The American military is having trouble finding new recruits these days. The problem isn’t just that young Americans have more lucrative options and serious health and legal issues—it’s also that they have a fundamentally different view of the country and military service than in ages past.
About a decade ago, I had a conversation with a group of students—highly intelligent and deeply kind students, actually—that I will never forget. It was the equivalent of a roundhouse kick to the solar plexus.
During class we got onto the subject of World War II. I mentioned the extraordinary bravery of the American, Canadian, and English soldiers on D-Day and how their eventual success in uprooting the German occupation of France helped to ensure Germany’s surrender a year later, preventing a WWI-style armistice which might have kept the Nazi regime in place.
Over the years, I had mentioned the same thing many times to classes, and each time students seemed to grasp the enormity of allied bravery in face of so much danger and carnage, especially when most of them could recall the opening sequence of “Saving Private Ryan.” They understood that these men were the custodians and defenders of modern liberty and that the proper response to their service was deep gratitude.
But something was different this time around. Their response was not wonderment or awe. It was a diffident shrug of the shoulders or an indifferent blank stare.
“I would try my best to avoid the draft. Maybe go to Canada. I don’t know. Why should I have to die?”
I was a bit dumbstruck. I tried a different tact.
“Well, there are times when you are the only one left to preserve your country or your way of life. Sometimes history calls us to certain forms of service. I am pretty sure that is how these men felt about their sense of duty.”
They had an immediate response.
“But I didn’t decide to be American. If I was German, I’m sure I would have ended up fighting for them and think they were on the right side. If I was born in the Middle East, I’m sure I’d have a different view of America and the West.”
They were suggesting there is no right side. It’s all a matter of perspective. Justice is artificial and conditioned by subjective bias. In this view, patriotism is a form of affection experienced only by the unenlightened who do not understand their love of country is a hollow extension of historic chance itself. The proper response to this chance isn’t patriotic zeal but relativistic acceptance. This is how they arrived at the conclusion there is never a “right side” in a war, never a “higher” moral precept, never a reason to die for a political cause. Among progressive activists today, many of whom are young Americans in their 20s, only 9% say that their American identity is “very important” to them; compare this to the US average of 48% and the whopping 92% for devoted conservatives.
It would be foolish to assume this trend is not somehow connected to the fact that the American military is now experiencing severe shortfalls in meeting its recruitment goals, shortfalls that haven’t been this severe in half a century. To be fair, there are also significant structural reasons including COVID and the attractiveness of the current job market.
But dig a little deeper and the reasons for paltry recruitment numbers are utterly deflating, symptomatic of a generation whose lifestyle and values do not bode well for the country’s future success, much less its security. Only a small percentage of young Americans today can meet these two qualifications: being physically fit and having no disqualifying criminal record.
One in four meet the qualifications. A staggering 75% aren’t able to serve in the American military because of high levels of youth obesity, drug use, and inadequate education. But buried inside this reality is a disturbing trend that speaks to the perspective so many young Americans now possess, a perspective voiced by my students just a few years ago that is now becoming more mainstream: in just the past few years the number of young Americans willing to serve has dropped from 13% to 9%. That is a 31% change and reveals not just a health crisis with the presence of a pandemic and frustration about perceived failures in Afghanistan and Iraq, but a generational pivot in the way they look at the country and the nobility of defending it.
It is a bit reductive and hysterical to merely conclude young people have been taught by their teachers to hate the country and despise our history. While that attitude is certainly more present and powerful than it was a generation ago, my argument is that it is symptomatic not of national self-loathing, but naive individualism. The average young person now has no grasp of the enormity of the responsibilities of the modern American military, from honoring security commitments all over the world, to patrolling sea lanes to keep international commerce flowing, to responding to humanitarian crises when they appear. I don’t remember seeing the Chinese or Russian militaries when an earthquake devastated Haiti in 2010. But I do recall the presence of 30 American Navy ships in late 2004 when a tsunami killed over a quarter million people in and around Indonesia.
We don’t have to be a Spartan-esque society to have patriotic warriors defending the nation from time to time. Both Aeschylus, the Father of Greek Drama, and Socrates, the Father of Greek Philosophy, fought bravely in the campaigns against the Persians. Historian Stephen Brumwell’s extraordinary biography of George Washington is entitled “Gentleman Warrior.” Successful American generals who successfully defended the country have a tendency to become presidents—Washington, Jackson, Taylor, Grant, Garfield, and Eisenhower.
Service is noble and doesn’t require young Americans to agree with every military policy or action their nation pursues. We should not be alarmed if declining enrollments are a symptom of a booming economy. But we should be concerned if it is tied to a fashionable disdain of the nation and to a fundamental misunderstanding of the work the American military does in the world.
Jeremy S. Adams is the author of the recently-released Amazon best-selling book Hollowed Out: A Warning About America’s Next Generation. He has taught American civics for 24 years in Bakersfield, California and was the 2014 California Teacher of the Year (DAR). You can follow him on Twitter @JeremyAdams6.
The views expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.