The Military Recruitment Crisis Is a Symptom of Cultural Rot

By David McCormick and James Cunningham
April 14, 2023
Wall Street Journal

America’s cultural cancer manifests itself in many ways, but no symptom is more telling than our low military recruitment. Last year the Army hit only 75% of its recruiting target, while other services had to scramble to meet theirs. This year looks to be worse. The all-volunteer force, formed 50 years ago, is in peril and threatens our ability to defend ourselves in a dangerous world. What does this say about America?

It says we have a national health crisis. A volunteer military requires able-bodied recruits, but 77% of young Americans would be unfit to serve for health reasons. Behind that statistic lies a mountain of concerning data. Every year, fentanyl and other drugs take more than 106,000 lives and affect millions more, reducing the pool of recruits.

It says that partisan politics have infected America’s core institutions. Civilian leaders have used the uniformed services as political pawns and directed them to push progressive priorities. This makes it harder for military leaders to accomplish their central mission—fighting and winning the nation’s wars. It also explains why less than half of Americans (48%) express a great deal of confidence in the U.S. military, a 22-point drop in five years. The politicization of institutions, whether the military, schools or professional sports, divides our country where it should be most unified.

Those divisions contribute to the atomization of American society, which the U.S. military hasn’t escaped. In the late 1980s, when a young Lt. McCormick looked at his platoon in the 82nd Airborne Division—with a Southern Baptist from Alabama, a black man from Newark, and a Puerto Rican platoon sergeant—he saw a strong, diverse and confident America. Now the military draws from a shrinking pool, most with parents or close relatives who served. The rest of society has few family ties to the military. This is only one of the thousands of small fractures subdividing our society, stoked by social media, the left’s obsession with race, sex and identity, and extreme figures on the right as well.

These factors fuel the greatest cultural ailment of all: waning confidence in American exceptionalism. Members of the military carry on a proud tradition, and the nation owes them our gratitude. But their willingness to wear the uniform stands out in a country where only 9% of those eligible to serve wish to do so.

How did it come to this? Americans have been fed a narrative of victimhood. Our society treats veterans as victims or, worse, charity cases, not as warrior-citizens taught leadership, discipline and camaraderie. On campus, in the media and across popular culture, grievance is the new currency of the realm.

Children are taught to doubt, not love, America, and leaders on both sides of the aisle question its goodness. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that only 38% of Americans highly value patriotism and an equal share say they are “extremely proud” to be American.

The same forces that threaten the all-volunteer force endanger American society at large. These concerns animate our new book, “Superpower in Peril,” in which we chart a path to national renewal. But policy alone can’t heal a spiritual problem. The American spirit fills our national character with courage, ambition and creativity. It is our source of strength when times get bad, and the defining feature of American exceptionalism. That spirit has been neglected—or worse, suppressed—by the forces laid out here. The military recruiting crisis is a direct result of its decline.

We need new leaders to cultivate the American spirit and restore institutional integrity: in the Pentagon, to put war fighting and deterrence first; in schools, to teach civics and America’s exceptional story; in business, to reaffirm the principles of merit and capitalism; and across society, to create a new national commitment to citizenship.

William F. Buckley Jr. defined citizenship as the union of privilege (because to be an American is to be blessed with liberty and opportunity) and responsibility (because as Americans we have a duty to preserve the republic and serve our nation). Today, we have the balance wrong, emphasizing privilege and too often forgetting responsibility.

Perhaps the military recruiting crisis is the lagging indicator of America’s cultural collapse. Or maybe it’s the canary in the coal mine, an early warning that it is time to rescue American exceptionalism. What we do next as citizens will decide.

Mr. McCormick, a combat veteran and former CEO of Bridgewater Associates, was a candidate for the Republican U.S. Senate nomination in Pennsylvania in 2022. He is author, with Mr. Cunningham, of “Superpower in Peril: A Battle Plan to Renew America.”