A thought for Veterans Day 2022: Who will be tomorrow’s veterans? 

Who will be tomorrow’s veterans?  That is the question for Veterans Day 2022 as America’s military is in the midst of a recruiting crisis, even as the forces of darkness around the globe grow more menacing.  Before we get into analyzing that, let’s recall the difference between Memorial Day and Veterans Day.  

As I’ve written before, Memorial Day is intended to commemorate those who have died in the service, while Veterans Day (Nov 11) is intended to honor all veterans.  It originated as Armistice Day to commemorate the end of World War I, but – as reported here – “on June 1, 1954, Congress amended the Act of 1938, officially renaming ‘Armistice Day’ as ‘Veterans Day’ and thereby expanding the recognition of the holiday to include veterans of all American wars.”

The recruiting crisis: 77% of young Americans are unfit to serve; only 11% would consider serving

Every branch of the military is “struggling to make its 2022 recruiting goals,” but especially the Army.  Secretary of the Army Christine Wormuth told CNBC recently “the nation risks falling behind in the race against China if it can’t recruit enough Americans into the service to be trained on how national defense is being remade for future conflicts.” She added:

“We can develop all of the most high-tech new weapons systems, like we are working on right now, but if we don’t have the kinds of talented motivated individuals to use those weapons systems, we won’t be able to do what we need to do,.

There are many reasons for the crisis, beginning with the startling fact that the percentage of young people who can’t meet the minimum requirements continues to rise.  In 2017, 71% were unfit to serve; now a new study shows that’s risen to 77% mainly due to youths being overweight, using drugs or having mental and physical health problems.”

Furthermore, in an op-ed published today (Nov 9), retired Rear Admiral Tom Jurkowsky observed:

Adding to the challenge is the propensity to serve. When young people are asked, “How likely is it that you will serve in the military?” only 11% responded, “definitely or positively.” The situation is not helped when 52% of parents do not recommend military service to their offspring.

Misleading/inaccurate narrative

Part of the problem is that misleading and inaccurate information about military service abounds in the press.  For example, women are significantly underrepresented in the military, and some say it’s because of reports about sexual assault. And, yes, the military services are certainly afflicted by this scourge.  But last year what professors Lisa Schenck and David Schlueter reported on their study put this issue in a wider context – and their findings might surprise many.  

They found that “[a]lthough there is a problem with sexual assaults in the military, the same is true in the civilian community, especially on college campuses.  Of particular note: after “comparing and contrasting the rates of sexual assaults and the prosecution of those offenses..[they] concluded…that the military is doing a better job prosecuting sexual assaults than indicated in national and college statistics.” 

The scholars also found that “according to surveys, females attending college have the highest rate of victimization for sexual assault of any age or gender. A woman in college has a 51 percent greater likelihood of being sexually assaulted than a woman between 18 and 24 years of age serving in the military.” 

Misinformation about the military is rife in other areas too.

After the January 6th Capitol riot, pundits tried to paint the military as being rampant with extremists.  The fact is that after months of investigation, only one of 1.3 million active duty troops was charged.  As to veterans (no longer on active duty), the George Washington University Program on Extremism found that “if anything, that there actually is a very slight underrepresentation of veterans among the January 6 attacks. (Emphasis added)

Even organizations that mean to help the military can add to the confusion.  For example, last year a National Military Family Association (NMFA),”survey” drew this headline: Two-thirds of military teens want to follow in their parents’ footsteps.  But these kids ‘are not okay,’ survey finds.”  From that inflammatory headline people may make some negative (and stereotypical) assumptions. 

A reader would have to dig deep into the story to learn that the findings of NMFA’s “survey” done with teen organization Bloom:Empowering the Military Teen were not actually produced by a “‘random scientific survey.” 

The same article said survey organizers found the “high number of military teens who want to serve in the military [to be] stunning.”

This really shouldn’t be surprising or, for that matter, alarming. Social science has long known that children often tend to follow in the footsteps of their parents (and siblings) in their career choice.  For example, the children of lawyers are 17 times more likely to become lawyers than those with parents in a different job area.  Consequently, there is nothing “not okay” about military teens wanting to join the armed forces. 

In my nearly 35 years of service the overwhelming number of military teens I knew were great kids who went on to do wonderful things with their lives (including, not infrequently, military service).

You hardly ever hear the good news like this from Military Times:

The average scores of students in Department of Defense Education Activity schools ranged from 15 to 23 points higher than all national average scores on the 2022 National Assessment of Educational Progress reading and math assessments. Their scores either increased or held steady even as the scores of their public school counterparts across the U.S. decreased from 2019 pre-pandemic levels.

Inaccurate narratives about the military include the belief that minorities suffer disproportionate casualties and that the poor are over-represented in the ranks (neither of which is true; see here).

And, of course, there is the impact of the culture wars.  Army veteran and professor Sean McFate had this insight:

It seems like the military is caught in the culture wars where half of the recruiting pool thinks the military is too woke to join (conservatives) and the other half thinks military service is distasteful (liberal). That doesn’t leave much of a recruiting pool.”

What to do? 

Correcting the narrative about military service can be helpful, and I also think military leaders are right in saying that “investment in more targeted advertising and marketing would help address the growing problem.”

When people do give the military a try, it can be enormously beneficial.  Last month Stars & Stripes reported:

While recruitment lags, retention is at a record high across all the military branches, said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y. She attributed the paradox to the benefits of service: more education, a higher household income, greater levels of civic engagement and a lower level of unemployment among veterans than the general population.

“Decades of hard-fought conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan have created a perception that service in the military leaves people broken, damaged or disadvantaged in society,” Gillibrand said. “In reality, I know from my many interactions with our service members and veterans, the majority report positive experiences in the military, positive post-military outcomes and are proud of their service.”

Others have detailed suggestions to address the crisis that are irrefutably worthy of consideration (see e.g., here But is it really enough?

Concluding thoughts

Still, we have to candidly admit that the military can make demands that no other kind of service does.  Of course, there is the financial sacrifice (e.g, new Duke Law grads typically make two to three times what those becoming military lawyer will be paid).

Additionally, military service imposes unique requirements. I invite you to take a look at this post for the details: Salute all who benefit the public, but recognize the uniqueness of military service.”

Yet throughout history millions have served despite the demands.  Are today’s Americans still willing to make the sacrifices to defend the country?  I found the result of a Quinnipiac University poll troubling.  Consider what it showed:

As the world witnesses what is happening to Ukraine, Americans were asked what they would do if they were in the same position as Ukrainians are now: stay and fight or leave the country? A majority (55 percent) say they would stay and fight, while 38 percent say they would leave the country. Republicans say 68 – 25 percent and independents say 57 – 36 percent they would stay and fight, while Democrats say 52 – 40 percent they would leave the country.

To me, what was more disturbing was that a plurality of young people would leave the country  rather than stay and fight for it:

As  a Wall Street Journal editor pointed out:

The conflict hypothesized by the Quinnipiac pollsters wasn’t a war for oil or empire. Poll respondents were asked to envision a foreign invader on their own front porch. Imagine Vladimir Putin has sent his shock troops to level your hometown, to occupy your high school and drop a missile on the hospital where you were born. If you won’t fight for hearth and home, what would you fight for?

In 2010 then Secretary of Defense Robert Gates spoke at Duke and exhorted:

“If America’s best and brightest people will not step forward, who then will step forward?” Gates asked, calling on students in the audience and at other leading schools to “go outside your comfort zone and take a risk, in every sense of the word.” Talented young people who serve in the military are “given extraordinary responsibility at a young age,” Gates said, leading troops “at an age when their peers are reading spreadsheets and making photo copies.”

Twelve years later the University still has ROTC units for three services (though cadets also come from North Carolina Central University), as well as a robust office of Student Veteran Affairs, and a collection of educational benefits for  veterans.

It would be great if Duke students open to considering military service could learn about the life from a classmate who served, but it would be hard for them to meet one on campus: among 6,789 undergrads there are only four veterans. The graduate schools do better: there are about 329 veterans among Duke’s 9,991 graduate and professional school students. 

Here at the Law School there are just four veterans among 640 JD students (and, sadly, for the first time in years no member of the graduating class is planning to enter the armed forces.) 

Although America’s veteran population is declining, they still comprise about 7% of adults, so the two-tenths of one percent of the overall Duke University student body that veterans comprise is hardly reflective of the diversity of the country as whole. 

I can’t help but to think of philosopher John Stuart Mill’s observation (feel free to modernize it by substituting gender-neutral language where appropriate):

“War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things: the decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth a war, is much worse…. A war to protect other human beings against tyrannical injustice; a war to give victory to their own ideas of right and good, and which is their own war, carried on for an honest purpose by their free choice, — is often the means of their regeneration.

A man who has nothing which he is willing to fight for, nothing which he cares more about than he does about his personal safety, is a miserable creature who has no chance of being free, unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself. As long as justice and injustice have not terminated their ever-renewing fight for ascendancy in the affairs of mankind, human beings must be willing, when need is, to do battle for the one against the other.” (Emphasis added.)

This is obviously a different kind of Veterans Day post – a look to who will serve in the future – and what challenges need to be overcome to encourage and welcome them.

But I can’t let the opportunity pass this Veterans Day to also personally thank all my fellow veterans who stepped up to serve over the years. Your service helped keep our nation strong and free, and left a legacy of honor.  Who will follow in your footsteps is the question.

As Secretary Gates said, “If America’s best and brightest people will not step forward, who then will step forward?”  Perhaps that is worth contemplating this Veterans Day. 

Remember what we like to say on Lawfire®: gather the facts, examine the law, evaluate the arguments – and then decide for yourself!






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