The annual US military budget today is larger than it has ever been — almost $817 billion. In 2020, the figure was $778 billion, more than the next nine top-spending countries combined.
But even with this US Treasury largesse, the Defense Department is facing a recruiting crisis. The number of young Americans wanting to enlist is near a record low, a deficit not seen in almost half a century. In 2022, for example, the US Army fell short of its recruitment target by 25 percent. Other notable down trends were recorded for the Navy and Air Force. The Marine Corps did better, but in large part only due to high retention rates.
Some analysts explain that a strong economy is the reason, particularly as the last two decades of near nonstop warfare affected just 1 percent of American families with ties to our fighting forces. And yet many Americans have tired of war, it seems, even at a great distance. Fewer and fewer of us and our neighbors remember faraway places on military maps named Fallujah and Helmand or Korengal and Sadr City, locations where many US troops were killed or wounded.
More money, even many billions more, will not solve this military readiness dilemma for the world’s sole superpower. In the worst days of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, large bonuses helped keep service members in priority areas, such as intelligence, infantry, and logistics. The current challenge runs deeper — to a level of identity and purpose and perhaps even baseline trust between the soldier and the state, not derived from cash but by something else. In 2023, there is no World War II-like call-up against an existential Nazi threat or a military draft, not seen since Vietnam and which amounted to a kind of conscripted patriotism.
For our military to get the best to join, Gen Z service members (born between 1997 and 2012) need to be convinced that the deal is worth it; the training and comradery experienced in uniform but also what future there might be for them out of uniform.
We write from different but complementary perspectives. One of us is an active-duty gunnery sergeant in the Marine Corps with multiple overseas deployments. The other, while in the US State Department, served seven years advising combat units in Iraq and Afghanistan and now teaches at Marine Corps University.
Marine Corps University has moved in innovative ways to keep the best Marines in, encouraging enlisted personnel to take on subjects ordinarily reserved for officers. Quantico seminars have expanded from a model of lecture, memorize, and test to a more nuanced approach with a greater emphasis on critical thinking. A Community College of the Navy has also been established to provide maritime and cyber-specific degrees for junior ranks — skill sets and certifications that can translate into the private sector.
A Quantico course we shared — one of us as a student, the other as the instructor — draws military students from all ranks: captains, corporals, and colonels. It focuses on how American wars affect civilian populations abroad.
What we both learned across numerous lessons in this 9-week course is there is a growing desire for our military members to understand the moral dimensions and human costs of American military might. The class’s curriculum focuses not only on the experiences of Iraqi and Afghan civilians but also case studies such as that of the Dutch people, who had to hedge constantly for survival, in World War II; a German soldier-turned-deserter’s experience in World War I; and how drone warfare is now fully a way of American war — bombs dropped along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border were directed from operators half a world away, in Nevada.
For young Americans to believe they might benefit from a military career, two other things should happen. Each service branch can improve the formal transition to civilian jobs. And companies can seek out veterans — working directly with the Department of Veterans Affairs to establish a direct hiring pipeline — recognizing in them the skills built in a vast organization that prioritizes teamwork, discipline, and accountability.
Recruiting future soldiers and Marines for the world’s sole superpower, a still overstretched one, is no easy task. Training military personnel beyond tactics and logistics is critical. More and more of them, after all, are seeking to become our nation’s future business leaders, politicians, and educators themselves.
Perhaps most important, knowing war in a firsthand way then studying it honestly and creatively can help ensure that we experience fewer wars going forward — and see more recruits going off to boot camp and students enrolled in ROTC programs.
Jeremy Kofsky is an active-duty Marine with 12 deployments and the first-ever enlisted Brute Krulak Scholar at Marine Corps University. Kael Weston teaches at Marine Corps University and is the author of “The Mirror Test: America at War in Iraq and Afghanistan.”