The Army missed its recruiting goal by about 15,000 new soldiers in 2022, coming up 25% short of its goal at a time when each of the services were struggling to meet their benchmarks. Military officials worry that all of the branches have had to reach deep into their pools of delayed entry applicants, a move that puts them behind in recruiting for the new year.
Military recruiters have leaned on tried-and-true factors to explain the challenges, including low unemployment and a dearth of applicants up to physical, educational and behavioral standards.
But the truth is, no one keeps detailed data on what’s stopping America’s youth from signing up. Experts and senior military leaders point to the perennial factors of competition from the private sector and a dwindling number of young Americans both qualified and interested in military service. But what they don’t have much information on is why that propensity is going down, and whether the country is undergoing an ideological shift in attitude toward military service.
One possibility that is increasingly resonating with veterans is that the military is too “woke.” Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., for example, is among a group of Republican senators who have repeatedly blamed recruiting problems on the Biden administration for trying to build a “woke Army.”
Thomas Spoehr, director of the Center for National Defense at The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, recently opined that wokeness is the “chief worry of grizzled American veterans today.”
“The largest threat they see by far to our current military is the weakening of its fabric by radical progressive (or ‘woke’) policies being imposed, not by a rising generation of slackers, but by the very leaders charged with ensuring their readiness,” he wrote. “Wokeness in the military is being imposed by elected and appointed leaders in the White House, Congress, and the Pentagon who have little understanding of the purpose, character, traditions, and requirements of the institution they are trying to change.”
Spoehr acknowledged that “direct ‘cause and effect’ studies on the impact of woke policies such as these do not exist,” but suggested that “common sense” dictates that it is having an effect on recruiting.
“Is anyone surprised that potential recruits — many of whom come from rural or poor areas of the country — don’t want to spend their time being lectured about white privilege?” he wrote.
In an interview with Fox News, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a West Point graduate and Army officer who served in Germany during the Cold War, talked about the campaign he is launching, including TV ads and a website, to target what he calls “woke polices” directed toward the military.
“How can we ask young men and women who have decided to risk their lives for America, even die for America, to affirm that our country is inherently racist?” Pompeo wrote in a Sept. 28 opinion column for Fox. “How can we ask them to view their brothers and sisters in arms through the narrow prisms of race or gender? The clear and obvious answer is that we cannot — not without putting their lives at risk on the battlefield. A woke military is a weak military.”
But Defense Department leaders, while often apprehensive to address the intersection of politics and recruiting, have said they don’t see a connection anecdotally or statistically
“That whole ‘woke’ terminology has me a little perplexed,” Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force JoAnne Bass told Air Force Times Sept. 6. “I don’t know that I agree [with] and appreciate that term.
“I’ve said it before; I think perhaps we do need to wake up to what our society is about today. Perhaps we need to wake up to how we actually have more in common than not. Perhaps we need to wake up to the goodness of the diversity that America brings to the table. That diversity is not just singular to demographic diversity, but … it’s experiences and it’s cognitive diversity as well. I don’t subscribe to the ‘wokeness’ in the way that it’s discussed. I actually think that, yeah, we probably need to wake up to the goodness of what all airmen and what all people bring to the fight.”
In reality, service members spend hundreds of hours a year on mandatory training, covering everything from operational safety to financial responsibility and suicide and sexual assault prevention, with a tiny fraction of that focusing on diversity, equity and inclusion education.