Parades, family gatherings, and small-town ceremonies. For many Americans, Memorial Day marks the unofficial start of summer and a day to honor the more than 1 million men and women who have lost their lives in service to the country. Now amid an unprecedented military recruitment crisis, leaders need more than a few good men and women willing to face looming global threats like China.
Over 75 percent of young Americans are ineligible for military service, and even fewer have a desire to join. In a recent survey, as many as 6 in 10 respondents listed the possibility of physical injury or death as their top reason not to join the military. Fear of PTSD and other psychological trauma followed closely behind. Leaders look to the next generation to fill the ranks. But why would they?
Fallout from Forever Wars
As a society, we can’t entirely blame this new generation of young people for their disinterest and hesitancy to serve. Gen Zers, born between 1997 and 2012, grew up in the long shadow of the 9/11 terrorist attacks but hold no memory of that fateful day. Their exposure to war has been as spectators of numerous policy failures in Iraq and, most recently, Afghanistan now engulfed in chaos. These would-be warriors watched firsthand as veterans wrestled with fear, anger, and betrayal after the United States’ disastrous final withdrawal from the Middle East.
The fallout from America’s forever wars consequently left Gen Z with no clear purpose for the United States’ role in the world and a negative perception of its global leadership. In a 2021 Pew Research survey, less than 25 percent of 18-29-year-olds believed the “U.S. stands above all other countries in the world.” Patriotic sentiment declined even further as only 16 percent of Gen Z adults polled confessed they are proud to live in the United States.
Gen Z’s societal engagement stands in stark contrast to that of young people at the turn of the century. These post-millennials, however, know only this nation’s strife, not its unity. Gen Z rises, not as warriors in service of a grateful nation, but as activists keen to address its ills.
Zoomers might not be inspired to wear a uniform, but they are anything but apathetic when it comes to causes they believe in. The vast majority of Gen Z reported taking at least some action related to Black Lives Matter protests following George Floyd’s death in 2020.
But is Gen Z’s aversion to physical and emotional risk limited only to the context of military service? Of 39,000 Gen Zers polled, 90 percent indicated support for Black Lives Matter. Nearly 25,000 respondents said they’d be willing to get arrested during a protest for black equality. The death of George Floyd in police custody offered a spark that lit the match for the most recent wave of social justice demands and gave young people something to rally behind. Gen Z took the helm.
Gen Z’s disinterest in military service owes not just to their exposure to American failures at home and abroad. Today’s education shapes their perceptions of America and its history. Many schools now incorporate controversial critical race theory concepts into curricula, promoting the idea of white privilege under the guise of anti-racism. A survey commissioned by the conservative Manhattan Institute found 62 percent of 18-20-year old Americans had been taught or heard from an adult at school that “America is a systemically racist country.”
Rhetoric from those on the left only reinforces anti-American sentiment in the classroom. Amid the ongoing military recruitment crisis, President Biden wasted yet another opportunity to emphasize America’s greatness and instill pride during a commencement address at a historically black university last weekend.
Forget America’s role in defeating Nazi Germany or reminding listeners of their nation’s part in the historic dismantling of the Soviet Union. The president instead alluded to a “fairytale” history as a racist nation, naming white supremacy as the “single most dangerous terrorist threat to our homeland.” Why should leaders register surprise when the call to serve falls on deaf ears?
From the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks emerged a new generation of Americans eager to serve and defend their country. More than 180,000 joined active duty in the year that followed. Some joined solely for the benefits and job stability. Still others with images of the burning Twin Towers seared in their memories.
America got a lot wrong when it came to its political and military strategy in the months and years that followed 9/11, and this country will never shake its shameful legacy of slavery. There’s merit in learning from our faults, but we are not defined solely by them. We will cripple this generation and the next if we fail to remind them also of our triumphs.
The military now desperately needs buy-in from this young class of social justice activists, turning most recently to drag in an effort to attract new recruits. The Navy’s controversial use of an active-duty drag queen as a digital ambassador follows the Army’s previous failed attempt to inspire Gen Zers to service with a recruitment ad prominently featuring a same-sex wedding. Both aimed ostensibly to expand the pool of candidacy and boost interest in joining.
All the while, China threatens Taiwan, and Russia makes war on NATO’s borders amid an increasingly dire recruitment crisis at home. The United States meanwhile remains engulfed by enmity from within. Our military needs patriots, not critics; warriors, not activists. From educators to leaders, we’re convincing would-be warriors there is little to be proud of, let alone die or suffer for in service to their country.