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. 

Hey kids, you want in on this?

Recruiters today are faced with convincing people to serve while dodging questions about America’s schizophrenic foreign policy, the divide between our military and political leaders, the chances that healthcare and education service members are promised might not come through, and of course, the fact that after wearing a uniform for a while, there’s a greatly-increased chance you’ll find yourself in such a deep depression that you choose to take your own life. Tell me again about how our recruiting effort needs more memes though?

College is becoming more accessible to Americans of all budgets thanks to common sense initiatives to lower the high cost of admission (or to compensate for it) and it will, over time, become even better. That means the promise of an education though the GI Bill after service is no longer quite so alluring. Then there’s the initiative to show more career-oriented fields in the Army that people can get into… Despite this push, the military still offers very little in the way of professional certifications or licenses that can transfer out of service. Just ask any combat medic that gets out and isn’t qualified to be a nurse’s assistant, or any Motor-T driver that gets out and isn’t legally qualified to operate a forklift, let alone a dump truck.

Today, America’s top military advisors have become politicized and vilified by political leaders, leaving those in service with uncomfortable questions about who’s in charge and for how long. Under President Trump, there have been three acting Secretaries of Defense in three years, and there have been five Secretaries of Veteran Affairs. With a revolving door at the top of in-service and post-service leadership, suicide rates continuing to climb, terrible on-base housing conditions threaten the lives of service member’s children, and of course, there’s growing potential for conflict in Iran, North Korea, the South China Sea, various parts of Africa, and the Arctic (among others). It’s hard to spot the incentives to serve in America’s military through all the mess. In a best case scenario, you could build a hugely successful career, earn the respect and admiration of your peers and constituents, play an active role in combat operations all around the world, and then, at the culmination of forty years of service, the president will call you a shitty leader in the international press because you disagreed with him.

Other than 40 years of honorable service to the nation, is what I’m sure he meant.

The problem the Army is having with recruiting may well improve with the right marketing strategy, but young Americans aren’t dumb Americans. As a nation, we need to make service seem like it benefits the troops, rather than seeming like a last resort when your other options fall through. Above all, young Americans need to know they can be proud of their service. I joined the Marine Corps because I believed I could make a difference, but nearly two decades into a global war most Americans don’t understand let alone care about, and with highly respected military leaders used as tokens in political disputes, it’s easy to see how “making a difference” doesn’t seem all that feasible to potential recruits looking to service as a career or as a stepping stone into one.