America’s shrinking military is a cultural crisis

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Last Thursday’s presidential debate covered a range of issues, but the future of the American military wasn’t one of them.

This might come as a surprise, given certain controversial proposals in the 2025 National Defense Authorization Act. If it becomes law, the document would require women to enroll in selective service and thus become eligible for a military draft. The Pentagon’s recruitment deficits, coupled with escalating tensions around the world, have breathed life into such legislation.

Although the White House is reluctant to embrace the Cold War label, that hasn’t stopped the highest-ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), from calling for a generational investment in defense. Despite the typical election year polarization, there is a consensus in Washington that America is in an exceptionally dangerous moment. There is less harmony, however, regarding what the nation should do about it.

Beyond coming to terms with our defense industrial challenges, the most fashionable idea is to throw more money at researching and developing the latest defense technologies or unmanned systems. These investments could offset the widening gap between America’s global security obligations and the number of humans willing and able to support them.

But some technological solutions face deepening investor skepticism, as the AI boom that appeared imminent now seems on the verge of busting. And even if these measures succeed in narrowing the “valley of death” between prototype and product, they will not answer the question of who will use these devices.

During the Cold War, contradictions between the demand for “warriors” to fill combat positions and tech-savvy troops who could operate the newest gadgets led to recruitment challenges. Segments of President Dwight Eisenhower’s Basic National Security Policy described this paradox in 1953. The problem, however, is more acute today.

The last time America’s active military was this small, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was running for a third term in 1940. These numbers are more startling when viewed as a percentage of the population. As the Cold War accelerated in 1955, there were 161 million people in the U.S. and 3.3 million active troops — about 2 percent of the population. Today there are 340 million Americans and 1.3 million active service members, or 0.4 percent of the population

Some view this contraction as evidence of the Defense Department’s inability to compete with the private sector for compensation. But these reductions are disproportionate across demographics such as gender, race and occupation, so the economic angle alone is an insufficient explanation.

Since 2013, male recruits have plummeted by 38 percent in the Army — the military’s largest service — as female numbers increased slightly during the same period. More than a decade after opening combat positions to women in 2013, men still fill the vast majority of these roles and account for 88 percent of the special operations community. A recent U.S. Army War College study found that America’s frontline troops are shouldering the heaviest burden. The Army, for instance, missed its enlisted infantry recruiting goal by more than 50 percent in 2022.

But gender isn’t the only factor contributing to the decline. The number of white recruits entering the army each year was almost halved between 2018 and 2023, plummeting from 44,000 to 25,000. Other racial demographics held steady. In a military that is 82 percent male and more than two-thirds white, the implications are troubling for frontline units training to withstand the type of 21st-century warfare Ukraine has endured.

There is plenty of blame to go around. Unpopular wars in the Middle East, the Pentagon’s “woke” controversies, a widespread obsession with technology that devalues human labor, poor oversight of government housing and the burdens imposed on military families have gotten headlines lately.

Most of these, though, are not viable explanations for the crisis because they are agnostic to race, gender and occupational specialty. Partisan political reasons are also inadequate, because the downward turn in recruitment was already present under the Trump administration.

Social scientists and historians have documented so-called “crises of masculinity” throughout American history, so the problem is not entirely new. Today’s crisis, however, happens to overlap with intensifying national security threats at a time when attrition and reconstitution are increasingly relevant to strategy. Defense analysts and public officials have danced around the problem for years, even while agreeing that the all-volunteer force is near a breaking point. But the curtain on that performance may be closing.

The sensitive nature of these issues makes them harder to investigate without prejudice toward potential solutions. European nations such as Latvia and Sweden have reinstated or expanded conscription to meet their security needs in the wake of Russia’s latest invasion. Even Germany is entertaining the idea. Despite online misinformation claiming otherwise, President Biden has refrained from commenting on the issue. His challenger, Donald Trump, shot down rumors of plans for a national service requirement earlier this year.

This reluctance aside, a swing in recruitment demographics could eventually force Congress to impose some form of national service, restructure the armed forces or reduce military support overseas at a time when America’s allies need it most. The congressional subcommittees for military personnel and readiness should probe the origins of this crisis and determine the most sensible option going forward.

No matter what President Biden signs into law this year, one thing seems certain: the era of kicking the problem down the road is coming to an end.

Maj. Michael P. Ferguson, U.S. Army, is a Ph.D. student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and coauthor of “The Military Legacy of Alexander the Great: Lessons for the Information Age.His views as expressed here do not necessarily reflect official policies or positions of the Army or the Department of Defense.

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