Christine Wormuth, United States Secretary of the Army, spoke at a Wednesday fireside chat hosted by the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy about the current state of civil-military relations and the challenges to the Army’s recruitment efforts.
The event, moderated by Peter Feaver, professor of political science and public policy and AGS director, was mostly attended by Reserve Officers' Training Corps members from Duke, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and North Carolina State University.
In her opening remarks, Wormuth identified the difficulties of sustaining an all-volunteer force due to a decline in military recruits.
The U.S. ended the conscription of its armed forces in 1973, relying instead on volunteer enlistment into the Army. Wormuth noted that this has contributed to a decline in military recruitment, as young people opt to attend college right out of high school instead of considering military service.
“For us, it is an existential challenge, particularly given the very dangerous security environment that we are facing,” she said. “We need to build back our end strengths so we can continue fulfilling our mission, and the only way we can do that is by recruiting significantly more young Americans to serve in uniform.”
She highlighted the Army’s need to modernize its recruiting methods by employing digital job tools and broadening the pool of potential recruits to include those with education or work experience after high school.
Wormuth noted that the Army has struggled to secure a workforce that is “self-selected, specialized and permanent” compared to private sector companies.
“We are still relying heavily on call lists and solicitations in places like fast food restaurants, gyms and shopping malls,” she said. “These methods may have worked for us when unemployment was high, but in today's extremely competitive labor market, they have put us at a distinct disadvantage.”
The erosion of trust in the Army
Wormuth attributes part of the reason why fewer young people are serving in the Army to the public’s declining trust in the military.
She discussed the trend of “truth decay,” in which getting an accurate picture of life in the Army has become more difficult due to increasingly blurred lines between fact and opinion. She believes that political polarization and the lack of civil discourse have also led to the perception that joining the Army is a last resort.
Wormuth argued that this characterization of those serving in the Army “could not be further from the truth.”
“[Army soldiers] are engineers, data scientists, cyber warriors and Olympic athletes. They are Army astronaut, Lt. Col. Frank Rubio, who just set the U.S. record for the longest spaceflight … They are Lloyd Austin, the first Black Secretary of Defense who graduated from West Point back in 1975,” she said. “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.”
Wormuth encouraged members of the audience to consider a professional path that serves the country, arguing that it provides young soldiers with the “resilience and leadership skills that they need to flourish in life.”
Other recruitment methods
When asked about possible cooperation with television and Hollywood to generate attention and recruitment opportunities, Wormuth responded that the Army would “love to find [its] ‘Top Gun’” but that the development of movies or television series takes a long time.
Wormuth feels that social media is a more feasible and effective alternative. Some recruiters for the military have utilized platforms such as Instagram and Linkedin to reach out to wider audiences and share stories about life in the Army.
Regarding the concern of sexual harassment for potential recruits, Wormuth explained that the Army has focused on preventative training such as the Sexual Harassment and Response Program to foster healthy relationships. Prosecution of sexual assault cases is also now delegated out of the Army’s chain of command to special trial counsels to reduce bias.
The Army has also worked to support young female recruits through its new 12-week paid parental leave policy. By allowing parents to take time off, the policy allows both men and women to balance a career in the military with supporting a family.
Wormuth pointed to some criticisms that the Army’s efforts at diversity and inclusion have diverted attention and resources from military training, deployment and mobilization. In her opinion, these criticisms are unfounded and arise from the hyper-partisan political climate. Instead, she urges policymakers to see the training firsthand.
“When I talked to members of Congress, for example, I tried to talk to them about what we're really focused on. I invite them to come and see us, whether it's at our installations around the country or to go see us downrange because I am confident that what they will see is the United States Army that is a ready army,” she said.
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