Why US Army service no longer appeals to young Americans who shudder at being ‘old young men’

Why US Army service no longer appeals to young Americans who shudder at being ‘old young men’


While Covid-19 limited US Army recruiters’ access to schools, there were always ways around that. Take Army J.R.O.T.C, which currently has programmes in more than 1,700 high schools, a sizeable portion of them in low-income communities with large minority populations.

(J.R.O.T.C. boasts about this, although a New York Times exposé on the subject revealed it to be more predatory than laudatory.) The literature emphasises that it’s a citizenship and leadership programme, not a recruitment one, and it’s true that only about 21 per cent of Army enlistees attended a school with such a programme.

Still, it’s clearly another way that the service recruits the young. After all, its “cadets” wear their uniforms in school and are taught military history and marksmanship, among other things. “Co-curricular activities” include military drills and competitions.

And there have been problems there, too: among them, a report citing 58 documented instances of sexual abuse or harassment of students by instructors in all branches of J.R.O.T.C. between 2018 and 2022. (As with all statistics on sexual abuse, this is undoubtedly an undercount.)

J.R.O.T.C. is hardly the only programme exposing young students to the military. Young Marines is a non-profit education, service and leadership programme dating back to 1959, which promotes “a healthy, drug-free lifestyle” for kids eight years old through high school. Its website emphasises that it isn’t a military recruitment tool and doesn’t teach combat skills. Nonetheless, “events that Young Marines may participate in may involve close connection with public relations aspects of the armed forces.”

Then there’s Starbase, a Defence Department educational programme where students learn STEM subjects like science and math by interacting with military personnel. Its primary focus is socio-economically disadvantaged fifth graders. And yes, that would be 10- and 11-year-olds!

It’s good when extra resources are available to students and schools. In the end, though, programmes like these conflate good citizenship with militarism.

A recent student of mine, who joined Navy R.O.T.C. to help pay for the college education she wanted, told me her age group, Gen Z, a key military target, doesn’t view such future service as beneficial. Her classmates, typically enough, felt less than positive about her wearing a uniform. Only older people congratulated her for it.

Three senior Army leaders reached a similar conclusion when they visited high schools nationwide recently to learn why enlistment was so dismal. They came away repeating the usual litany of problems: tight job market, pandemic barriers, unfitness of America’s youth, resistance from schools and especially a lack of public information about the benefits of an Army career.

But what if the problem isn’t too little information, but too much? Despite ever-decreasing reportage on military and veterans’ issues, young civilians seem all too aware of the downsides of enlisting. Gen Zers, who until recently never lived in a country not openly at war, have gobs of information at their fingertips: videos, memoirs, movies, novels, along with alarming statistics on sexual assault and racism in the military and the ongoing health problems of soldiers, including exposure to toxic waste, rising cancer rates, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

And that’s not even to mention the disproportionate rates of suicide and homelessness among veterans, not to speak of the direct contact many young people have had with those who returned home ready to attest to the grim consequences of more than 20 years of remarkably pointless warfare in Afghanistan, Iraq, and across all too much of the rest of the planet.

All of this probably helps explain what the Army found in surveys of 16- to 28-year-olds it conducted last spring and summer. That service described (but didn’t release) its report on those surveys. According to the Associated Press, the top three reasons cited for refusing to enlist were “fear of death, worries about post-traumatic stress disorder and leaving friends and family.”

Young Americans also made it clear that they didn’t want to put their lives on hold in the military, while 13 per cent anticipated discrimination against women and minorities, 10 per cent didn’t trust the military leadership, 57 per cent anticipated emotional or psychological problems, and nearly half expected physical problems from a stint in the Army.

Despite recent accusations from conservative members of Congress, only five per cent listed the Army being too “woke” as a deterrent, which should put that issue to bed, but undoubtedly won’t.

Let me offer a little confession here: I find all of this heartening – not just that potential recruits don’t want to be killed in war, but that they’re aware of how dangerous joining the military can be to body and mind. And apparently the survey didn’t even explore feelings about the possibility that you could be called on to kill, too.

In an op-doc for the New York Times that followed a group of American soldiers from their swaggering entry into the Iraqi capital of Baghdad in 2003 to their present-day lives, an off-screen voice asks, “So what does it do to a generation of young people during these deployments?” The answer: “They become old. They are old young men.”

If there’s one thing the Gen Zers I know don’t want, it’s to get old before their time. (Probably not at their time either, but that’s another story.) So, add that to the reasons not to enlist.

Early in the US occupation of Iraq, I met Elaine Johnson, a Gold Star Mother from South Carolina, so outspoken in her opposition to the Iraq War after her son, Darius Jennings, was killed in Fallujah in 2003 that she reportedly came to be known in the George W. Bush White House as “the Elaine Johnson problem.”

Antiwar as she was, she also proudly told me, “My baby was a mama’s boy, but the military turned him into a productive young man.”

So, yes, the Army can be a place to mature, master a trade, take on responsibility, and learn lasting lessons about yourself, while often forging lifelong friendships. All good. But that, of course, can also happen in other types of organisations that don’t feature weapons and killing, that don’t take you to hell and back.

Just imagine, for a moment, that our government left the business of losing the wars from hell to history and instead spent, say, half of the $842 billion being requested for next year’s military budget on [fill in the blank here with your preferred institutions].

Count on one thing: we would be in a different world. Maybe this generation of potential soldiers has already figured that out and will someday make it happen.

  • A TomDispatch report / By Nan Levinson
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