Small Wars Journal

Reflections on America’s Military Recruiting Crisis: A View from the Edge

Mon, 06/03/2024 - 2:21pm

Reflections on America’s Military Recruiting Crisis: A View from the Edge

By al Dhobaba


I spent the penultimate week of May in Connecticut, celebrating my nephew's graduation from the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. As I participated in the traditional fanfare, I found myself reflecting on the military's ongoing struggle to recruit enough young people to keep the mandated ranks full. In a 2022 social media post, an anonymous Army recruiter wrote:


"I'd like to summarize recruiting in the Summer of 2022. Today we approached a man in a full duck costume flipping a car wash sign in 96-degree heat. We offered him $35k and a job. He told us to fuck off. I think I am going to get a cheap bottle of liquor, find a park bench and contemplate life."


Save for the Marine Corps, force strength risks falling short of the capacity required to perform critical missions in the service of America's strategic goals. The Pentagon has conjured up a variety of excuses for the on-going shortfall, and implemented measures – particularly aimed at boosting retention – to address the crisis.


Normally, my inclination would be to write in a neutral fashion, omitting myself from the narrative. However, in this case, I think my own experience is actually demonstrative of the root causes of this predicament. Please, indulge me.


I joined my university's Naval ROTC unit in 2000, a member of the last pre-9/11 class to do so. While I excelled at several aspects of the program – pistol marksmanship, recruiting, funeral detail – I consistently struggled with physical fitness, and with STEM subjects like calculus and naval engineering. In early 2002, I voluntarily disenrolled from the program, but likely cut myself off by only a few months, as I was unlikely to achieve advanced standing in the NROTC system's non-scholarship College Program. To be clear: I can point to others whose decisions didn't do me any favors, but ultimately, at nineteen years of age, I failed to do everything in my power to succeed.


By a fluke of timing, I continued with the Naval Science coursework, eventually completing both the Navy and Marine Corps sequences – enough credits to qualify for a second major in most other academic disciplines. As I remained a marginal presence on the unit's periphery, I watched as peers who were clearly less qualified than me managed to get commissioned, alongside peers whom I still consider to be superheroes. The primary difference between me and them? They didn't struggle to run. The message I ascertained was consistent: grades mattered, but not as much as PT scores. More on that to come.


Late in my undergraduate years, still focused on a career in service to America's national security, I set my sights on the intelligence community. My avenue of approach was a series of federal contracting jobs. Initially, I leveraged my Marine Corps coursework, and learned the art of guerrilla warfare as a terrorist role-player at the Army's National Training Center at Fort Irwin. Next, I put my liberal arts skills to work as a technical writer on the Information Assurance team at a combatant command headquarters, learning the fundamentals of cyber security in the process. After a brief transfer to a project support team, I deployed to the Middle East as a DoD maintenance facility's physical security manager and anti-terrorism advisor, just in time for the Arab Spring’s outbreak. After that point, DoD opportunities got scarce – understandably, going primarily to veterans returning from the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq – and my final contracting gigs were back in the cyber security compliance infrastructure of the Department of State and another federal agency. In addition to all of that work experience, I took a sabbatical to complete a master's degree in international relations at a prestigious foreign university, graduating summa cum laude. Despite what I still consider to be an impressive pedigree, countless applications to the various intelligence agencies went largely unanswered, and a few call-backs never panned out.


Now, do you remember that trouble I had with running during my early days as an NROTC midshipman? In early 2017, shortly before leaving contracting, I found myself in a Northern Virginia emergency room with extensive blood clotting in my power body. A CT scan produced an unexpected discovery: the rare circulatory abnormality that had been responsible for my perpetual failure to sustain even a casual running pace. Yes, I could have trained harder, but it never would have yielded a passing run time. My failing had been physical, not one of character. That revelation lifted a colossal burden from my conscience, and gave me a more realistic pathway to improving my health and fitness.


Later that year, I moved home and got married, indefinitely suspending my unfulfilled dream of serving my country in a uniformed or intelligence capacity. Somewhat ironically, I've settled into a stable, if demanding, management position in cyber security – in essence, the civilian trade that my adjunct service to my country taught me – at the same alma mater where I washed out of Naval ROTC more than two decades earlier. In lieu of G.I. Bill benefits, I used my deployment pay to fund that overseas master's degree, graduating debt free. To a surprising degree, my contracting career played out conspicuously similar to the careers of many of my ROTC peers.


Having married in our mid-thirties, our household is child-free, substituting a high-maintenance canine breed for the pitter-patter of little human feet. My job is demanding, but not so much that I couldn’t justify one weekend per month and a two week block once or twice per annum. At forty-two years old, on paper, I may be an awful candidate for the active duty ranks, but I don't think I'm out of line to believe that I'm damn near perfect for plenty of Reserve or National Guard roles. A brief overview:


1) The military is all about leadership, and I've successfully led a variety of teams, ranging from a crew of Iraqi role players, to a team of twelve security contractors augmented by forty TCN guards, to my current team of five student workers. My leadership style would make me a lousy infantry NCO, but otherwise solid for any of the other military occupations that I'd otherwise be suited to.


2) As noted, I earned a master's degree in international relations – Strategic Studies, specifically – from a 500-year-old European university that's not a DoD degree mill. (Yes, I said it.) Additionally, I've published multiple articles on global security matters. My Muslim friends tell me that I know more about Islam than they do, and my friends from the Middle East tell me that I know more about Middle Eastern affairs than most Arabs.


3) I speak what I like to refer to as "enough Arabic to get myself into trouble." (In truth, it's helped me to get out of some jams, break some ice, and de-escalate some tense situations over the years.) I suspect that my skills would improve considerably with the sort of sustained study and practice that the military could facilitate.


4) I hold multiple DoD and industry certifications in physical and cyber security, and anti-terrorism. That's in addition to my two decades of work experience in security, to include that tour in CENTCOM. My Naval Science minor would also absolve me of the standard requirement to attend Navy Officer Candidates School.


5) I previously held a clearance, and have kept myself eligible to be cleared again: no criminal or arrest records, no questionable foreign contacts, a clean credit history, and – despite my home state's laissez-faire laws governing narcotics – no instances of illicit drug use.


6) I'm never going to score a passing run time, but I can pretty well swim until you tell me to stop, ruck adequately, and push-ups and sit-ups have never been much of an issue. With a few months to train, I suspect I could even do some pull-ups. At any rate, I held an O-4 billet overseas without incident. Standards may be important, but as they say, “There’s a waiver for everything.” Oh, yeah: I am vaccinated, and I am not tattooed.


7) Perhaps most important of all: if given the chance, I'd actually care about the opportunity to serve. I'd be motivated to succeed, and seasoned sufficiently to ensure that I'd overcome the challenges that often disrupt the careers of younger troops.


So, why don't I seek out a recruiter? Presumably, nearly two decades of diverse and demanding security work would qualify me for some role in either traditional or cyber security, though my carefully curated knowledge of the Islamic world might suggest a role in intelligence or foreign area work. A long-time friend who's now a retention NCO for the Army Reserve, and who's familiar with my situation, recently encouraged me to apply for a direct commissioning program under the 38G MOS. Why haven't I jumped at it? For the same reasons, I suspect, that many people half my age find themselves increasingly reticent to speak with their local recruiter.


It's become cliché to accuse the current generation of being soft, unwilling to sacrifice, constantly staring at screens. Indeed, the current generation of young people do seem to experience life in a fundamentally different manner than have recent generations. However, whether one does or doesn't agree with them, the recent willingness of students at America's elite universities to jeopardize their futures and occupy encampments in solidarity with Gazans demonstrates both a desire to stand up for a cause, and a willingness to suffer for its advancement. This yearning among young people is timeless, and aptly expressed by U2 in a lyric to their 1991 song, Acrobat: "And I'd join the movement, if there was one I could believe in."


So, why aren't the cause of freedom, the pursuit of justice, and the defense of democracy sufficient motivators anymore? Examples of authority figures and "influencers" denigrating America specifically, and Western values more generally, are manifold. In fact, one need look no further back than the 2020 election, when both major candidates' campaign slogans – "Make America Great Again" and "Build Back Better" – seized upon the prevailing opinion that America was off track. While the conservative movement isn't blameless in this regard, they deserve some credit for defending values that many Americans still consider to be timeless. Progressives, however – the so-called "party of change" – continually work to advance their agenda by claiming that the best of these values are mere idealism, and mostly used as a sort of jingoistic cover for every exploitative ill under the sun.


Thus, the President, the leading opposition candidate, and the down-ballot candidates on either side are constantly harping about a broken system in which everyone is either a victim with a stake in taking the system down, or an oppressor who should feel ashamed for persecuting their neighbors. These omnipresent narratives about how badly broken the system is are not only short-sighted, but do little to inspire high school seniors to sign up to defend that system.


Of course, for many recruits, the inducements – and deterrents – to enlistment are more practical than they are overtly patriotic. In these cases, potential recruits may be willing to tolerate typical deprivations, but may draw the line when they learn from peers or through social media, how ridiculous some such deprivations actually are. Examples of these petty, and often arbitrary restrictions or directives – known to prior generations as "chickenshit" – range widely. In one example, a circa 2015 article lamented the decline of enlisted clubs, an ostensible extension of zero tolerance policies toward excessive alcohol consumption that can end careers. Extrapolating this beyond the enlisted club issue to account for a variety of similar issues, one commentator summarized the situation thusly: "One guy shat his pants, and now the entire Army has to wear diapers." A 2021 memoir by a controversial former officer (whose name I’ll omit) recounted a litany of petty restrictions that he witnessed being enforced at Bagram Air Base, concluding each example with the observation, "because someone lacked moral courage" – the moral courage to acknowledge that these restrictions were ridiculous, and should have been curtailed. After hearing similar stories from their friends and peers, otherwise competent young people would be stupid not to ask themselves, "All things being equal, why would I join an organization that treats me like a child?"


Unfortunately, the "chickenshit" perpetrated by overzealous junior officers and mid-level NCO's often pales in comparison to enterprise-wide mismanagement, and a prevailing sense that senior military leaders are either too incompetent or indifferent to manage programs and resources effectively, or else simply devoid of compassion for junior personnel. Examples include, but certainly aren’t limited to: ongoing mold problems in barracks and family housing; a perpetual lack of job opportunities or credential reciprocity for military spouses; poor resourcing for service members' children, particularly those with special needs; and a Defense Travel System that draws universal scorn for its failure to function effectively.


One of the most public examples of this trend took place in late April of 2022, when Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy Russell Smith visited the aircraft carrier USS George Washington in its Norfolk drydock. Master Chief Smith's visit followed an extended refit period, the harsh conditions of which contributed to a precipitous decline in crew morale and multiple suspected suicides. Chief among sailors' complaints was that they were forced to live aboard ship, an active construction zone, preventing them from sleeping and curtailing other opportunities for rest and regeneration. Master Chief Smith's response was to direct sailors to "manage their expectations," and to quip, "What you're not doing is sleeping in a foxhole like a Marine might be doing." Whether accurate or not, Master Chief Smith's comments signaled Navy leadership's lack of interest in sailors' basic welfare, and his comments were excoriated in Navy-focused social media groups. While the Navy ultimately developed adjustments to the working conditions aboard the "GW," Smith's comments spoke louder than these remedial measures.


Of course, one would be hard-pressed to claim that any of the other service branches, save perhaps for the Air Force, are substantially more compassionate toward their personnel.


So, what about those who ignore the partisan tropes, petty restrictions, and indifferent leaders, and choose to volunteer anyway? Any and all who wear the uniform can foresee the possibility of death, grievous bodily injury, or traumatic stress. They can expect to spend years of their lives away from loved ones, enduring harsh environmental conditions, and living within a system that often seems senseless or arbitrary. Those who do so deserve a reasonable assurance that competent leaders will apply their sacrifices responsibly, in service to some greater purpose.


Unfortunately, Washington continually fails service personnel in this regard, too. Perhaps the greatest single example of this in recent memory was the incredible accomplishment of a twenty-year-long campaign in Afghanistan that eventually replaced the Taliban with the Taliban, not to mention a withdrawal operation that seemed to have been planned by one of those chickens whose defecation on a particular area of a numbered mat is used to select raffle winners. America's on-again/off-again engagements in Iraq and Syria would also top that list, as would an ongoing program – albeit indirect – to support an ill-defined campaign to defend Ukraine from Russian aggression. The list could go on, and on, and on.


Some grace may be due to policy-makers, as reconciling multiple portfolios of competing foreign and domestic policies can't be easy. Unfortunately, this problem has grown so severe that Defense Secretary Mattis describes Washington as a "strategy-free zone." This strategic fecklessness serves as a deterrent to recruiting, but also to retention: no shortage of outgoing troops, when asked why they left the military in recent years, said that after the fiasco in Afghanistan, they just couldn’t do it anymore. Washington's ongoing failure to establish and maintain a consistent set of values against which to align America's foreign policy objectives, coupled with a failure to communicate or adhere to those objectives, can only discourage the sort of confidence that convinces young people to subordinate themselves to the direct authority of elected and appointed officials.


So, how can these issues be fixed?


First, the chickenshit: make curtailing it both a top-down, and bottom-up, initiative throughout the military. Diagnosing the problems should be fairly straightforward: bring in some consultants, aged around twenty-five, embed them with platoons in eight or ten locations, and ask them to identify anything that strikes them as bizarre or juvenile. Reflective belts required while driving a vehicle? Mark it down. Wallets carried in troops' socks to avoid the appearance of using pockets for their intended purposes? Mark it down. Some practices might be retained for serving an actual military purpose, but others could be discontinued almost immediately. As a young midshipman, our Assistant Marine Officer Instructor repeatedly stated that he subscribed to a "reasonable man's theory." Although he'd probably still terrify me if we were to meet today, he was never unfair with me or any of my peers, and his "reasonable man's theory" went a long way. It's time for a revisitation of this concept throughout the military.


Similarly – and particularly in a difficult recruiting environment, but even during those bear market staffing gluts – civilian service secretaries and uniformed branch chiefs must foster a philosophy that balances discipline and mission focus with compassion and common sense. Any senior leader who makes the sort of comments that Master Chief Smith made in 2022, whether they wear stars or chevrons, should be either counseled or dismissed outright. By extension, service leaders should expect personnel to continue voting with their feet if such headaches as DTS and poor opportunities for spousal employment aren’t addressed effectively. Fix these issues, or expect the joint force to remain under-staffed.


As one might expect, shortcomings among America's elected officials are more difficult to cure. To date, service leaders' testimony to Congress and advice to various Presidents about the long-term negative impacts of budgetary uncertainty on readiness has fallen on deaf ears. Similarly, telling the Democratic National Committee chair, the Senate Majority Leader, and the House Minority Leader that their party's narrative of denigrating their homeland hamstrings recruiting would likely drift into lead balloon territory. So, too, would be the admonition to any given President to focus less on the next election, and more on America's actual enduring interests. Of course, the degree to which the current generation of flag and general officers have been conditioned to think tactically, vice strategically, poses still another great challenge. In these cases, one might optimistically characterize the proverbial glass not as "completely empty," but rather, "poised to be refilled."


Finally, as no crisis should be allowed to go to waste, there's no better time than the occasion of this recruiting crisis to address another opportunity: fixing the Defense Department's antiquated talent management system. This was discussed at length by Tim Kane in his 2012 book, Bleeding Talent, and has been mooted more recently with regard to recruiting experienced cyber security talent. However, the Pentagon remains reticent to make substantial adjustments.


Presently, the Navy offers direct commissioning options for chaplains, specific types of engineers, human resources, attorneys, doctors, public affairs, and supply – a relatively narrow swath of Navy officer designators. The Army offers these, plus a handful of additional options – cyber, logistics, acquisitions, and space. The Army's direct commissioning programs website claims that "the National Defense Authorization Act of 2019 (NDAA 2019) gave the military services the authorization to direct commission officers up to the rank of Colonel," which leads one to question how many direct commissions the services are actually taking on, and whether the ensuing pay grades accurately reflect the qualifications of aspirants. Additionally, the aforementioned 18G direct commissioning program (which tops out at O-4) purports to take up to 2.5 years from submission of an application packet, to assignment to an Army Reserve unit – presumably, other direct commissioning programs share this slow timeline.


It's 2024, and there's a recruiting crisis on. If someone graduates from high school, spends eight years working at a Jiffy Lube, and wants to parlay their position as shift manager into an enlistment, capping them at E-4 does the DoD a disservice, and insults the potential recruit outright. So, too, is the situation for veterans of the private sector who possess valuable technical and leadership experience that would otherwise qualify them for commissioning programs. There’s no better time than now for an overhaul.


If the recruiting crisis is to be mitigated and trends reversed, senior leaders must recognize these non-economic reasons why so few young people currently consider military service to be a realistic option for their medium- or long-term futures. Clearly, the DoD can, and must, do better. Whether that happens will be a matter of choice. As for me, I doubt that I'll be hearing from any recruiters any time soon… But, if any would care to try their luck, I suspect that I'm not that difficult to find.

About the Author(s)

Al Dhobaba (“The Fly”) is the pseudonym of a freelance foreign policy analyst and military historian. Having trained as a naval officer, a congenital medical condition prevented him from commissioning, leading him to pursue an ongoing career as a security practitioner. His professional experience includes providing force protection training for deploying soldiers, managing physical security at a DoD activity in the USCENTCOM theater, and advising federal, state, and private sector organizations on information security management. He holds a bachelor’s degree in History and a master’s degree in International Relations.