The U.S. Army has a problem: It needs to enlist tens of thousands of recruits each year but is struggling to do so.
In a memo released in July, it articulated central challenges to getting commitments, including “intense competition with the private sector” — employment is back to pre-pandemic levels — “and a declining number of young Americans interested in uniformed service.” The military has requirements for enlistment centering on education and physical fitness, limiting its pool of possible recruits to only 23 percent of the population of American 17-to-24-year-olds — about 8 million people.
Of that group, though, the vast majority have no interest in serving. The Department of Defense figures that only 9 percent of that pool would consider enlisting, or just over 700,000 young people.
The July memo identified three central factors limiting the appeal of the military.
The first is what they called the “knowledge gap,” a lack of familiarity with military culture and experience. As baby boomers age, veterans make up a smaller percentage of the population — no more than about 5 percent of Americans.
Then there’s the “trust gap,” the reduced trust in institutions seen throughout society. In the 2021 General Social Survey, a fifth of adults under 35 said they had “hardly any” confidence in the military, the highest level of any age group. A third said they had a “great deal” of confidence, the lowest of any age group.
The third factor identified in the memo was the “identity gap.”
“Potential recruits cannot see themselves in the Army,” the memo read, “often due to assumptions about Army life and culture.”
At a news conference Monday, Army Secretary Christine Wormuth addressed that point.
“I think we do have a wide range of soldiers in our Army and we’ve got to make them all feel included,” Wormuth said, “and that’s why a lot of our diversity, equity and inclusion programs are important.”
For a certain group of listeners, that last phrase — diversity, equity and inclusion — triggered an immediate reaction. These programs, often collected under the abbreviation DEI, have been a focus of relentless attack from the right when promoted in the military and elsewhere. They’re derided as efforts to pander to minority groups or, more nefariously, as encumbrances on White Americans.
That the Army makes efforts to proactively encourage diversity has led to a particular flavor of criticism from the political right. The Army’s gone “woke!” It’s too soft, unlike the tough, impressive military deployed by, uh, Russia.
There’s a good reason for the Army to want to make sure it appeals to as broad a range of Americans as possible: Younger Americans are much more diverse than older ones. Census Bureau data shows that just over half of those ages 17 to 24 are non-Hispanic White, compared to three-quarters of those 65 and older.
Only about a quarter of 17- to 24-year-olds are White males; any recruitment effort that doesn’t loop in women and Black, Hispanic or Asian young people is going to exclude an enormous part of the available recruitment pool.
“I’m not sure what ‘woke’ means. I think ‘woke’ means a lot of different things to different people,” Wormuth said at the news conference. “I would say if ‘woke’ means we are not focused on warfighting, we are not focused on readiness — that doesn’t reflect what I see at installations all around the country or overseas when I go and visit.”
Yet, in that same news conference, Wormuth suggested that her organization may not be ready to fight against one particular foe: that same bad-faith criticism from the right.
In March 2021, Fox News host Tucker Carlson attacked the military for trying to “change the culture and habits that cause women to leave the military,” as President Biden said.
“It’s a mockery of the U.S. military,” Carlson said, comparing the U.S. military unfavorably to China’s. “Our military needs to become more feminine — whatever feminine means anymore since men and women no longer exist. The bottom line is it’s out of control, and the Pentagon’s going along with this. This is a mockery of the U.S. military and its core mission, which is winning wars.”
A number of military leaders — no doubt more concerned than Carlson about ensuring that women remain enlisted — pushed back on Carlson’s comments. Among them was Maj. Gen. Patrick Donahoe.
This is me, yesterday, conducting a re-enlistment for one of the tens of thousands of women who serve in our Army. Just a reminder that @TuckerCarlson couldnt be more wrong. https://t.co/M1MHe5zHrf
— Patrick Donahoe (@PatDonahoeArmy) March 11, 2021
Last month, the Army Times reported that Donahoe’s planned retirement had been put on hold as the Defense Department reviewed his use of social media. Task and Purpose detailed the outcome of that review by the Army inspector general last week.
“Investigators ultimately said that Donahoe’s tweets to Carlson ‘exhibited poor judgment,’ ” Haley Britzky reported, “and that the ‘subsequent media coverage drew national attention … and it cast the Army in a negative light.’ ”
Britzky noted that Donahoe was given a chance to respond to the criticism, saying that if “Army leaders are unwilling to defend them in public, I think that is a tremendous threat to the cohesion of our Army.”
“One of the things I think that’s most important to General McConville and I is keeping the Army apolitical and keeping it out of the culture wars,” Wormuth said Monday, referring to Army Chief of Staff James C. McConville. “Because frankly, we have got to be able to have a broad appeal. When only 9 percent of kids are interested in serving, we have got to make sure that we are careful about not alienating wide swaths of the American public to the Army.”
Donahoe is right. Wormuth is wrong.
The extent to which Tucker Carlson actually cares about the Army’s retention of soldiers or preparations for combat can be debated. But he clearly cares about using the Army as a wedge in his ongoing efforts to paint the Biden administration as soft and dangerous. Carlson is, in fact, fighting a culture-war fight. That part is true. But viewing Carlson’s commentary through that lens allows you to understand how pushing back against it is apolitical, however eagerly Carlson wants to deploy his culture-war shtick in service of right-wing politics.
You can’t defeat a culture-war attack on the Army by ignoring it any more than you can defeat an actual attack on a military by turning the other cheek. Yes, there is a risk to joining Carlson on his own terrain. But it’s a fight in which the military can’t resort to pacifism.
After all, it’s not just that Carlson is attacking diversity efforts, efforts focused on ensuring that more young Americans feel as though the Army would be a good fit for them. He’s not just widening the “identity gap” but the “trust gap.” His efforts to undermine DEI and to undermine the military under Biden are one and the same. Allowing Carlson and his allies to simply disparage the Army as laughable and hopelessly “woke” undermines the institution on multiple fronts.
Aiming to avoid national media attention, as the inspector general appears to endorse, actually hands critics a powerful weapon of their own to use. Carlson can draw such attention to anyone he chooses! He can make even anodyne commentary seem nefarious — and, it seems, generate sanction. It’s a lesson the mainstream media has learned and is still learning: Responding to trolls with capitulation is not going to prevent trolling. It’s a lesson you’d think military leaders would understand in other contexts.
But also: What’s the national media attention that tweets like Donahoe’s drew? That military leaders saw an important place for women in their ranks? That they would defend their soldiers even when it was painful to do so?
America’s military needs volunteers willing to commit to our national defense. It hopes to recruit people from a more-diverse population at a moment when there are plenty of other jobs available. And it has to do so as it has become a target of bad-faith criticism from people seeking to cast engagement as toxic and the institution as wobbly.
It has a conflict on its hand domestically, too.