Salvo 01.16.2024 7 minutes

Solving the Military’s Recruiting Crisis

United States Marines on patrol.

The widespread loss of trust in America’s fighting force is warranted.

To put it bluntly, the Department of Defense is led by weak men who know only good times. If the military actually acknowledged that its leadership is detached from virtue, causality, and reality, it could find the courage to accept the fundamental issue driving our readiness, recruitment, and retention problems—especially among patriotic Americans. The basic problem is that today’s Department of Defense (DOD) is unworthy of America’s sons and daughters because it has become untrustworthy. Unfortunately, those in the upper echelons of the DOD appear willfully blind to this moment of their own making.

Those the military seeks to recruit must believe that it defends the Constitution above all. This means the U.S. military must not only work to preserve the natural rights of U.S. citizens, but it must also do the same for its members. Little could restore trust more rapidly than senior leaders conspicuously—and publicly—acknowledging difficult truths over small beer wrongs. This would require making it clear to the American public that our government and its military are aligned with the first principles America was founded upon.

Senior leaders, however, have routinely violated the trust of those they lead, without apology or accountability for the catastrophic harms their failures have caused. Prominent examples include unlawful shot mandates, ideological litmus tests for command positions, and maligning patriotic Americans in the ranks as “extremists.” Through lifelong careers advanced by bureaucratic maneuvering, our leadership is hardwired to recite tired platitudes about “creating an environment of trust” and putting “people first.” But they consistently fail to do the difficult and risky work of becoming trustworthy. Superficial measures resulting from a bureaucratic mindset are ineffective, because the kind of trust that fixes a recruiting crisis will only be granted to the trustworthy.

Exhibit 1 is current leaders telling Congress under oath that there isn’t a crisis, though the Army has issued a “Call to Service” in a desperate attempt to plug the holes in a sinking ship. Adding to that, U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command recently teamed up with the Modern Warfare Institute at West Point to host an essay contest aiming to explain why $50,000 hiring bonuses and politicized, victim-focused, rear-echelon recruiting videos have proven utterly insufficient to fill the ranks. The winning essays did not get anywhere near acknowledging the cultural and ideological issues that have contributed to a freefall in interest in serving.

To a credulous American public in the wake of 9/11, platitudes were enough. But there have been far too many lies and failures in the top ranks of the military complex since then to paper over this growing crisis.

After decades of costly and preventable failures, the American people are tired of war and exhausted by the lies glibly espoused by their representatives. Rather than address this unpleasant reality, senior leaders seek refuge in an echo chamber constructed from an unholy trinity of unconstitutional censorship, mass media-driven opinion-shaping network, and the confirmation bias that accompanies their class interest.

Ignorance may be bliss, but for those tasked with leading America’s military, the cost of that ignorance can be deadly—just ask the families of the 13 Marines who were killed because of the failures of their “leaders” during America’s disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan.

But there is hope. Since standards can only go so low and bonuses can only go so high, we’re at least starting to ask the right questions.

Restoring Trust

Demanding excellence from the force enables trust by demonstrating that the DOD is serious about fulfilling its constitutional role to defend the nation from legitimate threats. The U.S. military was historically branded for excellence. Cutting meritocratic standards eroded excellence, undercutting narratives surrounding the DOD’s reputation and dampening the goodwill and faith of service members and veterans.

To highlight a recently squandered opportunity, we need look no further than the implementation of the Army Combat Fitness Test. The unifying gender and age-neutral standards that were carefully calibrated to accurately measure objective performance were abandoned once testing data demonstrated a politically inconvenient but obvious truth: biological differences exist between men and women. While discrimination based on immutable characteristics is a violation of equal opportunity policy, discrimination based on objective performance is the essential duty of all military leaders. Any “disparate impact” this may cause must logically be accepted if we’re to maintain a force capable of exerting effective deterrence against threats both foreign and domestic. The battlefield doesn’t offer equity. Neither should our military’s training standards.

By denying this simple truth, the politicized Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Access (DEIA) agenda necessarily destroys excellence and trust. These antithetical and cancerous ideas divide a force that relies on unity to excel, discourage candor, and direct precious resources toward practices that focus on immutable characteristics instead of targeting behaviors, attitudes, physical capacities, and skill sets that can be changed. In the current environment, military officials concerned with promotion cannot be viewed as anything less than ardent supporters of a DEIA agenda that entails favoritism based on intersectional identities. Meanwhile, it is an abrogation of their oaths to consider the race, gender, or religion of service members in any capacity. Of course, anyone who has sat on the boards that select military members for promotion to the next rank knows that such dereliction of duty is standard practice.

Reestablishing Obedience, Accountability, and Justice

The public sees a DOD that serves no master but itself. The DOD must instead obey the powers of the legislative and judicial branches and be supremely loyal to the Constitution and uphold the sacred rights it was written to secure. Despite congressional efforts via the National Defense Authorization Act to reverse the destruction of trust in the military due to the corrosive influence of DEIA ideology, DOD is defending its clearly partisan political agenda.

Its highly unpopular drag shows, child grooming story hours, and funding of elective abortions in violation of the Hyde Amendment show blatant disregard for congressional and judicial authority, which undermines the DOD’s trustworthiness. Continued provision of race and gender-based advantages in military contracting and academic programs such as Excel Scholars at West Point constitute trust-destroying disobedience considering the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Students for Fair Admissions case, to say nothing of the fact that affirmative action policies are deeply unpopular with the American people and hurt recruiting efforts.

The DOD’s DEIA partisanship has continued even after the judiciary has issued multiple injunctions against rogue DOD officials. It’s gleefully enacted a multitude of shadow policies that look to purge critical thinkers, constitutionalists, and those who faithfully exhibited exceptional moral excellence by refusing to comply with the illegal, unsafe, and ineffective COVID-19 military shot mandate. Though the DOD still dismisses these concerns despite the injunctions, DOD inspectors general have found widespread substantiated complaints of religious discrimination.

The systemic lack of justice and accountability in the DOD deters those with moral inclinations from service. Failing audits and losing unaccounted trillions is bad, but this pales in comparison to the disastrous retreat from Afghanistan, shambolic loss of billions of dollars worth of materiel, and slaying of ten Afghani civilians in a performative retaliatory strike.

When career warfighter Lieutenant Colonel Stu Scheller vented his grief and frustration by calling for accountability in a short video he posted to social media, there was no interest among those above him for reconciliation. After failing to stay silent in the wake of a perfunctory counseling statement ordering such, he was swiftly excommunicated from the organization to which he had dedicated his best years. This while the professional class that dominates the senior ranks glossed over the myriad failures Scheller pointed out as simple matters of policy while admonishing Scheller for his supposed moral and ethical deficiencies.

While firing commanders for “loss of trust” implies accountability, too many of those getting fired are speaking the truth, fulfilling their oaths, and demonstrating integrity. The failure of redress is unacceptable. And this has not gone unnoticed by the public. Social media forums are littered with stories of service members punished for doing the right thing. The result is that the military’s brand is becoming irreversibly associated with unaccountable tyranny, arbitrary and politicized injustice, and feckless irresponsibility.

Become Worthy or Accept Terminal Decline

To address the recruiting crisis, the DOD must re-embrace its meritocratic heritage, its culture of warrior virtue, and American first principles. Our senior leaders played a part in squandering the faith of the American people, thereby precipitating this crisis. Without accepting responsibility for creating the problem and assuming the risk necessary to regain lost trust, the size and character of our force will dwindle until a draft or mercenary integration is required to maintain the rapidly fading illusion that the DOD is the strong, capable warfighting force it purports to be. History is unambiguous about the long-term consequences of such developments.

The military has for too long taken high levels of trust for granted, and is now learning the hard way that the public’s trust must be continually earned from each generation. The recruiting and retention woes it faces represent the rocky cliffs upon which delusional perceptions about readiness, honor, and trust will inexorably crash unless a difficult decision is made.

Do we want the United States military to be a jobs program for the political allies of our ruling elite? Or do we want it to defend the Constitution of the United States against her enemies? It cannot do both. Absent drastic action, the world will soon discover that it in the long run, it can’t do either.

The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.

The American Mind is a publication of the Claremont Institute, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, dedicated to restoring the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life. Interested in supporting our work? Gifts to the Claremont Institute are tax-deductible.

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