Empire in Decay: The US Military Recruitment Crisis

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As ISA has previously analyzed, the war in Ukraine has elevated the New Cold War between US and Chinese imperialism onto a newer, higher level. It has pushed global militarism to historic new heights with 2022 seeing global military expenditure reach its highest level ever at $2.24 trillion. Countries from Japan to Sweden have changed long-held military policies in order to join the ‘war effort.’ In the US, despite growing ambivalence about the Ukraine War and wrangling over the attempts to sneak in reactionary social attacks, Congress looks on pace to pass some version of a defense spending bill of around $886 billion – around $9 billion more than 2022 and $80 billion more than 2021. Despite this, the US war machine has a mounting problem – not enough new troops.

The United States has not had a mandatory military draft since 1973. This was not some sort of progressive change of heart by US imperialism towards the end of what would become its most disastrous endeavor ever with the defeat in the Vietnam War. On the contrary, it was part of a whole series of policies implemented in the 1960s and 1970s in response to complete and utter social revolt. In the face of mass movements, including instances of soldiers in Vietnam refusing to follow orders and violently rebelling against officers (‘fragging’), concessions were made to avoid the potential for revolution both in the US and around the world. 

Mandatory Conscription Replaced By Racist “Poverty Draft”

The impact of this era continues to this day. The prospect of any sort of return towards a mass mandatory military draft, even in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, has never been a serious consideration by the US establishment since. In 2006, then-US president George W. Bush said in reference to the war in Iraq that, “If I had to do this with a draft army, I would have been impeached by now.” However, even with the misnamed “all-volunteer force” that has existed since 1973, aspects of a draft have existed. So much so that Socialist Alternative has historically termed what still exists a racist poverty draft. 

Under the “Selective Service” system, all male US citizens and immigrants must register with the government within 30 days of turning 18 in case of the draft being reintroduced. Beyond that, the military operates a massive machine of marketing and recruitment aimed most directly at the working class, the poor, and people of color – taking advantage of the high levels of inequality and lack of social mobility under capitalism to offer the military as some sort of way out of those conditions. 

A study in 2015 found that, in one school year, US Army recruiters in Connecticut visited a high school with only 5% of students who qualify for reduced/free lunch programs only 4 times. Meanwhile, at a similar nearby high school where roughly half the students qualify, they visited over 40 times. As of 2019, almost 29% of the women on active duty in the military were Black, as are almost 17% of active duty men; both of these figures indicate overrepresentation of Black people relative to their 13.6% of the general population. Similar disparities exist among Latinos, the largest minority ethnic group in the United States. 

Recruitment Running Up Against Its Limits

Yet even this grossly cynical and exploitative strategy has limits. In what is being dubbed a national security crisis by many senior US military analysts, most military branches are significantly missing their recruitment targets. In 2022, the Army alone fell short by 15,000 – 25% of its target and the worst result since the draft ended 50 years ago. It is already projected to miss its 2023 target by 20,000 recruits and for the Navy the projected figure is up to 10,000. There are reports that even those with family members who had previously served in the military – which have made up to 80% of new recruits in the past – are less likely to join.

This is not just a short-term problem. All of this could result in US imperialism having to shrink the size of the military itself as there are not enough new recruits to make up for those retiring, ending their service, etc. And less recruits means less of a pool to draw from for US imperialism in the future for higher positions. Even with a more technologically-advanced military requiring less “grunts,” the need for those to fill thousands of positions still exists.

What’s The Cause?

The Department of Defense (DoD) says that only 9% of those eligible want to join the military, down from 23% only a few years ago. Of course, the ruling class is desperately seeking explanations for the shortfalls. Right-wingers have said it’s because the military has become ‘too woke’ and is part of the explanation for the culture war stipulations added by Republicans to the House version of the defense budget bill. Others have pointed out that the current recruitment standards – for example around marijuana use, mental health awareness, and so on – have not kept up with the standards of the time and are disqualifying high numbers of otherwise-qualified individuals. There is an element of truth to some of this, but none of it reflects the whole picture.

Recent surveys show that, in fact, it is the increasing recognition of the brutal reality and consequences of military service around decades of failed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that is causing the decline. The DoD itself admits that fear of death/injury or development of immense psychological trauma such as PTSD as a result of military service are among the top responses for why people don’t want to join. That’s no shocker given that over 30,000 combat veterans have committed suicide since 9/11 over four times the amount that have died in actual combat. A 2022 survey done by the Wounded Warrior Project said that 3 out of 4 military-related conditions reported by respondents were related to post-traumatic stress. There are also the conditions of poverty both during military service and afterward – 15.4% of active duty troops were found to be food insecure earlier this year. There is also increasing publicity around issues of racism, sexual violence, harassment, and so on: in 2021, 30% of 16- to 24-year-olds said this was their major concern about the military. Additionally, increasing knowledge of and presence of the organized far right in the military has played a role in the negative perception.

As a partial result, trust in the military has sharply fallen to its lowest point in two decades – less than 50% versus 70% just five years ago. This mirrors the declining trust in all the major institutions of US imperialism, which have fallen to record low average of 26% in 2022 – a 10% drop even since 2020.

All this also underlines a generational crisis for the state. The current Congress is one of the oldest in history, with the median age of the Senate being 65 – the highest ever recorded. In addition to the advanced age of both major parties’ presidential frontrunners, recent events such as GOP Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell freezing during a press statement and Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein launching into a prepared statement during roll call have brought this into sharp focus. This, plus the multicrisis of capitalism globally, represents a much more tumultuous era still ahead for US imperialism and a weakened basis for being able to deal with it, compared with during the mass revolts of the 1930s, 60s or 70s.

Will There Be A Draft?

Some immediate measures are being discussed to address the ongoing shortage of military recruits, like amending enlistment requirements including permission for single parents to enlist, allowing those with “treatable” mental illnesses like depression and anxiety, and relaxing rejections on the basis of past soft drug use. Up to $50,000 enlistment bonuses have been offered to some new recruits. It’s also clear that part of the ruling class’ agenda in forcing a recession to tame the labor market is at least partially motivated by the fact that putting your life on the line for a paycheck is not quite as appealing when you have other job options.

This all points towards the fact that even in the face of such a crisis, reimplementing conscription is still a very last resort and not a prospect in the short to medium term. This predicament is also not unique to the United States: despite the issues of high casualties for both sides in the Ukraine war, Russian President Vladimir Putin has been at pains to avoid a more ‘general mobilization’ of conscription that would touch the core of workers and young people in major Russian cities. Not only does the Russian regime fear that such a draft would make any conflict and its bloody consequences much more real and turn opinion against any such war, but that it could, as with Vietnam, open up even potentially revolutionary threats. 

That being said, the crisis continuing over an extended period of years and posing a more long-term significant reduction in the size of the armed forces is not a situation acceptable to US imperialism. Its main guiding policy continues to be preparation for a potential war with Chinese imperialism, so much so it was willing to lose massive amounts of face globally with its calamitous withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021. In such a scenario, given the historic significance of the multifaceted crises of world capitalism, and US imperialism more specifically – which will not give up its declining dominant position willingly – some form of conscription could be introduced, but the US ruling class will attempt to limit it as much as possible.

What Should We Expect Next?

Much to the chagrin of the warmongers, levels of patriotism among 18- to 34 -year-olds sits at a record low, only 18% say they are “extremely proud” to be an American. The new normal of elevated militarism thus has a long way to go in drumming up the necessary support. In the same way that the Reagan administration ratcheted up the original Cold War into a phase known as the ‘second Cold War’ in the 1980s in order to overcome the tumult of the preceding two decades for US imperialism, US imperialism will have to ratchet up its own policy and propaganda.

It has already begun. A significant feature of the post-Ukraine New Cold War has been the reintroduction of the original Cold War narrative of a ‘democratic and free’ US-led Western imperialist bloc versus an ‘authoritarian’ one led by China and Russia. Of course, neither of those characterizations are true, as both sides are willing to uphold any regime that supports them in the conflict. 

Just as in the 1980s, massive amounts of taxpayer money are billed to be spent on militarist propaganda. The US Army is planning to mount a massive ad blitz, spending $398 million on marketing and advertising for fiscal year 2024, and has revived its original Cold War era slogan, “Be all you can be,” which was previously abandoned in 2001.

They’re even using the same film series! In 1986, the film Top Gun’ was given $1.8 million in funding from the Pentagon, officially for “use of the Miramar Naval Air Station,” In reality, the film was all but subsidized (its entire budget was $15 million) given the Pentagon rejects the overwhelming majority of such requests because of the perception they give the military. The result of the film’s popularity was a supposed 500% increase in applications for US Navy pilots alone. Its 2022 sequel, Top Gun: Maverick was also given access, this time to two different multi-billion dollar active-duty aircraft carriers. And stories that the same strategies of US Army and Navy recruitment tents being set up inside and outside theaters playing the film were deployed. Obviously, they hoped for a similar phenomenon, but it has not materialized in the same way.

It’s clear that the new era of global militarism represents an existential threat to workers, youth, and the poor around the world, who will not only be drafted for the ruling classes’ wars but will also bear the brunt of the blood and destruction. But we are in a much more unstable period for world capitalism and imperialism which has and will continue to open up revolutionary possibilities for workers and the oppressed to overturn this rotten system destroying people and the planet. It’s clearer and clearer with both war and the climate crisis that the question being posed for us is socialism or barbarism. We must begin to construct a mass, global antiwar and anti-imperialist movement to overturn the warmongers and their system, and to fight for socialist revolution. 

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