The military may not be prepared to win a war against bad faith critics

The US military has a problem: it needs to enlist tens of thousands of recruits every year but struggles to do so.

In a note published in July, he set out the main challenges in obtaining commitments, including “intense competition with the private sector” – employment has returned to pre-pandemic levels – “and a decreasing number of young Americans interested in uniformed service. The Army has enlistment requirements centered on education and physical fitness, limiting its pool of possible recruits to just 23% of the U.S. population ages 17 to 24, or about 8 million people.

Of this group, however, the vast majority have no interest in serving. The Ministry of Defense estimates that only 9% of this group would consider enlisting, or just over 700,000 young people.

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The July memo identified three central factors limiting the attractiveness of the military.

The first is what they called the “knowledge gap,” a lack of familiarity with military culture and experience. As baby boomers age, veterans make up a smaller percentage of the population — no more than about 5% of Americans.

Then there is the “trust deficit,” the reduced trust in institutions seen across society. In the 2021 General Social Survey, a fifth of adults under 35 said they had “virtually no” confidence in the military, the highest level of any age group. A third said they had ‘great’ self-confidence, the lowest of all age groups.

The third factor identified in the memo was the “identity gap”.

“Potential recruits cannot see themselves in the military,” the memo reads, “often due to assumptions about the life and culture of the military.”

At a press conference on Monday, Secretary of the Army Christine Wormuth addressed the point.

“I think we have a wide range of soldiers in our military and we need to make sure they all feel included,” Wormuth said, “and that’s why a lot of our diversity, equity and inclusion are important.”

For a certain group of listeners, that last sentence – diversity, equity and inclusion – sparked an immediate reaction. These programs, often lumped together under the abbreviation DEI, have been the focus of relentless right-wing attacks when promoted in the military and elsewhere. They are ridiculed as efforts to pander to minority groups or, more nefariously, as burdens on white Americans.

That the military is making efforts to proactively encourage diversity has led to a particular flavor of criticism from the political right. The army has “awakened!” It’s too soft, unlike the tough and impressive army deployed by, uh, Russia.

There’s a good reason the military wants to make sure it caters to as wide a cross-section of Americans as possible: Young Americans are much more diverse than older ones. Census Bureau data shows just over half of 17 to 24-year-olds are non-Hispanic white, compared to three-quarters of those 65 and older.

Only about a quarter of 17-24 year olds are white males; any recruiting effort that doesn’t loop around black, Hispanic, or Asian women and youth is going to shut out a huge chunk of the available recruiting pool.

“I’m not sure what ‘awake’ means. I think ‘woke’ means a lot of different things to different people,” Wormuth said at the press conference. “I would say that if ‘woke’ means we don’t focus on war, we don’t focus on preparation – that doesn’t reflect what I see at installations all over the country or overseas when I am going to visit.”

Yet at that same press conference, Wormuth suggested that his organization might not be ready to fight one particular enemy: that same bad faith criticism of the right.

In March 2021, Fox News host Tucker Carlson attacked the military for trying to “change the culture and habits that drive women out of the military,” as President Biden put it.

“It’s a mockery of the US military,” Carlson said, comparing the US military unfavorably to China’s. “Our army must become more feminine, whatever feminine means, since men and women no longer exist. Ultimately, it’s out of control, and the Pentagon is okay with that. It’s a mockery of the US military and its primary mission, which is to win wars.

A number of military leaders—arguably more concerned than Carlson with ensuring that women remained enlisted—rebuffed Carlson’s comments. Among them was Major General Patrick Donahoe.

Last month, the Army Times reported that Donahoe’s planned retirement had been put on hold as the Department of Defense reviewed his use of social media. Task and Purpose detailed the outcome of that review by the Army Inspector General last week.

“Investigators ultimately ruled that Donahoe’s tweets to Carlson ‘showed a lack of judgment,’ Haley Britzky reported, ‘and that the ‘subsequent media coverage garnered national attention…and threw the army in a negative light”. ”

Britzky noted that Donahoe was given the opportunity to respond to the criticism, saying that if “the army leaders are unwilling to defend them in public, I think that’s a huge threat to the cohesion of our army.” .

“One of the things that I think is most important to General McConville and me is to keep the military apolitical and out of the culture wars,” Wormuth said Monday, referring to the head of state. -Major of the Army, James C. McConville. “Because frankly, we need to be able to have broad appeal. While only 9 percent of kids are interested in serving, we need to make sure we don’t alienate large swathes of the American public from the military.

Donahoe is right. Wormuth is wrong.

The extent to which Tucker Carlson actually cares about the Army’s retention of soldiers or combat readiness is debatable. But he clearly cares about using the military as a wedge in his continued efforts to paint the Biden administration as soft and dangerous. Carlson is actually fighting a culture war. This part is true. But looking at Carlson’s comment through this lens lets you understand how to push it back. is Apolitical, but eager, Carlson wants to deploy his culture war shtick in the service of right-wing politics.

You cannot defeat a culture war attack on the army by ignoring it, any more than you can defeat a real attack on an army by turning the other cheek. Yes, there is a risk in joining Carlson on his home turf. But it is a fight in which the military cannot resort to pacifism.

After all, it’s not just Carlson attacking diversity efforts, efforts to make more young Americans feel like the military would be a good fit for them. It does not just widen the “identity gap”, but the “trust gap”. His efforts to undermine the DEI and undermine the military under Biden are one and the same. Allowing Carlson and his allies to simply disparage the military as laughable and hopelessly “woke” undermines the institution on several fronts.

Aiming to avoid national media attention, as the Inspector General seems to approve of, actually gives critics a powerful weapon to use. Carlson can draw such attention to anyone he wants! It can even make innocuous comments seem harmful – and, it seems, generate penalties. It’s a lesson the mainstream media has learned and is still learning: responding to trolls with capitulation isn’t going to prevent trolling. It’s a lesson you’d think military leaders would understand in other contexts.

But also: How much national media attention is given to tweets like Donahoe’s? That military leaders saw an important place for women in their ranks? That they would defend their soldiers even when it was hard to do so?

The US military needs volunteers ready to commit to our national defense. He hopes to recruit people from a more diverse population at a time when many other jobs are available. And he has to because he has become the target of bad faith criticism from people seeking to label the engagement toxic and the institution flawed.

He also has an inner conflict.

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