Young Americans are fed up with the idea of military service, question US foreign policy
Published: Jul 02, 2024 07:41 PM
Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

The old saying "people will vote with their feet" is again being heard in the US. The phrase simply means that people who are not happy with something will walk away from it. The "it" in this case refers to joining the military.

Congress, keenly aware that America's military machine cannot sustain US hegemony because of the declining number of men and women in uniform, believes it might have a solution: Requiring women to register for the draft. 

Most American men are legally obligated to register with Selective Service when they turn 18. This does not include mandatory military service, but it does allow for the government to recruit men between ages 18 and 25 in case of a national emergency. To date, women have never had to register with Selective Service.

As Congress debates whether to extend Selective Service obligations, it is dealing with liberal and conservative opposition voices. As one news organization recently noted, the left is opposed to the registration process while the right is uncomfortable with the idea of more women potentially entering the military. (In 2022, there were an estimated 229,000 women in the armed forces, representing roughly 17.5 percent of active duty personnel.)

Why should women be added to Selective Service? An increasing number of young Americans neither respect nor want to be part of the military. 
A couple of data points explain the situation well.

The Department of Defense's monthly strength summary report for April 2024 (the latest month for which data are available) show that 1,260,431 men and women were on active duty in the US armed forces over that 30-day period. The previous year, in April 2023, that figure had was 1,292,577. In other words, in those 12 months the Department of Defense lost roughly 32,000 people, an average of more than 2,600 per month.  

America's youth are fed up with the idea of military service, and are unhappy with US foreign policy. The respected Chicago Council on Global Affairs reported in 2023 that "the youngest two generations of Americans - Millennials and Generation Z - are most likely to question US global engagement at a policy level and are especially hesitant to endorse a foreign policy dominated by military approaches." (The Millennials group comprises those born between 1981 and 1996. Gen Z includes those born between 1997 and 2012.)

Put rather bluntly, they are not interested in fighting (or dying) in a military conflict because the phrase "national security threat" - the words always used by presidents to justify sending troops somewhere around the globe - is not believed. They grew into their teenage years and young adulthood watching the disastrous military engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those adventures cost between $4 and $6 trillion, caused the deaths of an estimated 7,000 American soldiers and led to many veterans to question the purpose of the conflicts. They saw the faces of distraught Iraqi and Afghani fathers and mothers who had lost their children to war and they were repulsed. They recognized that the military beast was more likely to be fed by non-whites and the poor and they were angry. When they asked why money spent on war could not instead be spent on domestic challenges, they received no response. The Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft summarized the situation quite well: "(Millennials and Gen Z) do not view their country as a world leader to the same degree as older generations."  

It is possible that someone reading this will conclude that America's two youngest generations are selfish. Wrong. According to one estimate, two out of every three members of Gen Z and roughly six in 10 Millennials offer their time and talents to their communities. Gen Z's interests tend to gravitate toward the environment and education, while Millennials seek opportunities in civil rights and discrimination, and education.

Therefore, as it discusses making Selective Service registration for women mandatory, Congress is seeking to put a band-aid on a serious and deep wound. The cold, hard truth is that unless and until the President of the United States, Congress and America's top military officials can - dare I say - make the military great again in the eyes of America's young adults, the challenges associated with recruiting and retaining men and women in uniform will continue. More ominously, if those young adults maintain the belief that America's foreign policy is off track and still committed to hegemony, then they will see no reason to support military adventures here, there and everywhere. 

The author is an associate professor at the Department of Communication and Organizational Leadership at Robert Morris University. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn