These last few months, conservative and populist thinkers have been grappling with one of the more serious questions of our time. Exactly why are increasing numbers of men seemingly lost in American society? Why do these men disproportionately die deaths of despair? Why does there seem to be a declining number of marriageable men in the ranks of America’s working class?
To answer these questions, we’ve focused on culture (How is our society teaching men to behave? Is there a war on traditional masculinity?) and on economics, paying specific attention to the effects of trade and technology on the mostly male manufacturing sector.
In so doing, however, we’ve paid short shrift to a cultural and economic change whose ripple effects may be even more profound than the loss of American manufacturing jobs. This change has created a cumulative, millions-strong decline in jobs that are proven not just to provide men with meaning and purpose while on the job but also to (typically) positively reshape the trajectory of their lives ever after.
I’m talking about the decades-long decline in the size of the American military — a decline both in absolute numbers and as a percentage of the American population. As the U.S. population has grown, the American military has become smaller and more female. Over the decades, this adds up to millions of young men (especially working-class young men) who do not have that distinct military experience, who are not tested and shaped by military training, and who do not begin their professional lives with discipline and distinct purpose.
Let’s back up 33 years, to 1986 — the year I took the ASVAB, the military’s aptitude test. The American population was roughly 240 million people, and more than 2 million Americans (overwhelmingly men) served in the active-duty armed forces. Now the population is roughly 330 million. The active-duty strength of the military is less than 1.3 million, and a much larger percentage of that force is female. At a time when the American population grew by close to 40 percent, the military shrank by almost the same percentage.
To be clear, that is not the same thing as saying the military declined. Given immense technological advances and the training benefits of actual combat experience, today’s military is almost certainly more lethal than the military that guarded the Fulda Gap at the height of the Cold War. And unlike at the height of the Cold War, when it was an open question as to whether the U.S. was stronger than the Soviet Union, today there is no doubt that the American military is the mightiest on the planet.
But while the military is stronger, American men have been deprived — by the millions — of a life-changing experience with multi-generational positive effects. Have you ever talked to an old Marine? No, I’m not necessarily talking about a person who served 20 or more years and retired from service. I’m talking about a person who perhaps just served through their initial enlistment — maybe four years out of their 70. Almost without fail they’ll look back at that time as formative. It provided them with an identity and proved to them that they could pass the most serious tests of endurance and perseverance. Yes, there are veterans who struggle, but there are millions more who used their service as a launching pad — not just for their own careers, but also for their families, instilling discipline and a respect for sacrifice in the generations to come.
Simply put, when it comes to weighing life-changing, purpose-creating professional opportunities, boot camp is far, far more influential than a factory assembly line.
But to point to this problem is not necessarily to point to any obvious solution. I’m not calling for a larger military simply to provide more young men with greater purpose. The reason is simple — the positive transformation of young men is a side effect of achieving the military’s primary role, the defense of the American nation. Members of the military achieve such tight bonds and feel a sense of purpose because the mission they train for is very real. The purpose is outside themselves.
If you alter or expand the fundamental mission of the military — larding it up for a social and not military purpose — you will lose the essence of the experience. Sending a person to boot camp to become a better man is an old American tradition, but he becomes a better man not simply because of the process but because of the mission. He understands the necessity of bonding with his brothers, the necessity of physical deprivation, and the necessity of personal risk. Remove that necessity, and you remove the purpose.
That’s one reason why “moral equivalent of war” programs so rarely work to provide a mass-scale sense of shared purpose or a mass-scale commitment to selfless service. There is no “equivalent to war,” moral or otherwise, and it’s largely an exercise in futility if one tries to re-create the positive effects of military training without re-creating the reason for that training.
So, if we can’t and shouldn’t try to reverse the effects of a shrinking military by artificially growing the armed forces, why bring this up at all? For two reasons. First, while growing the military at-scale isn’t the right solution, it is still an individual option for any given American young man. There is still a need for young men to step up. Last year the Army missed its growth goals, for example. Military service (especially outside military communities and military families) has become so rare that many young men don’t even consider enlisting as they struggle to find their place in this world. They should open their minds.
Second, the cultural effects of the decline in service (and the technological reality that we need fewer troops even as the military becomes more lethal) should remind us that it’s just wrong to look at the plight of all too many American men and point to this or that “elite” or to elevate any given policy as fundamental to our nation’s tectonic cultural change. For weeks, the American Right has argued about trade — and it’s largely ignored military transformations that may well be even more important to shaping our national character.
Why are American men losing their sense of purpose? For many reasons, and one of them is the relative loss of an experience that is as ancient as civilization itself — the experience of a shared bond of sacrifice with men who train to risk their lives to defend the nations and communities they love.
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