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What if They Gave a War and Everybody Was Woke?
The military’s embrace of faddish politics may make activists happy, but it’s driving away recruits.
By Jimmy Byrn, WSJ
July 29, 2022 1:30 pm ET
Army basic combat training graduates have their temperatures checked at Fort Lee, Va., March 31, 2020.
Is the U.S. prepared for battle? By one measure, military recruitment, the answer appears to be no. Nearly every branch has struggled to meet its recruitment goals for 2022, with some falling as short as 40%. Worse yet, only about a quarter of America’s youth meet current eligibility standards—and recent surveys show only 9% are even interested.
Military leadership primarily blames this slump on two causes: teen obesity rates and the tight labor market. But data for both claims can’t paint the full picture. Teen obesity did increase during the pandemic, to 22% from 19%. But that jump likely can’t account for the sudden and widespread collapse in recruitment. Neither can the labor market. The unemployment rate today sits at 3.6%—roughly the same as in 2019. Yet in 2019 the Army exceeded its recruiting goals. It’s falling perilously short today and will be understrength by 28,000 troops by the end of 2023. The military’s benefits—including child care, housing allowances, medical coverage and large bonuses, up to $50,000—should also help insulate it from the pitfalls of hiring young recruits in a tight labor market.
What, then, explains the shift? Perhaps one answer lies in the Pentagon’s wholesale embrace of woke politics.
On his first day in office, President Biden rescinded a Trump-era executive order banning critical-race-theory training in the military. The changes made by senior commanders were nearly immediate. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin mandated that every military unit conduct a “stand-down” to confront “extremism in the ranks.” The chief of naval operations, Adm. Mike Gilday, added Ibram X. Kendi’s “How to Be an Antiracist” to his professional reading list for sailors—never mind the book’s endorsement of racial discrimination and its charges that the institutions troops swear to protect are systemically racist.
Added to the mix has been divisive gender activism. The Navy has mandated gender-sensitivity training, and released a video encouraging sailors to closely police the use of pronouns as well as everyday language, declaring that those who fail to comply aren’t “allies” of their fellow sailors. Not only have such measures affected unit morale, according to some service members, they’ve also amounted to a form of antirecruitment for prospective enlistees. The Pentagon is appealing to activists at the expense of those most likely to serve.
The military has historically drawn an outsize proportion of recruits from conservative Southern states. During the height of Operation Iraqi Freedom, nearly 40% of its enlistees were from the South. That’s still true. South Carolina, Florida, Alabama and Georgia each contribute more than 30%—some as high as 50%—of their share of America’s 18- to 24-year-old population to military service. Unsurprisingly, military members privately skew conservative. In the 2018 midterm elections, nearly 45% of service members surveyed indicated they would back Republican candidates, versus 28% who favored Democrats. Support for Republicans among veterans was similarly strong in 2020.
Military recruitment relies on another factor: family tradition. As of 2017, one in four military recruits had a parent who had served, and almost 80% who had at least one family member presently enlisted. The military’s sudden shift is functioning as a repellent here, too. Families with rich traditions of military service are increasingly not encouraging their sons and daughters to follow in their footsteps. Why? For some, the military’s support for these divisive policies has harmed their view of the profession.
Recent polls lend support to the idea that disaffection with the military is growing among conservatives. The 2021 Reagan Institute National Defense Survey found that since 2019 those who have “a great deal” of confidence in the military fell from 70% to 45%, with the largest decline—34 points—occurring among Republicans. The most common reason offered by respondents was concern about “political leadership.” In a separate poll this month, Gallup found that conservatives’ trust in the military fell by 10 points over the past year. A similar trend held for independents, whose confidence in the military fell by 8 points.
One of the reasons the military has been among the most trusted institutions in America in recent decades is that it stands apart from the rest of society. It is governed by values such as selflessness, courage, patriotism and sacrifice—not racial discrimination or activist politics. A military that appears to abandon its apolitical role will have a harder time attracting large numbers of warriors and patriots to its ranks. Welcoming woke policies under a warped idea of inclusion may serve to exclude those who are traditionally more likely to serve.
Young Americans of all stripes who crave adventure, challenge and discipline and who are inspired by the idea of serving their country are who the military needs. They shouldn’t be told that they’re part of the problem. Pentagon leaders need to welcome these groups, refrain from divisive political and social causes and stop pushing political agendas that may ultimately hurt our ability to recruit, fight and win.
Mr. Byrn is a student at Yale Law School, a former U.S. Army armor officer and a board member of Vets on Duty, an advocacy organization.