[Long Read] Hidden Stories: What Ails The US Military?

Sagar Kar Debroy

Sep 25, 2022, 04:22 PM | Updated Oct 03, 2022, 12:06 PM IST

US Army
US Army
  • The biggest recruitment crisis in half a century, sexual assaults, suicides, obesity, marijuana, a young population idealising fame over service, neo-'conservative' ideas such as the amount of money one earns representing the value they add to the society, are only some of the factors that are ailing the US military.
  • Hannah was 17 years old when she enlisted for the US Navy. Remember her name. We'll get to her story later. For now, let's consider what is ailing the US military.

    The all volunteer force era began in 1973. The US Army and other branches of the military are now facing the biggest recruitment crisis since 1973.

    The US military's recruiting shortfall has become so severe that lawmakers are pressing the Pentagon for answers.

    The legislators on the Hill are extremely concerned about the implication this development has for US national security.

    The fact that the US military is facing the biggest recruitment crisis in half a century is obvious when one looks at the numbers. The solution? Less obvious.

    “The Department anticipates we will collectively miss our recruiting mission despite accessing more than 170,000 remarkable young men and women in the fiscal year that ends at September 30.

    This constitutes an unprecedented mission gap and is reason for concern," said Stephanie Miller, deputy assistant secretary of defence for military personnel policy yesterday to the Senate Armed Services Personnel Subcommittee.

    All of the military's branches are struggling to attract enough recruits but the Army's failure is particularly pronounced.

    The US Army expected that it'll fall short of its recruitment target. In anticipation, it reduced its recruitment target.

    Despite reducing the recruitment target, the US Army is still on its way to missing this newly reduced target by a significant measure.

    The US Army needs to sign up tens of thousands of new personal every year to replace those people who are going to leave the service.

    The US Army had a goal of signing 60,000 people this fiscal year. According to the statements of secretary of the Army, they are well on their way to miss this target by a shortfall of 15,000 recruits.

    This fiscal year for the US Army ends on September 30th. In the most optimistic projections - the US Army is going to have a shortfall of at least 21,000 active duty troops in 2023.

    With war returning to the European continent, heightened tension in the Taiwan Strait, the geopolitical atmosphere has never been this volatile in the 21st century.

    By some measures, the geopolitical tensions are sharper than they were even during the Cold War.

    The US depends on its all volunteer force to carry out its strategic interests.

    At a time when the US military is rapidly decommissioning its naval vessels, the recruitment crisis only makes the military more vulnerable.

    “There is no sunlight on the horizon. It’s becoming clear the all-volunteer force that has served our country well over the last 50 years is at an inflection point," said Sen. Thom Tillis (N.C.), the panel’s top Republican.

    What are the challenges to recruitment?

    The American society has changed a lot over the last 50 years.

    Whilst other societies with relatively low exposure to the reality of life in America, ape the American culture, as they perceive it as something worth aspiring to, the US itself is struggling with the consequences of societal changes that it has witnessed over the last 50 years.

    Take marijuana for example. 50 years ago, marijuana was a sign of the counter-culture that was raging through America, but in the mainstream of American society, it was something that was frowned upon.

    The biggest headline of the last 50 years was a development that never made it to the headlines. The counter-culture won and penetrated the mainstream, akin to a drop of red in a chalice of water.

    The current discontents ailing American society can be traced back to the 60s.

    An understudied social phenomenon in the social sciences.

    Marijuana today is a mainstream drug. Although it hasn't been legalised federally, most states have legalised it.

    It the UK, marijuana is still considered a taboo. Students may try it a few times, but few will become regular consumers.

    In the US, thanks to the normalisation of marijuana, the trend is the opposite. People who might have just experimented with the drug, are becoming regular consumers.

    As big businesses enter in the market, notions such as 'consumption of marijuana has no downside' are widespread.

    The reality is that there is solid data that consumption of marijuana, especially at an young age, leads to higher risk of schizophrenia and psychosis later in life, slows down motor reflexes, slows down decision making capability.

    The US military, for these obvious reasons, still considers marijuana consumption a disqualifying factor.

    Marijuana is the 3rd most commonly used drug in the US. The use might be even higher in the GenZ population.

    As a result of this, a significant chunk of the young American population is ineligible for the US military.

    US Army
    US Army

    Obesity is another major factor. A vast section of the age group which would be considered for recruitment, is simply not fit enough.

    About half of the adult U.S. population will have obesity and about a quarter will have severe obesity by 2030, according to a new study by Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

    One must flag that these studies are seldom accurate. The quality of studies published by the NEJM has certainly been declining. If anything beats the replication crisis in psychology, it is the replication crisis in medicine.

    Be that as it may, as per data from the Pentagon itself, 77 per cent of the American youth (17 years - 24 years) isn't qualified for military service unless they are given a waiver. In other words, 77 per cent of Americans aged 17-24 are ineligible for service unless the current standards are lowered.

    Around a striking 44 per cent are ineligible due to obesity. It is the most prevalent reason.

    “The Department is examining our standards and entry programs, but alone, there is very little we can do to positively impact this issue,” Miller informed the subcommittee yesterday.

    Obesity, quite frankly, is undermining the lethality of US military.

    Another problem, perhaps underrated, is the fact that to large swathes of the American GenZ, a career in the Army is simply unappealing.

    As per data from some surveys, the most desired goal of the American youth is becoming a 'successful influencer'.

    Perhaps right of centre, Ayn Rand thumping American politicians should reconsider their commitment to the superstition of free-market and the 'invisible hand'.

    For decades, the core belief of the American right has been the notion that the amount an American earns is a representation of the value he/she adds to the society.

    Hence the disappearance of traditional conservatism and emergence of Neo-'conservatism', infused with a fair amount of libertarianism.

    When one lives in a society where someone producing 'content' on micro-blogging sites makes disproportionately more amount of money than someone potentially serving in the Army's brigade combat team, the idea that money is an indication of value you are creating for the society, seems slightly less plausible. Slightly.

    Market failures aside, money need not be the prime motivator for the young generation. Values such as service, honour, patriotism, virtue, adventure, can motivate people towards the army, provided there is some form of social stigma against people who earn money by disseminating rather dodgy content.

    In the absence of such a social stigma, it was hardly surprising and honestly quite predictable that most young people in America would rather become an 'influencer' than serve in the army.

    US Army's lethality is being undermined by societal factors.
    US Army's lethality is being undermined by societal factors.

    In a healthy society, the army's problem should be the fact that too many people want to serve, not the other way around.

    Stephanie Miller yesterday mentioned in her statement to the subcommittee that the majority of American youth have never even considered the military as an option.

    The problems are not small. According to Lt. Gen. Douglas Stitt, the Army’s deputy chief of staff for personnel, the US Army is facing the most acute recruiting problem.

    Serving in the military already has many incentives. The GI Bill for example, offers rather generous educational benefits in exchange for military service.

    The Army and other branches of the military are now considering providing cash bonuses to people for serving in particular roles. The branches that already provide cash bonuses, are increasing the amount of the bonus.

    The fact that incentives such as the GI Bill aren't proving attractive enough due to the waning public interest in service, gives credence to the idea that absence of material incentives isn't the primary problem. The problem is deeper.

    The inclusion of women in large numbers was in reality supposed to solve this problem, although it was portrayed as a move to promote equality. The reality is, it was driven by much more practical concerns.

    However, the inclusion of women in large numbers hasn't solved this problem. One of the reasons is that women tend to exit the service at a higher rate than men, as per data from a study published by the Rand Corporation.

    “It is not unreasonable to expect that both women’s propensity to serve and their subsequent retention intentions will decrease even further” the report adds.

    Much of the blame for this lies in the US military's failure in making the military an organisation where women are safe from their own colleagues.

    Unfortunately, their time in service leaves a significant amount of them with a sense that they made a mistake and this isn't because 'the pressure of performance' is too much for them to handle.


    The number of female service members being sexually assaulted by their colleagues has witnessed an unprecedented surge, as per disclosures by the Pentagon during the last week of August.

    Some have attempted to explain this away by claiming that this trend implies more and more women are feeling comfortable to share and report instances of abuse.

    In truth, it is the opposite. Nathan Galbreath, a senior defense official who focuses on sexual assault issues, said that, "despite historically highs in numbers of assaults, fewer troops are reporting incidents".

    As per the US Department of Defence Sexual Assault Prevention and Response (SAPR), fewer female troops are reporting the incidents due to a lack of confidence in the system, fear of retribution in one way or another and a culture in the military which is reluctant to hold commanders accountable.

    The SAPR report states that there were more than 8,500 reports of sexual assault in the year of 2021. Up by 13 per cent compared to the previous year.

    From 2006, almost each year, the metrics have been moving in the wrong direction, despite efforts by the DoD to control this upward trend.

    2021 is also the year when a significant number of men reported unwanted 'sexual contact'. The socially acceptable term for men reporting sexual assault.

    Elizabeth Foster, who serves as the executive director of the Office of Force Resiliency said to the media that, "these numbers are tragic and extremely disappointing. The lives and careers of survivors irrevocably changed by these crimes.”

    Absence of proper support and concern for service members struggling with mental health challenges is another major issue.

    The aircraft carrier USS George Washington had at least five shipmates die by suicide in a short span of time. Some others, attempted suicide but survived.

    Hannah Crisostomo
    Hannah Crisostomo

    Remember Hannah? Lets get back to her now.

    Now, 20 year old, Hannah Crisostomo is one of them. Hannah too was serving on the aircraft carrier USS George Washington. She had just completed her one year of service in the US Navy.

    As her 1 year anniversary with the navy approached, she grabbed 196 pain killers and swallowed them. She suffered multiple seizures as her brain swelled, organs stopped and so did her breath.

    After 8 days on life support she waked up, wondering why is she still alive.

    “If they keep me in the Navy, and they put me back in the same situation, I’m going to kill myself and next time I'm going to be successful," she said.

    Hannah disclosed that she was constantly berated by seniors for things out of her control. When she realised this was impacting her mental health and tried to reach out for help, she was belittled.

    “Being in the Navy was all I ever wanted. I wanted to be part of something big to help the country. I got robbed of that, and I didn’t deserve it," she said.

    Since Hannah’s attempt, at least five of her colleagues serving in the same aircraft carrier (in different departments, in no contact with each other) have died by suicide, including three within a span of single week, this April.

    Perhaps the American media should look within. Tone down the pretentious moral screeching at Indians and stop hovering like salivating vultures whenever there is a rape case in India.

    The biggest recruitment crisis in half a century, sexual assaults, suicides, obesity, marijuana, a young population idealising fame over service, neo-'conservative' ideas such as the amount of money one earns representing the value they add to the society, are only some of the factors that are ailing the US military.

    The Pentagon being transparent about the problems bedevilling the US military and acknowledging them is praiseworthy.

    Hannah has fully recovered now and is attending college in California. She intends to study psychology.

    “Ever since I got out of the military, my mental health has been extremely better. I can say that I am happier,” she said.

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