Unready, Unwilling and Unable: The Sad State of America’s Millennial Readiness and Culture

U.S. Army Capt. James Davis, 3-2 ADA, administers the re-enlistment oath to Staff Sgt. Matthew Garrett and Sgt. Phillip Saunier during a recent ceremony in Turkey. The 3-2 ADA Battalion has been supporting the NATO mission to provide air defense capabilities against external missile threats. (U.S. Army photo by 1st Sgt. Kevin McConkey)

As the weary and worn military of the United States breathes a heavy collective sigh in anticipation of yet another meaningless “forever war” in the Middle East, it may come as a surprise just how many people of the current generation support it and even more surprising- how few are actually ready, willing or able to do so.

While a Harvard survey shows that 60 percent of American Millennials support sending troops to fight the Islamic State, less than 16 percent are actually willing to step up and “do their part” if the nation required it. At the same time, the Department of Defense states that approximately 71-75 percent of the 34 million military-aged Millennials in the country are unfit to serve by current standards.

As a veteran of the Iraq “Surge”, I am no stranger to relaxed standards to meet numbers. During the period following the post-invasion unrest, the US Military pretty much let anyone in to fill the dwindling ranks in preparation for the massive inpour of troops into Iraq and Afghanistan. Criminal record? No problem, homie. Tattoos on the neck? Sign right up, son. Dumb as a rock? Draw “X” on paper, get bonus. While many of these normally overlooked individuals helped bolster the ranks of the existing military, there was hardly a dent- the running number of volunteers for the US Military still accounts to less than one percent of the US population.

Less than one percent! In World War II, roughly 20% of the population served. Vietnam saw nearly 10% and most civilians were fit for the draft. In the current world’s most powerful and over-taxed fighting force, only 1% of its nation’s population currently serves to do the bidding of the people and their representatives (as well as “interests”).

So what changed? Why, in a time where US troops seem to be thinly stretched all over the globe, is the number of active troops and ready recruits so low? Well, for starters…

Young men burn their draft cards in New York City on April 15, 1967, at Sheep Meadow, Central Park
Young men burn their draft cards in New York City on April 15, 1967, at Sheep Meadow, Central Park

The Draft: In wars like World War II and Vietnam, the draft was activated at some point. During the draft, large numbers of military-aged males would be selected for activation and required to serve their country in time of need. While some refused to go, found a way to stay out of harm’s war or got deferments (a few of them even becoming Presidents), most people who were called did their duty until release or death. Sure, people protested- it is their right to do so when it is their hide at stake for a cause they don’t necessarily support.

After Vietnam, the military transformed to the “volunteer force” as we know it today. This accounts for fewer people in the population who have to serve and therefore the numbers of current troops are much lower. While the draft has been criticized as unconstitutional and un-American, it is ironic that the more celebrated generations of our time, lauded for being tough and quick to throw on a uniform- may not have all been the “noble volunteers” we so reminiscently give them credit for. Noble, yes. Volunteers? Only a percentage.

Threat of Absolute Destruction/Clear Enemy: In World War I, we showed up fashionably late to the party to beat up Germans, liberate France and help our Allies. When World War II rolled around, we took on the Japanese in Asia and Axis forces in Europe after Pearl Harbor. There were food rations, tin cans were recycled to make equipment and entire sectors of industry were repurposed to build the world’s mightiest military powerhouse. The entire country was mobilized in some form.

When the Cold War came around, Korea and Vietnam came with it. Under Constant threat of nuclear annihilation by the Soviet Union, Americans were generally kept fit, prepared and above all, afraid of a slightly blurrier enemy- communism. While nowhere as clear as previous villains, the population still saw a need to be on the ball. Even for a large portion of Vietnam, people were supportive of the action.

Now comes the chapter concerning the infamous “War on Terror”. 1/3 knee-jerk response to a brutal attack by relatively unknown entities on the United States, 1/3 military-industrial complex venture and 1/3 experiment in nation-building, the current war has been going on for, I don’t know, fourteen years. Children born after 9/11 are nearly old enough to drive and roughly four years away from being able to vote, smoke and fight. Think about that for a minute. There are kids whose parents have been deployed on and off for nearly a decade and a half with the face of “the enemy” changing a few dozen times during that period. Taliban, Saddam Hussein, Fedayeen, JAM, AQI, IS, ISIS, ISIL, you name it- we’ve been at constant wars in places most kids can’t identify on a map with people they can’t even remember the names of. All they know is that we have to “bomb the crap out of them” for “America” and “Freedom”.

With all that said, why should a kid who has spent most or all of his life under “wartime” conditions that only grind up a percent of the population care about readiness, politics or doing their part? They shouldn’t- and don’t- because:

Angry lady in american flag shirt

Patriotism is Cheap and Military Culture is Very, Very Small: Post 9/11, there was a small surge in enlistments and good fortune for whoever held stock in the manufacturers of US Flags. Loving America was cool and words like “Freedom” and “Patriot” became nauseatingly overused (including the Patriot Act, one of the most anti-freedom political advances in American history). If you didn’t have an American flag on, you were a baby-eating, Dixie Chick-loving hippie (and if you were like me growing up overseas, an American flag shirt made you a target).

In other wars, people gave up their sons to the draft. When Afghanistan and Iraq kicked off, Americans realized they could circumvent this by slapping a yellow ribbon sticker on their suburban soccer-mom vans, giving them full clearance to completely ignore the war and continue life as usual, occasionally wondering why gas was $5.00 a gallon.

Americans didn’t have to care like in other wars- there was always the next season of The Bachelor or American Idol to keep them busy. War was “icky” and unpopular- the population deemed that they “supported the troops but oppose war”, yet did nothing significant to bring it to an end. Nobody knows who the hell Jared Monti and Paul R. Smith are, but we love us some Kobe Bryant and Kim Kardashian.

America has become as meaningless as name-brand packaging of sorts- we desperately cling to our branding, slogans and logos- consuming a product regardless of whether or not it is actually any good and aggressively challenging anyone who doesn’t agree, regardless of whether or not we actually have any role in making the product. People will support iPhone even if the battery lasts ten minutes, the flat-billed hat is here to stay despite being the dumbest piece of headgear in recent years and America is number one because we kicked major tail in Iraqistan or like, you know, wherever that place was that that one guy from our graduating class died in. I don’t know.

When America wants to “fix problems”, they now do it with hashtags and expect that sub-percent to do the heavy lifting, which is a good thing because…

Most American Kids Are Too Fat, Stupid or Medicated to Serve (Not That They Want To):        

Ah, there’s the rub- even if American Millennials wanted to fight, they couldn’t even muster over a quarter of their respective population into ranks. Over 7/10 American fighting-aged 17-24 are unfit for service by way of failing to meet weight, fitness, background, medical or education standards.

Wait, education standards? Yes, contrary to what parents in the 90’s told us, it is actually harder to get into the military than it is to get into college. Have enough digits in the bank and a state school will take you- you won’t be as easily inducted into military ranks. Even when the military was desperate, they were picky.

On top of that, the American population has no interest in getting in shape or gearing up for combat. In a way, you can’t blame them -war sucks, the US has a tendency to jab its nose in everyone’s affairs and nobody wants to die for dubious reasons- but when you support going to war, you won’t sling lead beyond the controller of your PS4? That is being the worst kind of hypocrite in the worst kind of way.

Despite being one of the “elite” few, the percent of a percent, sometimes it just all seems rather pointless. The Republic has decayed to irreparable levels of self-destruction, society communicates in 140 characters or less and everyone demands “their share”, despite putting nothing in themselves. In a society where the military lifestyle is rewarded with years away from families fighting vague proxy-wars, a lifetime of physical pain for the lucky, a draped flag for the less fortunate, dead friends, cheap nylon ribbons, joblessness, leery-eyed civilians waiting for a veteran to commit a mass shooting, a healthcare system that seemingly tries to kill you and a chance at getting an arguably-useful/useless diploma that is in no way worth the four years of headache it took to acquire, maybe the kids are on to something. Or not.

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  • Andy Wolf

    Andy Wolf is an Appalachian native who spent much of his youth and young adulthood overseas in search of combat, riches, and adventure- accruing decades of experience in military, corporate, first responder, journalistic and advisory roles. He resides in North Carolina's Blue Ridge Mountains with his K9 companion, Kiki.

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