Military recruitment numbers are down. Are ‘woke’ politics to blame?
The Army, Air Force and Navy have struggled to meet their goals this year, while some conservatives say the military has turned its back on its largest pool of recruits
The military is struggling to find new recruits to fill its ranks. Some of the branches have responded by offering tens of thousands of dollars in signing bonuses, while the Army says it is so far behind its recruitment goals for this year that it is unlikely to catch up.
The lingering question is why aren’t people signing up?
While the official reasons given by the military — including fewer face-to-face recruitments during the pandemic, and fewer young people who meet the physical standards required — likely play a role, some say it’s because the military is too “woke,” turning off its normal constituency of young, conservative recruits.
Trust in American institutions is down across the board, according to a recent Gallup poll. When asked how much confidence they have in the military, 64% said a great deal or quite a lot, which means the military is still one of the most trusted institutions in the country. But last year, that number was 69%, so there was a five point drop in confidence in just one year. With politics ripping at the seams of institutions once held in high regard — like the Supreme Court, schools and the healthcare system — the military may be facing similar headwinds.
But what does that mean for American war readiness?
In an emailed statement to Deseret News, an Army spokesman described just how tough recruiting new soldiers has been this year.
“The Army is facing its most challenging recruiting environment since the all-volunteer force’s inception in 1973,” said Brian McGovern, deputy director of public affairs for U.S. Army Recruiting Command.
The Army is only 52% of the way towards its recruitment goals for this fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30. McGovern said the Army expects to face a shortage of 12,000 to 15,000 recruits this year.
On the list of reasons McGovern gave for the low recruitment numbers were a tight job market, fewer eligible enlistees and fewer people with a desire to serve, which he said is currently at 9% of the eligible population, the lowest it’s been since 2007.
Recruiters continue to look for new ways to increase their numbers, including huge signing bonuses and student loan forgiveness programs. The Army is offering up to $40,000 to enlistees who can be ready to start in 45 days, while the Navy and Air Force are offering bonuses of up to $50,000 for high demand career fields and up to $65,000 in student loan assistance.
Navy spokesperson Commander Dave Benham told the Deseret News in an email he expects the Navy will achieve its recruitment goals for active duty enlisted sailors this fiscal year, but acknowledged it’s been a “very challenging recruiting environment,” which has led to the “highest enlistment bonuses in our history.”
Air Force spokesperson Chrissy Cuttita said she is hopeful the recruiting team will achieve their goals this year for active duty enlistments in the Air Force.
“We continue to move closer to landing the plane, more than 90% of the way there,” she wrote in an email.
In a statement to Congress, Marine Gen. David Ottignon said “FY22 has proved to be arguably the most challenging year in recruiting history.”
While none of the military spokespeople mentioned politics as a reason for recruitment troubles, influential conservatives have said they are frustrated with the military over a perceived turn toward “wokeness.”
In an email to Deseret News, conservative writer Rod Dreher said military policies on racial and LGBTQ issues reflect “radical leftism,” and that military leaders are no different than other “American elites.”
“One senior officer who has left the military told me that within the ranks, there is a sense that politicians are using the forces to carry out political and cultural agendas. There is a sense, I’m told, that the armed forces are the playthings of politicians, and that policies can change with each passing administration. There is no stability there,” he said.
Dreher said he has spoken to many friends who have left the military because of politics.
“I spoke only last week to an old friend who was a high-ranking officer, and who took early retirement. Why? Because, he said, the officer corps has become highly politicized, and to the left. He said he feels he can no longer be effective as a leader,” Dreher said. “And, he said, the politicization is harming readiness.”
Dreher isn’t the only one expressing these concerns. Other conservative media figures have come down hard this year on the military over its forays into “wokeness.” In a recent article in the Washington Free Beacon, the Air Force was criticized for an email asking its senior leaders to stop using gender pronouns in written formats, including he/she and male/female.
“Competition against near-peer adversaries requires a united focus from the command, the joint team, and our international partners. Welcoming and employing varied perspectives from a foundation of mutual respect will improve our interoperability, efficiency, creativity, and lethality,” the email reads.
In response to the email, Hudson Institute scholar Rebeccah Heinrichs told the Free Beacon that it is “painful to think about the amount of time servicemen have already spent writing these rules instead of figuring out how to beat China. Somebody needs to remind DoD leadership that they’re in the business of preventing and winning wars and not in the Oberlin lounge.”
Beyond politics, there are other reasons young people may not be willing to sign up to serve. With the increased focus on mental health challenges facing military personnel, including the possibility of experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder after serving in a war zone, some may fear the costs of a military career.
But there are benefits as well. The military can still provide a pathway to a middle class lifestyle for youth raised in poverty. Current U.S. Senate candidate J.D. Vance wrote about the turnaround he experienced after serving in the Marines in his book Hillbilly Elegy, which was turned into a movie. Writer and scholar Rob Henderson, who grew up in foster homes, had a similar experience after joining the Air Force. Both Vance and Henderson attended Yale University after their military service.
But Vance has been critical of the military’s focus during his run for office. After Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, defended the teaching of critical race theory at West Point in a congressional hearing, Vance tweeted “I personally would like American generals to read less about “white rage” (whatever that is) and more about “not losing wars.”
Meanwhile, military commanders continue to sound the alarm about the lack of recruits, while trying to appeal to Americans’ sense of duty to respond to the call to serve.
On Thursday, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall gave an interview to CBS News in which he acknowledged the challenges the military faces in finding new recruits. He said the Air Force was looking at changing some of the requirements for jobs that aren’t as physically demanding.
Kendall said serving in the military is a “tremendous opportunity.”
“We just need to communicate that to people,” he said.