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The Army Is Recruiting—Gen Z Just Isn’t Biting

After more than 20 years of losing wars, recruiting for the US Army is now officially a mess. Last year, that service fell short of its goal by 15,000 recruits, or a quarter of its target.

Despite reports of better numbers in the first months of this year, Army officials doubt that they will achieve their objective this time around either. The commanding general at Fort Jackson, the South Carolina facility that provides basic training to 50 percent of all new members of the Army, called the recruiting command’s task the hardest since the all-volunteer military was launched in 1973. The Army’s leaders were alarmed enough to make available up to $1.2 billion for recruitment incentives and related initiatives.

Those incentives include enlistment bonuses of up to $50,000 and promotions for young enlistees who successfully bring in new candidates. Women recruits can now wear their hair in ponytails, and regulations have been updated to permit small, inconspicuous tattoos in places like the back of your ear.

The other branches of the military aren’t exactly doing well either. The Marines, for example, met their numbers largely through retention, not recruitment, and the Navy was forced to accept recruits who scored in the lowest-qualifying range on an entrance exam.

The tempo of recruitment has always swung back and forth, depending in part on whether the economy is bad or booming. Today, that economy may be a mess, but hiring is still remarkably robust, leaving high school graduates with more choices than just the Army or stocking shelves at Walmart (which, by the way, also offers college tuition assistance).

The labor market isn’t the only obstacle to filling the ranks. Covid not only kept recruiters largely out of schools—a traditional hunting ground—for a couple of years, but they also lowered the scores on military entrance exams. The Army has seen a 9 percent decrease in scores (already low when this round of measurement began) on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB), the all-important test that determines which branches of the military and which jobs you qualify for. An oft-cited statistic—and it’s alarming, no matter how you feel about the military—is that only about 23 percent of the Americans the Army aims to recruit qualify as physically, educationally, and mentally fit to enlist.

Then there’s what could be called the patriotic duty gap. The United States is no longer officially fighting any wars (though the Global War on Terror, even if no longer known by that name, never really ends). The lack of a rally-round-the-flag event like 9/11, along with the calamitous military withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021 and 20th-anniversary reexaminations of the disastrous invasion of Iraq, have left Washington wary of starting a new conflict. Sure, tens of billions of dollars of weaponry are going to Ukraine and there are more than 900 US troops still in fighting mode in Syria, where a drone strike recently killed an American contractor and injured US troops, but we seldom hear much about such deployments, or similar ones in Iraq, Niger, Somalia, and other countries across much of Africa, until something goes wrong, so they’re hardly top-notch recruitment material.

Summing up the mood of the military’s present target generation, Maj. Gen. Alex Fink, chief of Army enterprise marketing, observed, “They see us as revered, but not relevant in their lives.”

What’s a Recruiter To Do?

A year ago, an Army Career Center (aka a recruiting station) opened in my fairly affluent neighborhood. This was curious. After all, it’s an area surrounded by elite universities and not the most welcoming high schools when it comes to the military. I had walked by the station often, noting the posters in its windows advertising career training and the benefits of the Army Reserve. There was even one in Tagalog about an expedited path to US citizenship. (And mind you, there isn’t a large Filipino population in this neighborhood either.)

Finally, as someone who’s worked for years with anti-war GIs and wrote the book War Is Not a Game: The New Antiwar Soldiers and the Movement They Built, I decided to drop in for a chat, only to hesitate, anticipating suspicion, if not outright hostility.

Boy, was I wrong! The four noncommissioned officers stationed there, only one of whom had spent extended time in a war zone, couldn’t have been more eager to talk about the benefits of Army life. Their spiel was good, too: career training, college tuition, some control over the first duty station you’re likely to get, housing, health care, family benefits, competitive pay, even bonuses, not to speak of 30 days off each year and substantial responsibility at a young age. Admittedly, the tuition reimbursement offered wouldn’t faintly cover any of the universities near where I live and it takes a while for your salary to amount to much… Still, it was an impressive pitch.

And they don’t take just anyone, either. Enlistment requirements are similar across the six branches of the military, except when it comes to age limits. (For the Army, you have to be between 17 and 35.) You must be a high school graduate or the equivalent, a citizen or Green Card holder, medically and physically fit, in good moral standing, and score high enough on the ASVAB entrance exam, which only about one-third of test-takers now pass. (Full disclosure: I couldn’t do the sample math questions.)

So, how’s recruiting going? The Army has about 9,000 recruiters at 1,508 locations nationwide whose pay and benefits are tied to their success. Each recruiter is responsible for signing up a minimum of one recruit for each of the 11 months they’re at work. If this had actually happened, the Army would have coasted to last year’s goal. (I can do that math.) My neighborhood recruiters, however, seem to be typical in coming in well under that quota.

A Necessary Revamp

Somewhere in our friendly chat, I pointed out that armies exist to go to war. They countered that for every infantryman in the US military, there are about 100 support personnel and pointed to wall posters advertising 130 Army career options. No one seemed inclined to delve any deeper into the subject of future battlefields.

Surely, anyone qualified to enlist in the Army should know that such forces exist for only one significant purpose: to fight wars. And the US military—with its 750 bases around the world and its unending war on terror, while the pressures between China and this country only continue to escalate—might well find itself at war again any time. The Army’s website is clear enough on its mission: “To deploy, fight, and win our nation’s wars by providing ready, prompt, and sustained land dominance by Army forces across the full spectrum of conflict as part of the joint force.” But curiously enough, on its recruiting website, the topic of fighting a war doesn’t show up under “reasons to join.” The system is clearly focused instead on all the remarkably peaceful opportunities the Army offers its soldiers.

That emphasis shines forth in the resurrection this spring of the oldie (but apparently goodie) ad campaign “Be All You Can Be,” which last appeared in 2001. It has now replaced the “What’s Your Warrior” ads, with their video-game visuals and bass-heavy soundtrack. The new campaign includes short YouTube videos, where likably plain-spoken soldiers explain just what they appreciate about the Army. One features an Army rapper; in another, a woman talks about finding balance in her Army life, as images of soldiers with weapons and soldiers with families flash by.

Admittedly, there have been a few hiccups along the way to this gentler, hipper vision of that service. Take the two high-profile ads in the new recruitment campaign that featured actor Jonathan Majors (Antman, Creed III) and were pulled shortly after their debut when he was arrested on charges of assault, harassment, and strangulation.

Get ’Em Early, Get ’Em Young

Army recruits tend to come from military families (83 percent of enlistees by one reckoning) and hometowns near military bases, where kids grow up around people in uniform and time in the military becomes part of their worldview. Elsewhere, the military works remarkably hard to introduce that worldview. High schools receiving certain kinds of federal funding, for instance, are required to give recruiters the same access as they do colleges or employers and provide the military with contact information for all students (unless their parents opt out).

While Covid-19 limited recruiters’ access to schools, there were always ways around that. Take Army JROTC, which currently has programs in more than 1,700 high schools, a sizable portion of them in low-income communities with large minority populations. (JROTC boasts about this, although a New York Times exposé on the subject revealed it to be more predatory than laudatory.) The literature emphasizes that it’s a citizenship and leadership program, not a recruitment one, and it’s true that only about 21 percent of Army enlistees attended a school with such a program. Still, it’s clearly another way that the service recruits the young. After all, its “cadets” wear their uniforms in school and are taught military history and marksmanship, among other things. “Co-curricular activities” include military drills and competitions.

And there have been problems there, too: among them, a report citing 58 documented instances of sexual abuse or harassment of students by instructors in all branches of JROTC between 2018 and 2022. (As with all statistics on sexual abuse, this is undoubtedly an undercount.)

JROTC is hardly the only program exposing young students to the military. Young Marines is a nonprofit education, service, and leadership program dating back to 1959, which promotes “a healthy, drug-free lifestyle” for kids eight years old through high school. Its website emphasizes that it isn’t a military recruitment tool and doesn’t teach combat skills. Nonetheless, “events that Young Marines may participate in may involve close connection with public relations aspects of the armed forces.”

Then there’s Starbase, a Defense Department educational program where students learn STEM subjects like science and math by interacting with military personnel. Its primary focus is socio-economically disadvantaged fifth graders. And yes, that would be 10- and 11-year-olds!

It’s good when extra resources are available to students and schools. In the end, though, programs like these conflate good citizenship with militarism.

Too Little—Or Too Much?

A recent student of mine, who joined Navy ROTC to help pay for the college education she wanted, told me her age group, Gen Z, a key military target, doesn’t view such future service as beneficial. Her classmates, typically enough, felt less than positive about her wearing a uniform. Only older people congratulated her for it.

Three senior Army leaders reached a similar conclusion when they visited high schools nationwide recently to learn why enlistment was so dismal. They came away repeating the usual litany of problems: tight job market, pandemic barriers, unfitness of America’s youth, resistance from schools, and especially a lack of public information about the benefits of an Army career.

But what if the problem isn’t too little information, but too much? Despite ever-decreasing reportage on military and veterans’ issues, young civilians seem all too aware of the downsides of enlisting. Gen Zers, who until recently never lived in a country not openly at war, have gobs of information at their fingertips: videos, memoirs, movies, novels, along with alarming statistics on sexual assault and racism in the military and the ongoing health problems of soldiers, including exposure to toxic waste, rising cancer rates, and post-traumatic stress disorder. And that’s not even to mention the disproportionate rates of suicide and homelessness among veterans, not to speak of the direct contact many young people have had with those who returned home ready to attest to the grim consequences of more than 20 years of remarkably pointless warfare in Afghanistan, Iraq, and across all too much of the rest of the planet.

All of this probably helps explain what the Army found in surveys of 16- to 28-year-olds it conducted last spring and summer. That service described (but didn’t release) its report on those surveys. According to the Associated Press, the top three reasons cited for refusing to enlist were “fear of death, worries about post-traumatic stress disorder, and leaving friends and family.” Young Americans also made it clear that they didn’t want to put their lives on hold in the military, while 13 percent anticipated discrimination against women and minorities, 10 percent didn’t trust the military leadership, 57 percent anticipated emotional or psychological problems, and nearly half expected physical problems from a stint in the Army. Despite recent accusations from conservative members of Congress, only 5 percent listed the Army being too “woke” as a deterrent, which should put that issue to bed, but undoubtedly won’t.

Let me offer a little confession here: I find all of this heartening—not just that potential recruits don’t want to be killed in war, but that they’re aware of how dangerous joining the military can be to body and mind. And apparently the survey didn’t even explore feelings about the possibility that you could be called on to kill, too. In an op-doc for The New York Times that followed a group of American soldiers from their swaggering entry into the Iraqi capital of Baghdad in 2003 to their present-day lives, an off-screen voice asks, “So what does it do to a generation of young people during these deployments?” The answer: “They become old. They are old young men.”

If there’s one thing the Gen Zers I know don’t want, it’s to get old before their time. (Probably not at their time either, but that’s another story.) So, add that to the reasons not to enlist.

Early in the US occupation of Iraq, I met Elaine Johnson, a Gold Star Mother from South Carolina, so outspoken in her opposition to the Iraq War after her son, Darius Jennings, was killed in Fallujah in 2003 that she reportedly came to be known in the George W. Bush White House as “the Elaine Johnson problem.” Anti-war as she was, she also proudly told me, “My baby was a mama’s boy, but the military turned him into a productive young man.”

So, yes, the Army can be a place to mature, master a trade, take on responsibility, and learn lasting lessons about yourself, while often forging lifelong friendships. All good. But that, of course, can also happen in other types of organizations that don’t feature weapons and killing, that don’t take you to hell and back. Just imagine, for a moment, that our government left the business of losing the wars from hell to history and instead spent, say, half of the $842 billion being requested for next year’s military budget on.

Count on one thing: We would be in a different world. Maybe this generation of potential soldiers has already figured that out and will someday make it happen.

Just perhaps we should take better care of our Military today to demonstrate how we will take care of them. Understanding the sacrifice.

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