Thanks to a shift in foreign policy views among conservative populists, many young men in middle America see a disconnect between the regime's latest wars and actual defense of the "homeland."
National Guard Troops Are Exploited by the Regime
This brings us to another problem recruiters face. Even those who doubt the regime's latest imperial adventures oversea might nonetheless be convinced to join the National Guard. But even there, better-informed potential recruits are learning that the National Guard has degenerated into a reserve force for the regular military. The old "two weeks every summer" slogan about the National Guard has been exposed as a lie, and potential recruits seeking to "serve the community" now know that they may end up fighting wars 10,000 miles from home. In 2021, National Public Radio reported on how the National guard exploits recruits. One Idaho National Guardsman described the new reality:
My entire life, the recruiting National Guard message has been one weekend a month, two weeks in the summer. And when we served, we used to say one weekend a month, two weeks in the summer, my ass. You know, when we went to Afghanistan, we were gone for 18 months…
NPR further noted:
There has been a lot going on that the National Guard has been brought in for—hurricanes, floods, protests, Iraq, Afghanistan. Last year, more than a third of the National Guard was on active duty. That's the highest utilization we've seen since World War II, and some service members are getting fed up.
Once upon a time, National Guard forces could not legally serve overseas at all. This was why many young men in the 1960s managed to avoid a pointless death in Vietnam by signing up for the National Guard. Then, it was established they would not serve overseas without a declaration of war. Then the Pentagon and Congress decided it can do whatever it wants with National Guard members. A young many or women would have to be pretty desperate to sign up for that sort of treatment.
Unemployment Is Low
And that's the thing. Workers right now aren't desperate. The United States is currently in the middle of an employment bubble. Billions of dollars in new money created since 2020 has flooded the economy, driving up demand and producing countless malinvestments in the labor markets. Monetary inflation has driven increases in wages, and workers—for now—simply don't need a military job. This relationship between low unemployment and low recruitment, of course, has been known for a long time. As a 2010 report from the Department of Defense noted:
Recruiting and retention are sensitive to the state of the economy. Studies indicate that a 10 percent decrease in the civilian unemployment rate will reduce high-quality enlisted recruiting by 2–4 percent. Retention also declines when unemployment decreases, but appears to be less sensitive to the state of the economy than recruiting. The recent economic downturn has improved recruiting and retention and has allowed the services to reduce use of enlistment and reenlistment bonuses. However, this improvement is expected to diminish as civilian economic conditions improve.
We'll only know how truly severe the recruiting crisis is for the Pentagon once the unemployment rate starts to head up again. We likely won't have to wait long. We can point to half a dozen economic indicators right now that point to a thoroughly slowing economy in the next year. As we see in the survey data, however, it is likely that views of military service have changed considerably in recent years. That means older relationships between joblessness and recruitment may no longer apply to the same extent. It may be that rising unemployment may not drive as many new recruits as may have been the case a decade ago. Recruiters may find that members of Gen Z are not enthusiastic about losing yet another war—regardless of the size of the enlistment bonus. We'll find out soon enough.
Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.