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.