Last year, the U.S. Army failed to reach its recruiting goals for the first time since 2005, and in 2019, they reached their goal only after reducing it by 8,500 recruits. What’s causing this sudden downturn in young Americans eager to sign up for service? According to the Army’s new marketing strategy, the failure was in their previous campaign’s emphasis on combat as an integral tenant of the Army’s mission. The new focus will be on non-combat related job specialties with promising careers that can follow, delivered to young Americans (or Gen Z, as the Army calls them) in things like memes and new ads that offer “immersive, episodic storytelling.”

It’s their belief that the Army is failing to reach its recruiting numbers because young Americans don’t understand much about military life, so they want to meet these potential recruits on their own digital turf, orienting the marketing strategy toward engagement the way these people engage with one another, with witty memes and… long form narratives?

There is absolutely nothing wrong with adjusting fire when it comes to recruitment strategies, and the Army has the right idea in tailoring their content to the young Americans they’re hoping to engage — but the Army’s position, and ensuing media coverage regarding this effort, misses the forest through the trees. The Army isn’t failing to hit its recruiting numbers because the advertisements suck, they’re failing to hit their recruiting numbers because increasingly, it seems a lot like serving in the military does.

Young Americans see the same news that we old folks do — and while they may not be as engaged with it often, they’re acutely aware of what a despicable mess the VA healthcare system is. In today’s media climate, it’s hard to deny that the military has been overworked and under-maintained for years, as the “rebuilding” of our military went from a primary tenant of President Trump’s election campaign to a significant portion of his presidential platform. Headlines about military service tend to fall into one of just a handful of categories: terrible living conditions, war crimes investigations, deaths caused by poorly maintained equipment or a lack of training, or the climbing suicide rates found both in service and after.