The American military is now having trouble recruiting enough soldiers. According to the New York Times, its ranks are short thousands of entry-level troops and it’s on track to face the worst recruitment crisis since the Vietnam War ended, not long after the draft was eliminated.
Mind you, it’s not that the military doesn’t have the resources for recruitment drives. Nearly every political figure in Washington, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, invariably agrees on endlessly adding to the Pentagon’s already staggering budget. In fact, it’s nearly the only thing they seem capable of agreeing on. After all, Congress has already taken nearly a year to pass a social-spending package roughly half the size of this year’s defense budget, even though that bill would mitigate the costs of health care for so many Americans and invest in clean energy for years to come. (Forget about more money for early childhood education.)
Nor is the Pentagon shy about spending from its bloated wallet to woo new recruits. It’s even cold-calling possible candidates and offering enlistment bonuses of up to $50,000.
As it happens, though, its recruiters keep running into some common problems that either prevent young people from enlisting or from even wanting to do so, including the poor physical or mental health of all too many of them, their mistrust of the government (and its wars), and the recent pandemic-related school closures that made it so much harder for recruiters to build relationships with high-school kids. Many of these recruitment issues are also all-American ones, related to the deteriorating quality of life in this country. From a basic standard of living to shared values or even places where we might spend much time together, we seem to have ever less connecting us to each other. In a nation where friendships across socioeconomic classes are vital to young peoples’ access to new opportunities, this ought to trouble us.
When I arrived to pick my kids up from camp recently, an elementary school classmate playing basketball with them was yelling “This is for Ukraine!” as he hurled the ball towards the hoop. It promptly bounced off the backboard, landing on a child’s head just as he was distracted by a passing bird. Another mother and I exchanged playful winces. Then we waited a few more minutes while our kids loped back and forth between the hoops, not really communicating, before taking our charges home.
By the time I had gotten my young kids signed up for a camp so that my spouse, an active-duty military officer, and I could continue our work lives this summer, basketball was all that was left. The sun often baked the courts so that less time was spent outside playing and more time talking, while trying to recover from the heat. Though our children were new to group activities, having largely engaged in distance learning during the height of the coronavirus pandemic, they did find a couple of things to talk about with the other kids that reflected our difficult world. “Mommy,” said my seven year old when we got home one day, “a kid said Russia could nuclear bomb us. Could they?” On another occasion, he asked, “Is Ukraine losing?”
They know about such subjects because they sometimes listen in on nighttime discussions my spouse and I have. We might typically consider Russian President Vladimir Putin’s elusive nuclear redline and how close the U.S. will dare creep to it in arming Ukrainian forces. As a therapist who works with active-duty military families, I’m all too aware that kids like ours often worry about violence. Similarly, it’s my experience that military kids tend to wonder whether some kind of repeat of the January 6th attack on our Capitol by Trump’s armed mob could, in the future, involve our military in conflicts at home in which our troops might either kill or be killed by their fellow citizens.
Such violence at home and abroad has become routine for daily life in this country and been absorbed by troubled young minds in a way that left them attracted to video games involving violence. Those can, under the circumstances, seem like a strangely familiar comfort. It’s a way for them to turn the tables and put themselves in control. I recently had a perceptive neighbor’s kid tell me that playing the military game Call of Duty was a way of making war fun instead of worrying about when World War III might break out.
My family is fortunate because we can afford to be home in our spacious yard long enough to let our kids play outside with one another, delighting in nature. I also watch them play “war” with sticks that they reimagine as guns, but that’s about where their militarism ends.
I know that military spouses are expected to encourage their children to join the armed forces. In fact — don’t be shocked — some 30% of young adults who do join these days have a parent in one of the services. But I guess I’m a bit of an odd duck. Yes, I married into the military out of love for the man, but I’ve led a career distinct from his. I even co-founded the Costs of War Project at Brown University, which played a vital role in critiquing this country’s wars in this century. I also became a therapist with a professional, as well as personal, view of the healthcare deficits, internal violence, and exposure to tough work conditions that military life often brings with it.
To take one example, my spouse and I have been waiting for months to get care for a life-threatening condition that those with comparable insurance coverage in the civilian population would often have access to in weeks or less. A host of related health conditions are no less poorly treated in our all-too-well-funded military these days.
As we plan to wind down our family’s stint in the military, it’s hard to ignore how little of our fat military budget with its ever fancier weaponry goes to help Americans in those very services. A line from the new film Top Gun: Maverick comes to mind, as title character’s commanding officer warns him: “The future is coming. And you’re not in it.”
Capitalism’s Military Marriage
Thanks in part to growing wealth inequalities in this country and what often seems to be a perpetual stalemate in Congress regarding social spending, the next generation of would-be fighters turn out to be in surprisingly rough shape. It’s no secret that the U.S. military targets low-income communities in its recruitment drives. It has a long record, for instance, of focusing on high schools that have higher proportions of poor students. Recruiters are also reportedly showing up at strip malls, fast-food joints, and even big box stores — the places, that is, where many poor and working-class Americans labor, eat, or shop.
So, too, has the military and the rest of the national security state piggybacked on an American love of screens. The alliance between Hollywood and military recruiters goes all the way back to World War I. After the attacks of September 11, 2001, however, the government stepped up its efforts to sell this country’s latest wars to the public, presenting them as a ticket to greater opportunities for those who enlisted and, of course, a patriotic fight against terrorism. The smoke had barely cleared from the site of the Twin Towers when Pentagon officials began meeting with Hollywood directors to imagine future war scenarios in which the U.S. might be involved. Present at those meetings were the directors of movies like Delta Force One, Missing in Action, and Fight Club.
It appears that those efforts had an effect. A 2014 social-science study found, for instance, that when it came not to the military directly but to the U.S. intelligence community, 25% of the viewers of either the combat film Argo or Zero Dark Thirty changed their opinions about its actions in the war on terror. Who knew that, with the help of stars like Jessica Chastain, waterboarding and sleep deprivation could be made to look so sexy?
Some kids were more likely than others to pick up such messages. On average, low-income children have more screen time daily than higher income ones do. And many teens increased their screen time by hours during the pandemic, particularly in poor families, which grew only poorer compared with wealthy ones in those years. As a result, in a country where basic services like school and healthcare have been harder to access due to Covid-19, the few spaces for social interaction available to many vulnerable Americans have remained saturated with violence.
A Frayed Social Safety Net and the Military
In such communities, it turns out that the military might no longer be able to promise opportunity to that many young people anymore. After all, our government has done an increasingly poor job of providing a basic safety net of food security, a decent education, and reasonable healthcare to our poorest citizens and so seems to have delivered many of them to adulthood profoundly unwell and in no condition to join the military.
Annually, the proportion of young people who are mentally and physically healthy has been shrinking. As a result, roughly three quarters of those between the ages of 17 and 24 are automatically disqualified from serving in the military for obesity, having a criminal record, drug use, or other similar reasons.
To take one example, obesity among kids has skyrocketed in recent years. During the pandemic, in fact, it began rising a stunning five times faster than in previous years. While obesity may not always disqualify young people from serving in the military, it usually does, as do obesity-related diseases like diabetes and high blood pressure. While its underlying causes are complicated, two things are clear: it’s far more prevalent among the lower- and middle-income segments of the population and per capita it’s strongly linked to wealth inequality.
Legislation like the Healthy Food Access for All Americans bill, which has the potential to expand access to less fattening foods through tax credits and grants for grocers and food banks, was introduced in the Senate more than a year ago. You undoubtedly won’t be surprised to learn that it has yet to pass.
The casualties of not caring for our own in this way are high. According to the National Institutes of Health, an estimated 300,000 deaths each year are due to this country’s obesity epidemic. Unfortunately, deadly as such a phenomenon might prove to be, it doesn’t make for the sort of gripping plots that popular movies need.
Similarly, the military’s recruitment efforts suffer because of poor mental-health levels among young people. One in five young women and one in 10 young men experience an episode of major depression before turning 25. Meanwhile, the suicide rate in this country is the highest among wealthy nations and now — thanks, in part, to all the weapons flooding this society — it’s also the second-leading cause of death among 10-to-24-year-olds. Worse yet, poor kids are significantly more likely to die by suicide. Globally, wealth- and race-based inequalities are key determinants of mental health, in part because people who sense that the world they live in is deeply unfair are more likely to develop clinical mental-health disorders.
A 2019 United Nations report suggested that, in order to improve mental health, governments ought to focus on investing in social programs to support people who have experienced trauma, abuse, and neglect at home or in their neighborhoods. It seems unlikely, though, that our elected representatives are ready for such things.
This Is for Democracy
The human frailties that hinder enlistment are symptoms of something more sinister than a military lacking bodies. The threat that is guaranteed to further undermine any American readiness to face life as it should be faced in this discordant twenty-first century with its ever more feverish summers is the dismantling of our democratic system.
A recent survey ranked the U.S. only 26th globally when it comes to the quality of its democracy. And that’s sad because functional democratic systems are better at creating the conditions in which people can help each other and be involved in public service of all sorts, yes, including in the military.
Democracies are also better at educating people and generally have more efficient health-care systems in part due to the lesser likelihood of corruption. Ask anyone who has sought care in an autocracy like Russia and they’ll tell you that even being rich doesn’t guarantee you quality care when bribery and political retaliation infuse social life.
Democracies have less criminal violence and less likelihood of civil war. In a true democracy where the peaceful transition of power is a given, the kinds of emergencies that necessitate a strong military and law enforcement response are much less likely, which is why the January 6th insurrection at the Capitol was so ominous. Worse yet, investing in weapons rather than human livelihood is guaranteed to have costs that are not only far reaching, but hard to predict. One thing is certain, though: war and ever greater preparations for more of it do not lay the groundwork for a good democracy.
All this is to say that our government ought to stop using movie screens and strip malls to sell its bloody practices overseas. It ought to stop investing in the national (in)security state and the corporations that support it in a way that has become unimaginable for the rest of society. It ought to develop a truly functional social-support system at home that would include the Americans now not quite filling the Pentagon’s tired ranks.
Andrea Mazzarino, a TomDispatch regular, co-founded Brown University’s Costs of War Project. She has held various clinical, research, and advocacy positions, including at a Veterans Affairs PTSD Outpatient Clinic, with Human Rights Watch, and at a community mental health agency. She is the co-editor of War and Health: The Medical Consequences of the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.