Veterans Day this year comes during the 50th anniversary of the start of the all-volunteer military. It is also a time when that concept is being threatened by alarmingly low recruitment numbers at many of the branches of service. 

Troubling though this trend is, we believe young people, when made aware of the need in a darkening world, will continue to step up, just as they have for generations. The more who do so, the less likely it is that a well-trained and superior force will need to fight wars in the first place.

The Nov. 11 holiday, meant to signify the end of World War I on the 11th hour of the 11th day in the 11th month of 1918, has evolved into a time to remember and honor the service of all who have sacrificed to make freedom possible. It is entirely appropriate to do so. The “war to end all wars,” as people once said of WWI, did not end wars. The world today seems as dangerous as ever, if not more so, with conflicts rising around the world.

The United States has, throughout history, relied on the willingness of young men and women to fight for a cause greater than themselves. The graves of American soldiers, whether at Normandy, at Arlington Cemetery or wherever they may be, are a testament to that selfless spirit.

As Elmer Davis, a radio commentator during WWII, once said, “This nation will remain the land of the free only so long as it is the home of the brave.”

That is true whether the fighting force is conscripted or voluntary. However, the all-volunteer armed forces have added a sense of legitimacy to the nation’s foreign campaigns, as young people enlist of their own accord to defend a cause.

The current recruitment crisis, however, is putting that notion in jeopardy. Military.com reports that the Army recruited only 55,000 new active-duty soldiers in 2022, which was 10,000 short of its goal. Other service branches saw similar results, with the exception of the Marines and the Space Force.

NPR reported recently that this year’s numbers are up a bit, but still below recruitment goals. 

This, despite what military.com says is “a barrage of hefty bonuses, loosened and more progressive enlistment requirements, and even the creation of innovative pre-boot camp programs.”

The reasons are many and varied. Recruiters say the strong economy is luring many potential recruits into more lucrative jobs. The COVID-19 pandemic made it impossible for many recruiters to visit high schools, which had been fertile ground for new enlistments. 

One troubling trend has been the military’s difficulty in finding young people who can meet fitness standards or pass the Armed Forces written qualification test. The Army is spending more than $100 million to help young recruits get into better physical and mental shape, USA Today reports.

And then there are troubling reports about willingness. Ashish Vazirani, deputy undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, said in a speech that the percentage of adults who expressed a great deal of confidence in the military has fallen from 74% in 2018 to 64% in 2022.

“It’s clear to the Department of Defense that Gen Z, those born roughly between 1997 and 2012, are key to the future of the enlisted force,” Military.com reported. “What’s unclear is what will persuade them to sign up.”

While we have great faith in the rising generation, we support military efforts to press the case for recruitment, and to find innovative ways to attract enlistments.

Some argue that a return to conscription, or the adoption of the type of mandatory service required in many countries, would be a healthier alternative to the current situation. Pew Research Center reports that only 18.4% of the current House of Representatives has served in the military. Some believe that a higher percentage with such experience, made possible by mandatory service, would make the nation less likely to engage in wars.

But, while there is merit to the notion that the nation would benefit from having more leaders with military experience, that is not a reason to abandon a voluntary force that has served the nation well for a half-century.

As Pew also reported, 70% of House members had military experience between 1965 and 1975. That did not stop the nation from waging war in Vietnam.

Veterans Day is indeed a time for giving profound thanks to brave men and women who have made freedom and prosperity not only possible, but enduring. May there always be those who are willing to keep the nation a beacon to the world.