The US military is facing a recruitment crisis. It is so severe that in September, Senator Thom Thillis referred to an “inflection point” for the voluntary-force model, threatening over a half century of precedent. In 2022, the Army failed to meet its recruitment goals across the board: active duty, reserves, and National Guard were thousands of personnel below target. The Navy met its recruiting quota for enlisted personnel, but not for officers. The Air Force met its recruiting quota for active duty, but not the reserves or National Guard. The Marine Corps barely hit its targets for active duty and reserves.
There are a few theories about the causes of this recruiting predicament, which is at its worse since the post-Vietnam era. Direct causes might be record-low unemployment rates, COVID-era restrictions that limited recruiters’ access to the public, and an increase in both mental and physical health problems among young people. The Public Interest Fellowship’s Garrett Exner, a former Marines special operations officer, points to cultural shifts in American schooling, such as lower standards and refusal to subject students to any kind of adversity. Stuart Scheller, the outspoken Marine veteran and author, blames poor military leadership and misdirected shifts in financial incentives for servicemen.
While these hypotheses probably have some degree of truth, they do not explain why some services are better at recruiting than others: the Marine Corps, after all, made all its quotas, while the Army didn’t meet any of its recruiting goals. The Marine Corps’s success is surprising for many reasons: it has the highest physical fitness standards for retention—significantly higher than that of the Navy and Air Force, and a reputation for physical and psychological duress that eclipses the other services. Moreover, the military occupational specialties (career specialties) available to Marine recruits is dwarfed by the Army’s, which casts the widest net for competencies among the services. At a time when obesity alone prohibits a shocking percentage of American young people from serving, the Marine Corps’s recruiting performance is especially puzzling.
An explanation for the military’s recruitment challenges (and the Marine Corps’s comparative success) goes deeper than trends in the labor market. Ultimately, the civic honor on which voluntary service depends has quietly been eroding some time, and it is being replaced by an ethos of individual self-fulfillment. Tragically, different parts of the military have absorbed this mentality to different degrees. Recent recruiting ads—one by the Marines and one by the Army—offer glimpses into these broader cultural shifts and the challenges that they pose to the US military.
“Battle to Belong” is an online recruitment ad for the Marines that depicts young Americans’ sense of alienation and nihilism with splendid accuracy. It was released on YouTube in September 2020, after months of COVID-era lockdowns and mere weeks after the nationwide Black Lives Matter protests. Teens were spending an average of nearly eight hours a day on screens outside of their Zoom classroom-time. At the time of this writing in February 2023, the ad had over three hundred fifty thousand views on YouTube.
“Battle to Belong” opens with a young man walking down an urban street littered with advertisements and floating widgets. “Searching for meaning in a relentless world,” begins the baritone narrator, “Always connected, but somehow alone.” These words establish that meaning is the object of the protagonist’s search and that a fog of empty, virtual relationships obscures his goal. Then, a malevolent digital clone of the protagonist stops him in his path. “Trapped by illusion,” the narrator continues, as the clone offers our protagonist virtual distractions and a menacing look. Shouting, the young man lunges through the hologram clone and falls into the mud at Marine Corps boot camp. “We offer another path where the battle to belong begins.” As the music swells and the protagonist completes the grueling training, the voice continues, “Awakened by a calling, united by purpose, defined by the cause you fight for. No one can ever take away what it means to be among the few, the proud, the Marines.”
This commercial defies expectation in two significant ways. First, it fully acknowledges America’s social decline, and presents the Marines as a way out of that decline. Other advertisements, on the other hand, tend to suggest protection of the homeland as the compelling reason for enlisting. Instead, this Marine Corps commercial presents contemporary American life as culturally indistinct, gray, and alienating. Service offers an escape from home, not a fight to defend it.
Second, and relatedly, its argument for joining the military makes no explicit reference to the official Marine Corps mission—“the protection of our Nation and the advancement of its ideals.” Instead, the Marine Corps is attractive because it provides a purpose at all. Its uses words like “path,” “calling,” “purpose,” and “cause,” but it leaves the specific goal undefined, an afterthought. The incentive to join the Marine Corps is not to serve or accomplish an end, but to merely belong.
The case the ad makes for joining the Marines is brilliant: it presents fundamental human needs, purpose and belonging, both of which are currently unfulfilled. It offers respite to potential recruits who feel desperately lonely and purposeless, not only because COVID restrictions abolished their everyday work and social lives, but also because the Internet encourages the cultivation of a shallow and harmful parallel identity. The Marine Corps obviously understands the corrosive effects of digital media. The young man’s hologram version of himself is clearly a threat to his well-being.
Yet the ad’s unwillingness to define military service in patriotic instead of purely psychological terms leaves undesirable possibilities open. If the purpose of service is to pursue a feeling of belonging, who cares what the purported aim of it is? Is the current population of recruits unable to grasp the moral value of the mission? Do they find it unworthy?
If the 2020 Marine Corps ad can be faulted for mild banality, the Army’s YouTube ad, “Emma: The Calling”, shamelessly presents the Army as one among many morally equivalent paths for self-fulfillment. The ad has many millions more views than “Battle to Belong,” despite being released almost a year later. But its reception was so poor the Army turned off the video’s comment section. Even Senator Ted Cruz responded, saying “Holy crap. Perhaps a woke, emasculated military is not the best idea. . .”
“The Calling” depicts a real soldier, Cpl. Emma Malonelord, who works with the Patriot Missile Defense System. Despite the gravity of Malonelord’s occupation, the ad employs colorful, visually inoffensive, and almost playful cartoons. Malonelord’s narration heightens this discordance:
“It begins in California, with a little girl raised by two moms. Although I had a fairly typical childhood … I also marched for equality. I like to think I’ve been defending freedom from an early age.” After describing one of her mothers’ arduous recovery from paralysis and her parents’ wedding, she tells us that she graduated top of her class from high school and joined other “strong women” at her UC Davis sorority. She continues:
But as graduation approached, I began feeling I had been handed so much in life—a sorority girl stereotype. Sure, I had spent my life around inspiring women, but what had I really achieved on my own . . . I needed my own adventures, my own challenge. And after meeting with an Army recruiter, I found it. A way to prove my inner strength, and maybe shatter some stereotypes along the way.
The Army ad pitches two ideas in ways that may have the reverse effect of that intended. First and more laudably, “The Calling” posits that one should join the Army to defend equality and freedom. But in presenting gay marriage as the paramount manifestations of these principles, the commercial immediately alienates potential recruits with traditional values or reasonable ethical concerns.
Its second and far less commendable assertion is that one should join the Army to prove oneself a strong woman. This argument begins hopefully enough with the phrase “I had been handed so much in life.” A generous interpretation of Malonelord’s statement is that it’s an expression of gratitude to America and her desire to give back. But it becomes clear that this isn’t what Malonelord means: she goes on to compare her dearth of accomplishments at graduation to the activities of her fellow sorority sisters, who, she reports, climbed Everest and studied abroad in Italy. It’s as though her friends’ expensive (if challenging) personal experiences and her military service are all morally equivalent activities on the path to finding themselves.
To Malonelord, and by extension, to the Army, service is an avenue to “shatter stereotypes,” flex one’s personal capabilities, and compare favorably to others, rather than a morally resonant act of personal sacrifice to serve one’s nation. This attention-seeking outlook recalls the online narcissism that “Battle to Belong” so incisively rejects.
Contemporary recruitment messaging is troubling. America’s military must draw on cultural reservoirs that prize self-sacrifice and the honor due to country. After all, The Oath of Enlistment speaks of bearing faith and allegiance, recognizes a higher power, and insists on selfless service to the Constitution against her enemies. All recruitment efforts must ultimately attempt to persuade young Americans to take this oath at possible risk of life and limb, and the near-certain prospect of fear, physical strain, boredom, and homesickness.
Of course, people join the military for a variety of reasons and serve honorably once they join. The opportunities to improve oneself, through access to education and medical benefits, to escape poverty, and to file for naturalization are among the multitude of incentives service members pursue. Every American owes a debt of gratitude to all service members, whatever their initial incentives for joining.
Yet low recruitment rates and these commercials’ reluctance to mention the stated purpose of the military suggest that the reservoir of virtues on which voluntary service depends is running dry. A nation that is habitually excoriated by its political and intellectual leaders for such things as “perpetuating the unbearable human cost of systemic racism”, demonstrating “arrogance” in foreign affairs, wrongfully occupying ancestral land, and failing to address “the destructive nature of a system that is fueled by uncontrolled greed” (capitalism), while hesitating to celebrate its contributions to humanity, will inevitably struggle to rouse a genuine sense of duty from its youth.
To succeed at drawing in recruits, the military doesn’t necessarily need to make the oath’s normative content its central message, as it once did. The Marine Corps’s focus on the foundational human need for belonging is effective because it describes the transcendent value of character and self-sacrifice and carefully avoids the true yet controversial claim that America and its principles are their worthy beneficiaries.
Nonetheless, it’s alarming that the military must resort to generic appeals to meaning and belonging in order to recruit successfully. America’s national security is contingent on an all-volunteer force. While some may find the Marine Corps’s call to belong compelling, this draw will not sustain the personnel needs of the entire armed services; after all, all kinds of careers, activities, and communities can give people the same sense of fulfillment. Recruiters rely on Americans who believe in the moral preeminence of the United States and its constitutional principles. Our institutions—especially schools—must instill and embrace these truths: America’s national security cannot wait.
Help us improve Public Discourse! Please complete our Reader Survey 2023.