Good evening and thank you, Amy, for that kind introduction and for your incredible service to the Army. We have been so lucky to have you on our team.
I am delighted to be here and want to thank the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy for inviting me to speak tonight. As someone who grew up in a college town, I have always loved academic surroundings, so it’s great to be here at Duke.
Everyone knows that this university is a renowned research institution and a global sports powerhouse, but Duke is also a great friend of the United States Army. Year in and year out, your ROTC program produces outstanding new officers, your fellowship programs help boost the career development of our Army leaders, and your researchers assist us in developing promising new technologies.
There’s really been only one sour note in our longstanding partnership. That was when Duke lured Coach K away from West Point back in 1980. Yes, we are still very bitter about that!
We in the Army are also beneficiaries of the thought-provoking work generated by Duke’s American Grand Strategy Program, which is so ably led by Dr. Peter Feaver.
Dr. Feaver is one of our most thoughtful scholars in the area of civil-military relations, as exemplified by his latest book “Thanks for Your Service” or my personal favorite, his article “Civil Military Relations in the United States: What Senior Leaders Need to Know (and Usually Don’t),” which he co-authored with Richard Kohn. That article is one of the best pieces I’ve read on this subject, and I’ve literally handed it out to many of our Army generals. It has deeply practical advice for both civilians and uniformed leaders on how to build trust with each other.
Public trust in the military is uniquely important to our Army because we are an all-volunteer force. We rely on young Americans to choose to defend our nation.
These citizens come from across the country, drawn to the military for a multitude of reasons, whether it be the educational benefits, the technical skills, the financial stability, or a deep-rooted sense of duty and patriotism. Regardless of their personal motivations, each of our service members today made a conscious decision to choose military service.
This has not always been the case. While not the norm for much of our nation’s history, we depended on compulsory service to fight World War II and sustained it for the thirty years that followed – until the draft became a visceral point of contention during Vietnam.
It was an alum of Duke Law School, President Richard Nixon, who established the modern all-volunteer force 50 years ago in 1973. Although many critics feared that the all-volunteer force would degrade the quality of our military, it actually made it better.
The shift to the all-volunteer force made our warfighters more educated, more professional, and more proficient.
We saw this in the 1990s during Operation Desert Storm, and we saw it over the last twenty years in the post-9/11 wars. Our service members on the ground, in the air, and at sea served with distinction and upheld America’s values.
As a result, the American military today is the greatest that the world has ever seen.
And this is not a hyperbole; it is not a cliché. I have seen our excellence with my own eyes up close and personal for years now, whether it’s observing our soldiers training here at home or visiting them on deployments down range.
The success of our all-volunteer force should be recognized and celebrated, but it has also come with some costs and consequences.
I would like to explore both these successes and challenges with you here this evening. Back in the fall of 2010, then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates delivered a lecture here at Duke, as part of this speaker series. The topic was the state of the all-volunteer force, and his message is worth revisiting as we face today’s challenging environment.
Secretary Gates highlighted the strain on the military which was then fighting large-scale ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He spoke about the dedication of the soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines who were deploying repeatedly to combat or supporting the continuous rotation of troops and equipment into the theater. And he celebrated the professionalism and expertise of a force that gained years of experience in counterinsurgency and counterterrorism. He also spoke about the shifting demographics of our volunteers, and the dilemmas and consequences that go with having so few fighting our wars for so long.
Secretary Gates noted pointedly that the country relied on less than one percent of its population to carry the heavy burden of its own defense. And he expressed concern that the military depended so much on young people from certain groups or parts of the country– namely young men and women who had grown up with family members who served, or in regions like the South and Mountain West with high populations of veterans and active-duty service members.
Much has changed since 2010. America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are over.
We continue to face a very challenging and demanding security environment, but we are no longer deploying hundreds of thousands of young Americans to fight in grinding counterinsurgency campaigns. Yet even as those wars recede, the dilemmas and consequences Secretary Gates identified are still with us.
The question of whether the all-volunteer force remains sustainable has taken on a new and heightened urgency as the Army and our sister services grapple with a deep and sustained shortfall in military recruiting.
Our problems came to a head in the spring of 2022. We went on to miss our recruitment goal that year by some 25%, or roughly 15,000 soldiers.
But the reality is, the recruiting problem didn’t happen overnight.
In the Army, the last time we met our mission for new recruiting contracts was 2014. In the years that followed, we dipped into the pool of recruits who agree to ship months into the future - essentially our reserve bank account of recruits. And we continued to draw from that bank account until it dropped to dangerously low levels. We were eating our seed corn. And that is part of why meeting our recruiting goals is harder today.
While the Army is not the only service facing a recruiting challenge, we are the largest service, so we feel the impact the most. And for us, it is an existential challenge, particularly given the dangerous security environment we face. We need to build back our end strength so we can continue fulfilling our mission – and the only way we can do that is by recruiting significantly more young Americans to serve.
As an Army, we have spent a lot of time looking at how we arrived at this point. Some of what we found was surprising and some was not. For example, eligibility for service has always been limited by our high physical and educational standards – and we know that eligibility has decreased due to climbing obesity rates and other health issues, as well as a decline in educational attainment that was exacerbated by the impact of the pandemic.
But among the eligible population, we were slow to recognize that the labor market has shifted in some significant ways. For one thing, between 60-70% of high school graduates now go straight on to college, compared to 42 percent in 1973. That means a smaller pool of 18-year olds are open to enlisting in the military right away. Data also shows that young people in America are making important decisions – from marriage to job choice – later in life. These shifts have been underway for decades, but the average age of our new recruits – around 19 years of age - has remained relatively constant since 1990.
Again, this means the Army is focusing the vast majority of its efforts on what is only a portion of the actual available labor market.
When we compared ourselves against large private sector corporations and looked at how they recruited, we found we were behind the times. For instance, most Fortune 500 companies rely on a recruiting workforce that is self-selected, specialized and permanent. But the Army has relied primarily on soldiers who are brought in on a temporary basis from other military specialties – and more than two-thirds of our recruiters did not volunteer for the assignment.
We also give them relatively little instruction and we have not updated our recruiting methods in years. We are still relying heavily on call lists and solicitations in fast food restaurants and malls. These methods may be adequate when unemployment is high, but in today’s extremely competitive labor market they have put us at a distinct disadvantage.
The good news is that the Army can decide how we build our recruiting workforce, what tools we give our recruiters and what part of the labor market we focus on. So with that in mind, last month the Army announced a plan to fundamentally redesign our efforts in all of these areas.
We are going to expand our pool of potential recruits to include those with education or work experience after high school. We are going to modernize our approach to recruiting by using more online tools and job boards. And we are going to professionalize our recruiting workforce by making it a permanent and desirable assignment in the Army, with a clear path to advancement.
We are also going to make permanent the Future Soldier Prep Course we established last year which gives extra training to thousands of interested recruits so that they can meet the Army’s physical and educational standards.
We are already moving forward with all of these changes, although they will take years to fully implement.
But by design, these efforts focus on problems we in the Army can solve ourselves. That leaves us still grappling with some deeper and more vexing threats to the sustainability of our all-volunteer force. The most obvious of these threats is a direct result of the end of mass conscription and the shift to an all-volunteer force – and that is Americans’ declining familiarity with the military.
At the start of the all-volunteer force, almost one in four Americans aged 17 to 54 had served in the military. Today it is fewer than one in twenty. This means far fewer Americans today know someone in the military or know very much about life in the military.
So how do people form a picture about the military today? I worry about this, because we live in an era where there is growing disagreement about facts, where there is a blurring of the line between facts and opinion, and much less trust in formerly respected sources of information.
Two former colleagues of mine at the RAND Corporation described the collective impact of these trends as “truth decay” – and they documented in painful detail how truth decay leads to an erosion of civil discourse, political paralysis, polarization and disengagement from civil institutions. I see how that erosion of civil discourse and polarization is hurting the United States Army. Getting accurate information about life in the Army out to young people who might consider serving is getting harder and harder. Partisan polarization is increasingly putting the Army into the crossfire of a culture war. It’s not clear when that war will end but it’s inflicting a lot of damage along the way.
A clear example of this dynamic is Senator Tuberville’s hold on all senior military nominations, which has gone on for months and is having tangible negative impacts on our readiness and the longer-term health of our officer corps.
Dr. Feaver is right that civilian elected and appointed leaders should agree to treat the military as noncombatants in this culture war – and the sooner, the better. The more the military is drawn into the political fray, the more public confidence in the military will erode.
It is no coincidence that a range of recent polls have shown that trust in the military is declining. And the more that trust is undermined, the harder it will be to recruit young Americans to defend this country.
There is another less obvious consequence of our decision decades ago to shift to an all-volunteer force, and that is the trend toward an ever-increasing percentage of our force coming from military families. Today, more than 80% of new Army recruits come from military families.
We are rightly proud of the legacy of our military families, but there are risks that stem from this pronounced dependence on such a small percentage of our citizens. The more distant our professional soldiers become from broader society, the more we run the risk of developing into a warrior caste. One that is seen by the American public as something apart from it, and one that may start seeing itself as apart and perhaps even above the public it serves.
Left unchecked, this separation can become dangerous.
When only one percent of Americans serve in uniform, how much easier does it become for politicians and voters to abdicate their civic responsibilities to weigh the costs and benefits of the use of force, of sending our men and women into harm’s way?
When so few civilians in government have served or are deeply knowledgeable of the military, how tempting might it become for uniformed leaders to feel they can override civilian input into national security decision-making?
Fundamentally the combination of a lack of familiarity with the military, the ongoing partisan politicization in our country and the resulting decline in trust in the military is making it harder to make the case for military service and push back against the perception that serving in the military is somehow a choice of last resort.
And nothing could be further from the truth.
Our soldiers today are walking, talking examples of the benefits of service. All across the Army, our soldiers are finishing college and master’s degrees without student debt and raising families in quality homes with access to excellent healthcare.
They are training thousands of Ukrainian soldiers to fight and defend their country against invading Russian forces. They are standing shoulder to shoulder with our NATO allies to ensure Putin doesn’t cross NATO borders. They are exercising regularly with our allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific to continue to preserve stability and security in that region. And here at home Army soldiers, scientists and doctors led the way to respond during the pandemic, to include being the backbone of Operation Warp Speed.
Our soldiers are not only in the infantry, in tank crews, or flying helicopters, they are engineers, data scientists, cyber warriors and Olympic athletes. They are Army astronaut LTC Frank Rubio, who just set the US record for the longest space flight, and four-star general Paul Nakasone, the Director of the National Security Agency and head of US Cyber Command.
They are Command Sergeant Major JoAnn Naumann, the first woman to serve as the senior enlisted leader at Army Special Operations Command. They are Lloyd Austin, the first black secretary of defense who graduated from West Point back in 1975. And they are the hundreds of thousands of other active, Guard, and Reserve soldiers who may not be making headlines every day but who are finding purpose in serving something larger than themselves.
These soldiers grapple with the same challenges facing their civilian peers. But in a society where loneliness and disaffection are more pervasive than ever, military life provides comradery, a shared sense of purpose, and a support network that equips young soldiers with the resilience and leadership skills that they need to flourish in life.
As Secretary Gates said in his address here years ago, our soldiers take on immense responsibility to lead their fellow service members “at an age when many of their peers are reading spreadsheets or making copies.”
They shoulder these responsibilities because they believe in serving the country. The Army’s motto is literally “This We’ll Defend” – a phrase first used during the American Revolution in 1778 and emblazoned on the official Army Flag.
We live in complicated, challenging times – democracy itself is under attack at home and abroad, and some may feel America is no longer that “shining city on the hill.” We are not a perfect country, but we have never stopped striving toward our ideal of a more perfect union – and I wholeheartedly believe that this nation is worth defending and worth serving.
And as someone who has spent decades as a public servant and who has sworn an oath of service to our country multiple times, I can also tell you that service doesn’t always require putting on a uniform – but it does often require hard work and sacrifice. I hope those of you who are still determining your professional paths will consider some form of service to our country.
Like Secretary Gates, I would point you to some wise words from John Adams, who said to his son,
“The public business must be done by somebody.
It will be done by somebody or other.
If wise men decline it, others will not.
If honest men refuse it, others will not.”
We need more of our fellow citizens – wise and honest women and men – to do the public business.
I hope some of you will join in that hard but rewarding work.