By Other Means

No Army for Young Men

Soldiers these days need less muscle and more maturity, so why do we still focus on recruiting 18-year-olds?

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Military demographics change over time. Sixty-five years ago, the United States had a segregated military, but today people of every race, color, and creed train and fight side by side. Twenty-five years ago, women were excluded from half the occupational specialties in the Army and 80 percent of Marine Corps jobs; today, women can serve in all but a few combat-related occupational specialties. Just two years ago, gay and lesbian service members risked discharge; today, they can serve openly.

But there’s one thing that hasn’t changed much. Each year, the overwhelming majority of new military recruits are young and male. In that sense, the American military of 2012 still looks a great deal like the American military of the 1970s, the 1940s, the 1860s, or the 1770s. For that matter, it still looks a lot like virtually every group of warriors in virtually every society during virtually every period of human history.

It’s time to question the near-universal assumption that the ideal military recruit is young and male. The nature of warfare has changed dramatically in the last century and the capabilities most needed by the military are less and less likely to be in the exclusive possession of young males. In fact, the opposite may be true: when it comes to certain key skills and qualities likely to be vital to the military in the coming decades, young males may be one of the least well-suited demographic groups.

For most of human history, having an army full of young men made lots of sense. As soldiers, young males have had two things going for them, historically speaking. First, they’re usually stronger, on average, than any other demographic group: they can run fast and carry heavy loads. Second, they’re (relatively) biologically expendable from a species-survival perspective: women of child-bearing age are the limiting factor in population growth. A society can lose a lot of young men without a devastating impact on overall population growth.

Today, though, these characteristics don’t matter as much as they once did. Overall birthrates are much lower in modern societies than they were during earlier periods, but life expectancy is much longer. Early societies worried about sustaining their populations; today we worry less about ensuring population growth than about overburdening the planet’s load-bearing capacity.

Simple brawn also offers far less advantage in our high-tech age. In modern warfare, brutal hand-to-hand combat is no longer the norm, and warfare is no longer a matter of sending out wave after wave of troops to overwhelm the enemy through sheer mass. Increasingly, modern warfare involves a mixture of high-tech skills and low-tech cultural knowledge rather than "fighting" in the traditional sense.

In fact, if the next few decades are anything like the last, most military personnel will never see combat. A recent McKinsey study found that the "tooth to tail" ratio in the active duty U.S. military was roughly one to three in 2008: for every service member in a combat or combat-support position, there were more than three service members in non-combat-related positions. A 2010 Defense Business Board study found that 40 percent of active duty military personnel had never even been deployed — and that’s during a decade in which the United States was at war in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Being young, male, and strong offers no particular advantage to an Air Force remote drone pilot or an Army financial services technician. Even for service members in combat positions, the physical strength that young men are more likely to possess no longer offers as much of an advantage: today’s weapons are lighter and more portable than they used to be, and even the most impressive musculature is no match for an IED.

I don’t mean to suggest that the physical strength of soldiers has become militarily irrelevant. Sometimes, military personnel — particularly infantrymen — still find themselves doing things the old-fashioned way: hauling heavy equipment up a winding mountain trail, or slugging it out hand to hand during a raid. Specialized groups such as Navy SEALs will also continue to value strength and endurance, and that’s appropriate for their mission. But for increasing numbers of military personnel, the marginal benefits of sheer physical strength have plummeted relative to earlier eras — and this trend seems likely to continue.

Experts don’t agree on what the future of warfare will look like. Perhaps the age of counterinsurgency and stability operations isn’t over: perhaps, despite the best intentions of current leaders, the United States will have more Iraqs and Afghanistans. But even if we don’t — especially if we don’t — we’ll continue to want to leverage the capabilities of partners and allies. To do that, we’ll likely rely more and more heavily on the kind of skills honed by the Special Forces community: specifically, the ability to operate effectively in small groups in foreign cultures, keeping a low profile while working closely with host nation militaries.

Or perhaps the future of warfare will be high-tech. Perhaps we’ll increasingly have to grapple with cyberattacks, unmanned technologies such as robots and drones, or high-end asymmetric threats such as anti-access and area-denial technologies. And perhaps we’ll see all these things at the same time: the high end and the low end, all mixed together.

No one knows precisely what warfare will look like in the decades to come, but I’m pretty sure I know what it won’t look like. It won’t look like tanks sweeping across the plains of Eastern Europe. It won’t look like Gettysburg, and it won’t look like Homeric conflict outside the walls of Troy.

In other words, it won’t be the kind of conflict that relies on mass, or favors the brawny over the brainy. It won’t be the kind of conflict at which young males have traditionally excelled.

On the contrary. The skills the military is most likely to need  in the future are precisely the skills that American young people in general — and young males in particular — are most likely to lack. The U.S. military will need people with technical experience and scientific know-how. It will also need people with foreign language and regional expertise and an anthropological cast of mind — people who can operate comfortably and effectively surrounded by foreigners. And in the 24-7 media environment — the era of the strategic corporal — the military will, above all, need people with maturity and good judgment.

These, it hardly needs to be said, are not generally the qualities most closely associated with the 18-24 year-old male demographic. Don’t get me wrong: I’ve known many 18-24 year-old young men with terrific judgment and technical or cultural sophistication. But statistically, those thoughtful and sophisticated 18-24 year-old men are surrounded by a lot of not-so mature or sophisticated peers. (Ever spent time in a frat house?)

The statistics make for gloomy reading. As David Courtwright, author of Violent Land: Young Men and Social Disorder, puts it, young men seem to have "an affinity for trouble." They’re responsible for a disproportionate share of fatal auto accidents, for instance. Violent crime rates are higher among 18-24 year-old men than among any other demographic group, tapering off sharply after age 25 or so. 18-24 year-olds commit homicides at roughly twice the rate of 25-34 year-olds. Young males also commit an outsized percentage of property crimes, commit suicides at disproportionately high rates, and are disproportionately likely to have substance abuse problems.

Young men in the U.S. military aren’t immune from these statistical trends. Although the military conducts psychological testing on would-be recruits and screens people out based on a wide range of risk factors (prior felonies, lack of high school diploma, and so on), miscellaneous bad behavior is still far from unheard of among young service members. Ask a master sergeant or a battalion commander how much of their time goes into dealing with the assorted messes young people — especially young men — manage to get into, and they’ll tell you they see a seemingly unending parade of junior soldiers arrested for driving drunk, defaulting on loans, assault, shoplifting, domestic violence, and the like.

Don’t blame the boys: the fault lies not in their characters but in their neurological development. The parts of the brain responsible for impulse control and the ability to see consequences and evaluate risks seems to develop more slowly in males than in females. In males, the development in the prefrontal cortex — "the seat of sober second thought" — isn’t complete until age 25 or later.

Of course, there are plenty of young men out there who are responsible, mature, and intellectually sophisticated — and even the most immature young men generally grow up to become responsible, sober-minded citizens. But in the meantime, why do military recruiters continue to primarily target young males? As the world grows more complex — as the skills needed to ward off security threats become more subtle and varied — wouldn’t we do better to radically rethink military recruitment strategies?

If the military opened up more opportunities for service to older Americans — or simply devoted far more resources to recruiting women and men over 25 — we might find it far easier to turn the military into the agile, sophisticated machine we keep saying we want. Better still, why not reconsider the whole military career progression, creating more of a revolving door between the military and civilian world for people at all career stages — and particularly for those with critical skills, be they linguistic or scientific?

Transforming the military personnel system is a vital project, but one that will likely take decades. For now, we can start small. How about military recruitment booths at the AARP?

Rosa Brooks is a law professor at Georgetown University and a senior fellow with the New America/Arizona State University Future of War Project. She served as a counselor to the U.S. defense undersecretary for policy from 2009 to 2011 and previously served as a senior advisor at the U.S. State Department.

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