Most service members are aware of the recent news that the Army failed to meet its recruiting goals for 2022 by more than 30,000. For the first time in decades, the active Army is now below 450,000 members. Yet it is not just the Army. Every branch of the military is struggling with meeting recruiting goals to maintain the force, but none so dramatic. The reasons for this decline vary, but ultimately it comes down to whether people are willing to serve the nation or not.

Some sources blame the low recruiting on the politicization of the military. For those on the right, it is because of the Army becoming “woke.” They blame transgender training, political witch hunts, and vaccine or mask mandates – the service is about to discharge some 60,000 people who refused to get a COVID vaccination. They argue if you appeal increasingly to people on the left, who are statistically less likely to serve, and demonize people on the right, who are statistically more likely, the result can only be a decline in numbers. Meanwhile, those on the left blame toxic masculinity, right-wing extremism, and bigotry. The military continues to have a higher percent of sexual assaults than the rest of society, and it has long been a haven for the pro-gun lobby. The bigger problem is that people are applying politics of any flavor to the military, which erodes confidence that the U.S. military is professional and apolitical, serving the whole nation. Polls show that trust in the military has declined 25 percent since 2018 to 45 percent of those who responded from both political persuasions. If political leaders continue to inject politics into the military, declining professionalism, trust, and recruiting will likely be the result.

The military in general blames the declining eligibility of people as being the main issue impacting recruiting. Today, only 23 percent of people aged 17 to 24 are eligible for service due to weight, drug use, or criminal records. This is down 6 percent from 29 percent in 2018. With a smaller pool that is eligible, recruiting is naturally down. As a result, the Army is waiving some requirements, for example, by recruiting obese people and putting them on a rigorous weight loss program to help them meet standards and by allowing those with non-felony convictions to serve. They are also offering more bonuses to provide a financial incentive. Those who have been in the service for a long time have seen all of this before, since the military has periodically taken such actions to maintain numbers in the past. These efforts may delay the decline or make up for five or ten percent of losses. It is unlikely, however, that these alone can make up for the large declines in recruiting seen recently.

While both politicization and eligibility are no doubt contributing to recruiting declines, the larger problem is an overall decline in a desire to serve. Of those eligible, only 9 percent in polls say they have any inclination to do so, the lowest number since 2007. In the past, having family members who served was a major influence. In 1995, 40 percent had relatives who had served. Today, it’s only 13 percent. As the number of people serving in the military in each generation has declined, the numbers familiar with military service have also declined. Most people – 75 percent – are unfamiliar with the Army at all. Some of the reasons why fewer people want to serve are political – if you teach people the U.S. is evil, why would they want to die for their country? If you say patriots are extremists, why should they want to serve? Yet the bigger reason is simply that fewer people are interested in serving anywhere, in jobs, in the military, or in government. Many industries are having problems filling jobs and keeping them filled. Most people have no loyalty to any company or nation and so only work until they find something better, or they are forced to do something they don’t like. Likewise, more than half of those who are eligible for military service believe they would have emotional or physical problems if they serve in the military, meaning they would be forced to do something that harms them. In short, more people are looking out only for themselves and do not want to make a long-term commitment.

I have repeatedly written about Roman views of the necessity of service for civilization to survive (such as here, here, and here). Romans believed that it was public virtue – service and placing the needs of the state over others – was what made their state successful. Everyone from the emperor down to the lowest slave served the state in some way and loved their country. Most historians believe it was the decline in service that led to the fall of Rome. If we want recruiting to improve and our military to remain strong, we must teach our children the importance of service, sacrifice, and hard work. Only when people want to serve can our nation thrive.

© 2022 J.D. Manders