Speaking to the 2022 Graduating class at West Point, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Mark Milley told the new graduates that the world they face has the potential for significant conflict between great powers, “And that potential is increasing, not decreasing.” With that warning, it has been astonishing to witness how little coverage the May 5, 2022 hearing of the posture of the Department of the Army with the Senate Committee on Armed Services received.
In it, top military leaders sounded the alarm about recruitment. According to top DoD leadership, this is the most challenging recruiting year since the beginning of the all-volunteer force almost five decades ago. The Army announced that even after being forced to cut 12,000 soldiers, it still cannot fill its ranks. In addition to this, the percentage of young Americans qualified to join the Army is now at the lowest point ever at 23%. This comes as trust in the military has plummeted, particularly among conservatives. It’s time for our civilian political leadership to get DoD back to its apolitical mission before it’s too late. Let me explain.
First, in fairness to the DoD, modern societal issues have contributed to the recruitment crisis. According to the Lt. General Thomas Spoehr, “with each passing year, fewer and fewer young people qualify for military service. Widespread obesity (36% for ages 18-39), increasing numbers of youth afflicted with mental health issues (26% of youth aged 18-25), and other issues including criminal records or lack of high-school degrees are driving down the percentage of youths qualified to enlist without a waiver.” Though DoD should sound the alarm about the need to physically and mentally strengthen our youth, that’s primarily a civilian responsibility.
Currently, only 11% of those aged 16-21 answered “definitely or probably” in their likelihood to “serve in the military.” Recent polling helps provide the best insight into how negative perceptions of the DoD drive a lack of willingness to serve. In the past three years, according to a Reagan Institute Survey, the percentage of Americans who “have a lot of confidence and trust in the military” plummeted from 70% to 45%. This poll was taken after the debacle of the Afghanistan withdrawal in 2021 and noted a catastrophic 11 percentage point drop in trust in the military in the months before and after Afghanistan.
Clearly, the debacle of Afghanistan severely hurt perceptions. Crucially though, this survey showed that support for the military among Republicans is the real problem. By far, the greatest reason trust dropped so precipitously was the conservative loss of trust. The Reagan Institute’s 2018 survey showed that “87% of Republican respondents said they had a great deal of confidence in the military”, compared with “53% in 2021.”
The DoD bears substantial responsibility for this conservative loss of trust. American trust in the military was built up from a low point after Vietnam. I can remember growing up as a military “brat” during that period and experiencing the poor public perceptions of the military firsthand. Then I saw and experienced the turnaround in public trust and confidence during the 1980s. A high point I remember was as an Army officer during and after Desert Shield/Storm, when the praise and trust in the military was the antithesis of post-Vietnam. Beyond the success of the force, the military was perceived as being apolitical and focused exclusively on winning our nation’s wars.
The loss of trust by many conservatives comes primarily from a perceived liberal bias at the top of DoD. Many conservative media sources have decried what appears to be DoD following “political” priorities of the Biden Administration, including perceived targeting of conservatives in uniform. The bias became so obvious that even traditionally liberal news sources have opined about the problem. The Atlantic, a known liberal source, published the following: “Where (Milley) deserves greater criticism is his congressional testimony from a few weeks ago … he went on to connect racism to the attack on the Capitol: ‘I want to understand white rage … What is it that made thousands of people assault this building and try to overturn the Constitution of the United States of America?’”
The ”white rage” statement by General Milley infuriated conservatives, as it was perceived both as an endorsement of critical race theory and of partisan political narratives. The bias perception was compounded by Bob Woodward’s and Robert Costa's book Peril quoting senior military and civilian DoD leaders with statements undermining Trump and showing partiality to Democrats.
It’s time for our political leadership to set the DoD back to its warfighting mission and away from politics. The military needs the trust of the American people, and we all need our men and women in uniform.
Bill Connor, a retired Army Infantry colonel, author and Orangeburg attorney, has deployed multiple times to the Middle East. Connor was the senior U.S. military adviser to Afghan forces in Helmand Province, where he received the Bronze Star. A Citadel graduate with a JD from USC, he is also a Distinguished Graduate of the U.S. Army War College, earning his master of strategic studies. He is the author of the book Articles from War.