Leo Morris: The military trust gap

After a year and a half of trying to balance full-time college with full-time work, I had had enough and quit Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.

That made me eligible for the military draft, a true government-induced hardship, all you college-loan whiners. But I had a plan to thwart the draft board.

“You cannot have two years of my life,” I thought triumphantly as I headed for the recruiting office. “I will enlist for three years.”

Not too bright.

Do you see what I just did there? It’s called humble bragging, the art of seeming to make a self-deprecating remark while in reality extolling one’s own virtue.

It’s a little trick I learned in the Army during those three years as I tried to juggle two equally compelling needs.

In school, I had shared the desire of all students to fit in with the group, which meant not straying too far from the norms of my peers. We all tended to dress alike, sound alike, behave alike. But it was a collegial collectivism, and individual eccentricities were tolerated, even celebrated, up to a point.

In the Army, I was suddenly confronted with rigidly enforced conformity to the group, no deviation allowed. It is central to the military culture, after all, that the team and the mission always come before personal needs and wants. The self is broken down and reassembled as one part of a coherent unit that obeys all orders immediately and without question.

Which makes individual eccentricities difficult to maintain and impossible to exhibit.

So, we hardy band of warriors found a way follow the creed, but in a passive-aggressive way.

Never volunteer for anything. Look busy while doing absolutely nothing (more art than science). Always take the opportunity to complain among ourselves about the stupidity of the latest orders and the lack of intelligence of those giving them. Deliberately violate the dress code in such an obvious way that two or three other violations will be overlooked.

Of course, our officers knew all this and undoubtedly even fostered our quiet rebellions as a way to maintain unit cohesion. Nothing fosters camaraderie – the urge to always do your best for your fellow soldiers and have their backs as you know they will have theirs – as sharing a common misery.

Maintaining that delicate balance between autonomy and interdependence is the best thing I learned in the Army, because getting the mix right is the only way to find true loyalty, the kind that admits to a shared purpose but also a respect for the individual’s worth.

It’s the kind of loyalty the citizens of a country should have, and it strikes me that America might be the toughest country in the world in which to find the right mix. We are the ones who project a collective vision to the world of a free and forward-looking people but insist on the fundamental rights of each individual. We have always threaded our way between selfishness and selflessness, not entirely at ease with either.

I wonder where people absorb that lesson today, if indeed many do.

Certainly not as many learn it in the military as they used to.

A local TV station just did a story on the Army’s Indiana recruitment woes. There are apparently about 120,000 individuals between the ages of 17 and 24 eligible for enlistment in the Fort Wayne area. Last year, only about 170 went into the Army. And it looks as if it will be lucky to enlist 120 this year.

All military branches are struggling with recruitment goals, but the Army most of all. With just a few weeks left in the fiscal year, it has reached only about 52 percent of its goal and will likely end up as many as 15,000 recruits short.

Some observers point to quality of the talent pool as the main problem. The Army chief of staff has testified before Congress that only 23 percent of age-appropriate candidates are eligible to serve, the rest failing to qualify because of obesity, drug use or criminal records. Of those eligible, only 9 percent have any interest in the military at all, a majority saying they fear emotional, psychological or physical problems if they join.

Some point to the armed forces themselves as the problem. The small percentage of those most inclined to serve are moved by the sort of traditional values associated with soldiering. How many really want to go into a woke military that preaches critical race theory and lectures recruits on the proper use of pronouns for the transgendered?

Recruiters are getting desperate. Signup bonuses of up to $50,000 are being offered to tempt those eager to join the civilian job force. The rule against visible tattoos is being lifted. The idea of waiving the requirement for a high school diploma is being toyed with. The Army even has a pilot program to offer remedial camps to tackle recruits’ physical problems and educational deficiencies before they even get to basic training, sort of a military pre-K.

I wish them well, I really do, but I have my doubts. Who will convince these young people that the military is worth considering? Among the target age range for recruits, only 13 percent have a parent who served in the military, down from 40 percent in 1995. Fifty years ago, more than 70 percent of members of Congress had served in the military, but now it’s down to about 17 to 18 percent, according to former Lt. Col. Alan West. And we’ve long since stopped expecting our presidents to have served.

We have always undervalued the military in between armed conflicts, and that is probably natural – a suspicion of a large standing army was part of our founding. But today we have a dangerous indifference to the military bordering on contempt.

I don’t know if anyone can unlock the secret to making the military more desirable or trusted or reigniting the young’s interest in the military. But certainly it is dangerous for there to be such a wide gulf between those who live under the protection of the Constitution and those who pledge to defend it.

In my humble opinion.

Leo Morris, columnist for Indiana Policy Review, is winner of the Hoosier State Press Association’s award for best editorial writer. Morris, as opinion editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, was named a finalist in editorial writing by the Pulitzer Prize committee. Contact him at [email protected] Send comments to [email protected]