Commentary on Political Economy

Sunday 5 November 2023


Patriotism’s Decline Imperils the Military

Trying to appeal to woke young people will only make the recruitment problem more severe.

Oct. 30, 2023 at 3:27 pm ET

Military recruits raise their right hands as Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin reads the oath of enlistment at Fort George G. Meade in Fort Meade, Md. July 5. PHOTO: ANNA MONEYMAKER/GETTY IMAGES

The divisiveness of American politics has undermined our military in a way the Pentagon doesn’t understand or refuses to acknowledge. To attract Generation Z recruits after President Biden’s election, the military changed its marketing strategy. Starting in 2021, the military released advertisements emphasizing individualism and diversity over assimilation into a cohesive force with shared martial values. The Army called its campaign “a distinct departure” from traditional recruiting. 

Yet the military’s recruitment crisis has only grown worse. Generals blame an increasingly overweight, overmedicated and undereducated youth pool. Those factors have contributed for years, but here’s the essential problem now: Young white Democrats have lost faith in their country and are rejecting military service. 

The data are clear, but the Pentagon hasn’t dealt with the glaring political gap. One of the oldest and most reliable youth polls, Monitoring the Future, has for decades shown only small differences in the propensity to serve. As recently as 2015, 19% of young white male Democrats wanted to serve, compared with 20% of blacks, Latinos and white Republicans. 

No more. By 2021 white Democrats had plunged to 3%, about one-fourth the level among black and Latino men, and one-eighth that of white Republicans. That’s a loss of about 45,000 young men interested in serving. The total recruiting gap across the Army, Navy and Air Force combined is about 30,000 people. 

Why did this happen? Because American patriotism is dissolving. Yet Gen Z has been wrongly categorized as monolithically unpatriotic. In fact, beneath its dismal headline is a political divergence. Only 12% of Democrats 18 to 24 are “extremely proud” to be Americans, compared with 42% of Republicans in the same age bracket. If you’re not proud of your country, you won’t fight for it. Wokeism has driven young left-leaning whites away from the military.

Reinvigorating patriotism among Democrats starts with the president; the military has no cure for societal divisiveness. But the military can’t afford to lose the citizens who are most loyal to it—extended military families, which produce 80% of recruits. There are clear warnings that military families are questioning the values of the institution. In 2021, 65% of teens in military households said they wanted to serve. One year later, that figure was 44%. Further alienating this cohort would be catastrophic, necessitating a limited draft to plug holes.

To solidify its traditional support, the military needs to end its naive attempt to lure young liberals by featuring drag queens, rainbow bullets representing “pride,” and anime depicting the military as a refuge from childhood trauma. As Bud Light and other companies have discovered, running woke campaigns risks losing core customers. 

Internally, the military has to roll back divisive policies that challenge traditional military values. For decades, it was common to hear from senior officers and noncommissioned officers that troops were all just shades of green. Colin Powellsaid that “race, color, background, income meant nothing” in his Army. In the past few years, however, the Pentagon has mimicked the social changes sweeping through the academy. The Pentagon’s diversity, equity and inclusion policies—and the proliferation of DEI officers throughout the ranks—have heightened individualism and rendered obsolete the principle that the U.S. military is a colorblind meritocracy.

By contrast, the Marine Corps exceeded its 2022 recruiting goals by sticking to its traditional recruiting model. The Marines focused on recruiting those eager to serve, emphasizing team over self and discipline instead of rose gardens. One result is that Latinos will comprise 25% of enlisted recruits. The traditional ethos of duty, honor and country remains the basis for our ethnically diverse military, a distinct American advantage.

Mr. West served as an assistant defense secretary, 2017-19. Mr. Wallsten is a professor of political science at California State University, Long Beach.

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