The United States armed forces are facing a deepening recruitment crisis, with far-reaching implications for the struggle against imperialist war.
This year, the US Army is expected to fall almost a quarter short of its annual 65,000 recruitment goal. According to an April 20 press release from the Department of Defense, the Navy is expected to be 6,000 enlistees short, and the Air Force 10,000 enlistees short of their 2023 goals.
This is not a fluke or one-time occurrence, but a mounting problem for the armed forces to which considerable attention is now being given and large sums of money allotted.
Last year, the Army tried to bring in 60,000 new recruits, but was only able to enlist 45,000 soldiers.
Thomas Spoehr, director of the Center for National Defense, described the crisis as “the worst since the institution of the all-volunteer force in 1973.” That is, the worst since widespread social unrest and mass protests against the Vietnam war and the draft forced an end to military conscription.
Spoehr added that the crisis “is not abating.”
Last month, a new book appeared, authored by Matthew Weiss and titled We Don’t Want YOU, Uncle Sam: Examining the Military Recruitment Crisis with Generation Z. The book, written by a younger, well-to-do Marine officer, examines how the military is “scrambling to get a grasp” on Gen Z. It offers a series of proposals to reform the military so as to better attract the younger generation.
Billions of dollars are now being spent by the military as it “scrambles” to get hold of new bodies for its operations. In 2018, the Army signed a $4 billion contract with the global marketing company Omnicon to produce a large-scale advertising campaign aimed at young people.
US Army Secretary Christine Wormuth describes the recruitment shortfalls as a “serious situation.” According to The Week, Wormuth “has begun drafting a sweeping overhaul of her branch’s recruitment and outreach process.”
Numerous plans are being discussed in military circles to offset the manpower shortage. Alongside changes to domestic recruitment, these include plans to expand and deploy AI and autonomous fighting technology, the development of a “foreign legion” that could fight in return for US citizenship, and the implementation of new rules to force or entice veterans back into the military.
Numerous reasons have been given for the crisis. The “unfit” character of potential recruits and the need to “lower the bar” for admission are the most superficial among them.
Michael O’Hanlon, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, goes somewhat deeper, blaming the “bad news stories about sexual assault, accidents and other things.” He adds, “Losing a war in Afghanistan doesn’t help.” Others point to “culture wars” and “wokeness.”
Ultimately, the crisis reflects a changed and increasingly hostile attitude of young people to the military.
Just 9 percent of those aged 16-21 said they would even consider joining the military in 2022, down from 13 percent prior to the pandemic. Approval for the military amongst the US population as a whole is at its lowest point in over 25 years.
These statistics should also be considered in the context of earlier polls, which found that half of Gen Z and almost two-thirds of millennials supported socialism over capitalism. Likewise, they should be seen against the backdrop of the so-called “great resignation,” as millions of young Americans reject the abusive, low-paying jobs that form the bedrock of the economy.
In one of the more honest appraisals of the military recruitment crisis, the Wall Street Journal explained that “after the patriotic boost to recruiting that followed 9/11, the US military has endured 20 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan with no decisive victories.”
The Journal continues, “[T]here have also been scandals over shoddy military housing and healthcare, poor pay for lower ranks that forces many military families to turn to food stamps, and rising rates of post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide.”
These comments begin to express what is happening. Put somewhat differently: Young workers do not wish to sacrifice their lives as fodder in a global operation of imperialist war and occupation.
Between 755,000 and 786,000 people, largely civilians, are thought to have died directly from military violence in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen since US-led conflicts began there. However, total estimates of deaths caused by American-led military conflicts over the last quarter-century begin far higher, at 3 million people. In fact, such estimates go as high as 12 million. These numbers are higher than those for people directly killed in combat, taking into account the catastrophic impact of medical, nutritional and infrastructural breakdown caused by US-led military operations.
Millions more people have been left destitute, jobless and homeless due to these wars. According to the UN, more than 110 million people were forcibly displaced as of May 2023, the most on record. Of these, 35.3 million had been displaced across national borders. The home countries of the three biggest refugee populations were Syria, Afghanistan and Ukraine, each of which has been devastated by conflicts resulting from the machinations of the United States military and intelligence agencies.
Meanwhile, those who are veterans of these wars have been left to deal with the crippling economic, psychological and physical effects of their “service” on their own. In 2018, veterans in the United States were 55 percent more likely to kill themselves than people in the broader population. Thirty eight percent of veterans have a diagnosed mental health disorder. Homeless veterans with significant mental health issues are to be found distraught and desperate on the streets of every major city in America.