A recent influx of headlines about the U.S. Army failing to hit its recruiting goals last year and the U.S. Air Force facing a longstanding pilot shortage prompted a resurgence in concerns about how to effectively draw young Americans to the clarion call of service. You’ll find proposed solutions (“give them more money!”) to assigned blame (“millennials don’t care about their country!”) everywhere on the internet. But rarely will you find an honest appraisal of circumstances that isn’t colored by pre-existing pop-culture notions about what America’s youth is, wants, or can do.
We have a funny habit of forgetting the ways our parents’ generation characterized and vilified us as kids now that we’re in their shoes. In fact, I’d argue a fair amount of the millennial-hating memes you’ll find floating around online are being shared by millennials themselves–either those who aren’t aware they fall within the confines of the term, or those who are using their distaste for their generation to virtue-signal about work ethics or traditional values. Today’s angry tirades about the youth ruining industries, their emotional instability, their unprofessionalism and yes, even their willingness to serve aren’t even remotely new; we just feel like they are because it’s the first time we’re the ones saying them.
The truth is, every generation is selfish and self-serving–even the Greatest generation–because selfish and self-serving are the very foundations of our political and economic systems. Veterans of my generation (and yeah, here in my 30s I still count among the millennials everyone loves to hate) may be fewer in count than previous war-time generations, but there’s a pretty good reason for that: we never had a draft. My father may have enlisted into the Army during Vietnam, but he did so with the understanding that he’d likely end up heading there anyway; at least by enlisting, he’d have more of a hand in deciding what line of work he got into while he served.
World War II, Korea, Vietnam–all of these conflicts came with mandatory service for large swaths of the American population. Now in hindsight, we’ve forgotten the recruiting stations weren’t overrun by Americans with a traditional sense of duty to their country. Uncle Sam often had to come knocking with some paperwork legally reminding you of that duty. I want to make sure I clarify I’m not suggesting those who got drafted were in any way dodging their civic duties or any less patriotic than service members of my era. I’m simply pointing out that America has always gone through periods of trouble when it comes to finding young folks to fight its wars.
The onus isn’t on America’s youth to volunteer for service, as much as we’d like to think it is. The onus is on the U.S. government to either make service mandatory (political suicide that likely won’t happen again until we get to add a tally to our World Wars count), or to make service seem like it’s a good thing to do.
After the Marine Corps decided my laundry list of injuries and accompanying surgeries warranted my separation, I was in the unenviable position of getting out without a plan. A year on medical hold waiting to see if I could stay in, followed by a phone call telling me I’d be separated the following week, made planning pretty tough. So I enrolled in school with the hope that a few years chasing my bachelor’s would provide me not only with a degree, but with the time I needed to figure out what was next. Being back in school in your 30s was interesting for a myriad of reasons, but one day that stands out was September 11th of my first year back in class.
The professor, who had graduated high school the year after me, asked the class what they remembered from the attacks of September 11, 2001. After a moment of silence, I raised my hand and recounted my experience, thinking it would prompt others to follow suit. No one did. Soon it became apparent that it wasn’t because they were shy. It was because none of them could remember it.
For my generation, 9/11 was a call to service like few things could be. I tried to enlist almost immediately thereafter, but was turned away because of an old ankle injury. It wasn’t until standards got relaxed in the push of 2006 that a recruiter was willing to get my ankle a waiver, undoubtedly motivated by my willingness to take “any job you’ll give me.” It goes without saying, but for those who didn’t cringe when they read that sentence, take my word for it: never tell a recruiter you’ll take any job they’ll give you. It never leads to a good one.
The point is, my generation was just reaching physical maturity when our country got punched in the eye. We took it personally and recruiting became an easier job than it had been for a while. Now, however, the youth of America don’t have that sort of catalyst pushing them to serve. Instead, they see veterans tearing each other apart on social media, PTSD being treated like it’s some sort of zombie-disease that can turn your friends into killers, and politicians using senior military leaders as props to get them elected or to discredit their opposition. Young Americans today are growing up in a country that sees the other political party as the looming threat on the horizon; not terrorism, communism, Nazism, or any of the other “isms” that got us up in the morning.
College is becoming more accessible thanks to common sense initiatives to lower the high cost of admission (or compensate for it) and it will, over time, become even better. That means the promise of an education after service is no longer quite so alluring. The military also offers almost nothing in the way of professional certifications or qualifications that you can take with you into the civilian sector once you’re out. When I was a kid, joining the military could help you build a better future–today, you’d really have better luck applying for scholarships and grants or pursuing a trade apprenticeship.
As for the sense of duty–we can hardly fault our youth for lacking it when they’ve seen no reciprocation from the country they’d serve. The VA is a perpetual mess, GI bill payments stop coming at random intervals, and the closest we’ve managed to come to engaging with the veteran suicide issue is videotaping ourselves doing push-ups about it for Facebook.
Recruiters today are faced with convincing people to serve while dodging questions about American 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.
But yeah, millennials…why are you being so selfish?
The nation has a responsibility to its armed forces–not just to follow through on promises, but to ensure those who serve feel as though their sacrifices (and let me be clear, there are many made by each service member of every generation) are in the interest of more than the politics of their day. We need to make young Americans feel as though they’ll be better off because they served–not like service is a one-way ticket to mental health issues and being used as a political prop for the rest of your life.
Recruiting isn’t going to get any easier as long as we see veterans as damaged goods, break our promises to them, turn on them as soon as it’s politically expedient, and expect service members to fight in conflicts that may start or end at any time based on politics, rather than direct threats to the nation’s security or an overarching strategy toward global stability. Right now, it doesn’t seem like we, as a nation, know what we’re doing. Why would young kids want to subject themselves to such hardship with no promise that it will benefit them or the country?
The problem with recruiting today isn’t the new generation of Americans lacking our noble sense of duty. It’s the rest of us failing to see the crap-sandwich we’re offering them. If we want recruiting to get easier, we can either wait for another 9/11, or we can take our commitments to the nation’s defense and to those who provide it seriously.
Until we do that, why would anyone want to join?