June 21, 2024
With each generation the military has adjusted the means and methods of recruitment to appeal to the changing sensibilities of the target audience. But what if appealing to the greatest number of potential recruits has had the adverse effect of excluding the most desirable? Leah Foodman and Kevin Shinnick fear that the U.S. Army has created an identity crisis with its recent recruiting campaigns. They argue that it's time to get back to the traditional values of service, adventure, and growth. And if properly communicated a diverse demographic of new soldiers will step forward with the desire to be extraordinary for their nation.

In order to solve its recruiting crisis—and safeguard national security—the Army must reclaim its identity in the eyes of the American public

Americans are still joining the military, just not the Army. Although obesity and substance abuse rates disqualify 77% of young Americans from service (a six-percentage point increase since 2017), the other services are still meeting their recruitment goals. In Fiscal Year 2022, the Marine Corps, Air Force, Space Force, and Navy each met 100% of their active-duty recruiting goal. Meanwhile, the Army fell short by a staggering 25% in both 2022 and 2023.  The Army’s failure is therefore not an issue of ineligibility, but of identity: By advertising soldiering as a nine-to-five job with benefits, the Army has distanced itself from traditional calls to service, adventure, and growth.

In order to solve its recruiting crisis—and safeguard national security—the Army must reclaim its identity in the eyes of the American public by (1) maintaining a high standard of excellence in recruiting and operations to attract qualified candidates, and (2) gearing advertisements toward those intrinsically inspired by service, camaraderie, and challenge. The Army must not lose sight of its mission: to fight and win our nation’s wars. Rather than brand the Army as a common path for anyone to follow, we must market— and embody—the uncommon path for those striving to be extraordinary.

High Standards Proliferate, Even Among GenZ

Conventional wisdom might suggest that the Army should “get with the times,” but rather than sway with the cultural winds, the Army must remain vigilant in protecting and projecting the traditional image of the American soldier. The Army must breed disciplined, capable, and intelligent servant leaders. Calls to lower standards to appeal to GenZ might bring in more recruits in the short term, but would also signal desperation, degrade the overall quality of the force, and turn motivated citizens towards other branches. The Army must safeguard against and deter preventable, premature separations from the service by maintaining and upholding fitness standards among new recruits. Basic trainees who are incapable of completing their training place undue strain on units, occupy resources unnecessarily, and render enlistment bonuses wasteful.

Older generations and social media often characterize GenZ as individualistic, self-absorbed, emotionally fragile, and hesitant to assume adult responsibilities—traits counterproductive to the military profession. However, members of GenZ are still joining and succeeding in the Army, albeit in smaller numbers. Rather than granting waivers and adjusting prerequisites for enlistment, the Army should focus on attracting the 23% of GenZ who are eligible to serve by emphasizing their qualities and motivations in the recruiting process. What separates those from GenZ who volunteer and those who don’t? What can the Army do to better resonate with those who are fit to serve but choose not to? 

To best assess these qualities and tailor recruiting efforts, the Army Enterprise Marketing Office (AEMO) should conduct research that follows recruits from initial enlistment to their first assignment. This effort should strive to understand personal attributes in the context of enlistment decision-making and performance evaluations. Are high-performing soldiers motivated by similar goals? Do they possess similar qualities? These data points would allow the Army to identify the subset of GenZ joining the Army, and further discern the smaller subset of those succeeding. This information would provide valuable insight for recruiters striving to target the top-notch prospects.

The Army must also bear in mind that the best recruiter is the American soldier. Disciplined, professional soldiers serve as excellent examples and spokespeople for the Army without even trying. High-caliber soldiers surrounded by equally capable peers will be fulfilled, and more likely to convince other strong candidates to join. Likewise, less-than-impressive soldiers are not likely to inspire high-achieving young Americans to join the Army. Quality must not be compromised in favor of quantity, and quality breeds quantity in the long run. These principles must be reinforced in advertising campaigns. 

While social media is an effective tool to reach a large audience, Army media managers should safeguard our identity as a professional, standards-driven organization to attract high quality, intrinsically motivated candidates.

Mission-Focused, Values-Driven Advertising

The Army must attract individuals who are passionate about the mission and inclined to use their skillset to contribute to it. A recent Army advertisement included testimony from soldiers in various career fields, including aviators, canine handlers, and unmanned aerial systems operators, but failed to explicitly show how these personnel enable warfighting. Meanwhile, a recent Marine Corps ad featured a compelling call to service and many of the same career specialties in action, highlighting values like service and patriotism and demonstrating a story of national defense. For example, rather than film a soldier standing next to a military working dog, the Army should depict a story of the handler and canine identifying a roadside bomb, alerting the team, and saving countless lives. This type of teamwork in the context of a critical, life-or-death mission is central to the military profession, and conveys a far more compelling narrative to attract strong prospective Army recruits.

In order to captivate these types of candidates, the Army must also reflect strong values in its media presence. While social media is an effective tool to reach a large audience, Army media managers should safeguard our identity as a professional, standards-driven organization to attract high quality, intrinsically motivated candidates. Satirical or comedic social media content that appeals to the majority of GenZ might in fact drive off the exact type of recruit we need and redirect them toward a branch that still produces traditional advertisements, like “the Few, the Proud, the Marines.”

The Army should instead release a rolling series of ads featuring its most unique aspects, including time-honored units, training opportunities, and multinational exercises. The series would not only highlight the wide array of opportunities that the Army has to offer, but provide potential enlistees with goals and a sense of mythos for storied units. Lastly, the vignettes would instill a sense of pride and increase morale for the soldiers currently serving in the featured organizations or roles. This series would serve as an evolution of the successful “Warriors Wanted” campaign launched in 2019 after the Army fell short of its recruiting goal in 2018. The “Warriors Wanted” effort enabled recovery from a failed string of advertisements that senior leaders felt portrayed too many “guys in lab coats.” Refocusing on more traditional messaging drastically shifted the tone toward showcasing the most compelling and unique aspects of Army life, and resulted in an achieved recruiting goal the same year. 

In the same way, the Army should change the way it presents its economic benefits: Instead of emphasizing immediate payouts or overlaying the text “50K” on a photo of an Abrams tank, the Army should show how serving our country can increase recruits’ social mobility, open the door to better opportunities, and give a better life to their families. Many large employers such as Buc-ee’s offer strikingly similar benefits packages and bonuses as the Army, without the immense personal sacrifices required of military service members. But few private-sector jobs offer the Army’s opportunity to simultaneously support a family while serving your fellow citizens, performing meaningful work, and developing into a respected leader. These intangible, principle-based benefits are far more compelling than monetary prizes and will recruit the type of Soldier that we would be proud to serve alongside.

Tactical and technological advancements render the future of warfare deadlier and more catastrophic than recent historical conflicts. Modernization will not make the next war quick and short, nor will it replace the need for soldiers on the ground. In order to maintain our global image, build institutional trust, and provide a combat capable force, the Army must broadcast standards of excellence, strong values, and patriotic unity. A re-commitment to these traditional Army values will attract soldiers of all backgrounds and demographics unified by a common goal: the desire to be extraordinary for their nation.

Leah Foodman is an active-duty Armor officer and a United States Military Academy graduate. Her work has previously been published in the Journal of Strategic Security and Modern War Institute.

Kevin Shinnick is an active-duty Infantry officer with experience leading Stryker and Ranger formations. He enlisted in the Army in 2011 and graduated from the United States Military Academy in 2020. His work has previously been published at the Modern War Institute and Center for Junior Officers

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Armor School, the U.S. Army War College, the U.S. Army, or the Department of Defense.

Photo Description: Basic Combat Training, also known as “boot camp,” is the process in transforming civilian volunteers into Soldiers. Over 10 weeks, trainees will go through four phases that cover Army core values, physical training, first aid, hand grenades, obstacle course, basic rifle marksmanship, navigation, and three separate field exercises. Basic training produces Soldiers that are disciplined, resilient, physically fit and competent in their basic skills who can successfully contribute as members of a team when they arrive at their first unit of assignment.

Photo Credit: U.S. Army photo by Robin Hicks

6 thoughts on “BE ALL WE CAN BE: RECLAIMING THE ARMY IDENTITY

  1. This article is well-written, but misses the crux of the recruiting crisis and is factually flawed. First, the claim that the other services are making their targets is false. The Air Force fell short of its FY23 goal by 10% while the Navy fell short by 20% (and that discounted t the fact that the Army requires more recruits than the AF and Navy combined). Secondly, recruiters do target top prospects, as most 18-24 year olds, but top prospects rarely have interest. Thirdly, while the Army would benefit from a refocus on traditional Army values, this would do little to solve the crisis as most Gen-Z Americans have little to know understanding about what the Army is or what it does. To truly understand the extreme opposition to military service, one must spend a day with a Recruiting NCO visiting high schools, attending college career fairs, and making cold calls to high school seniors.

  2. As an officer in the recruiting field now this article misses the mark. Recruiting efforts are stymied by schools systems that are failing our youth and rendering them incapable of passing entry level tests as well as strict unwavering medical guidelines. It is easier for someone with a criminal history to join the army then someone with adhd. If anything we try too hard to recruit those “called to service” and are failing to recognize that those people have better options and opportunities joining their local fire or law department. The army has a retention problem and that has led to a recruiting problem.

  3. If Gen Z sees the U.S. as moving more towards becoming a “market state” — and thus, sees the U.S. as moving away from being a “nation state” — then might this help to explain why the Services might be having problems recruiting Gen Z?

    As to this such question, consider the following from Sir Michael Howard; this, re: his review of Philip Bobbitt’s book “Shield of Achilles: War, Peace and the Course of History:”

    “Sir Michael offered additional thoughts on the nature of the nation state. He pointed out that the nation state is not simply a provider of protection and services. The nation state offers something far deeper and more profound. A sense of emotional loyalty holds it together, a loyalty that is necessary to persuade people to die for it, said Sir Michael. He questioned whether the market state could generate such loyalty.” (See the last paragraph the article “The Shield of Achilles” by Donna Urschel, in The Library of Congress Information Bulletin June 2003.)

    1. Given my reference to (now Sir) Philip Bobbitt’s book “The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace and the Course of History,” let us see what Sir Bobbitt said, therein, as to these such matters:

      “In either case, the market-state’s essential indifference to culture poses some difficulties for the operation of the State. Foremost among these is the fact that it will be much harder to get the publics of such states to risk their lives and fortunes on behalf of a state that is no longer the champion of their cultural values. The sense of a single polity, held together by adherence to fundamental values, is not a sense that is cultivated by the market-state. This cultural indifference does, however, make the market-state an ideal environment for multiculturalism.” (In Part III: “The Historic Consequences of the Long War,” Chapter Ten: “The Market-State,” and the major subsection therein entitled “The Emergence of the Market-State” — at Page 230 of my paperback edition of Sir Phillip Bobbitt’s “The Shield of Achilles … ” book.)

      Thus, if you choose (as in the past?) such things as nationalism, the nation-state, assimilation, etc., then you are more likely to see adequate recruitment for your military services?

      However, if you choose (as in the present?) such things as internationalism, multiculturalism, the market-state, integration, etc., (Bobbitt says we really have no such choice, we must do this, due to economic competition?), then you must expect to experience some severe difficulties in achieving adequate recruitment?

      (Thus the author of our article above — and everyone else also — needing to take the matters discussed by Sir Philip Bobbitt and Sir Michael Howard above into serious consideration; this, as relates to his and our ideas as to how to improve recruitment?)

  4. I feel like this piece is well written and addresses a concern we often overlook when talking about our recruiting concerns. While I know there are issues with our revamped medical screening and the limited pool of people available to even join, the Army has shifted its recruiting messaging at least four times since I’ve been in. Adapting to the environment makes sense but doing so at the cost of our cultural identity has cost us dearly. Focusing on our call to defend the nation should be the basis for all we do and this article brings that to the forefront.

  5. I recall in 2000 the Army was facing a junior officer retention “crisis”. Similarly to today’s recruiting “crisis”, senior leaders were appropriately concerned and multiple task forces and tiger teams were formed to seek solutions.

    As with the authors of this article, Dr. Lenny Wong (Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College) published a monograph in which he identified generational differences between the then junior officers (GEN X) and the Army senior field-grade and general officers (Baby Boomers).

    Dr. Wong urged senior leaders to understand the generational differences and to adopt solutions that were informed by these differences.

    We are a generation (or two) removed from 2000, but a (generational) culturally informed approach is likely still warranted for the current ‘crisis’. While it may be possible to argue the particulars of the authors’ findings, their cultural approach seems sound.

    Dr. Wong’s work from 2000 is a useful (re)read as well:

    https://press.armywarcollege.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1841&context=monographs

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