For the past several years now, a phalanx of defense officials and retired senior officers have been lamenting the dearth of people willing to serve in the U.S. military.
The problem is particularly acute for the Army, the largest of the U.S. forces, which fell short of its target by 25,000 recruits over the past two years. The situation is so grave that experts claim it imperils the all-volunteer force, an institution that has provided manpower for the American military for half a century.
Why does the Army, an organization that prides itself on achievement, fail at this fundamental task? Excuses tend to focus on market dynamics such as shrinking recruiting pools, lack of knowledge among American youth about service opportunities, and impacts from COVID 19. These factors are undoubtedly relevant, but are they the actual cause of the Army’s failure?
Additionally, the Army estimated it invested over $119 million in the future soldier preparatory course. This new program enabled young Americans, initially disqualified because of low aptitude scores or high body-fat results, the opportunity to improve their marks. The Army claimed over 8,800 recruits completed the course and moved on to basic combat training. In the end, however, none of these initiatives enabled the force to achieve its quotas.
If market dynamics are not the underlying cause of the crisis, what is? I believe that the Army fails to meet its recruiting goals not because of a challenging market environment, but rather because a sizable portion of the American public has lost trust in it and no longer sees it as an institution worthy of personal investment.
Professor of sociology Piotr Sztompka defines trust as “a bet about the future contingent actions of others.” He presents the concept of trust in two components: beliefs and commitment. Essentially, a person trusts when they believe something about the future and they act in accordance with this belief. This is directly relevant to recruiting: in a high trust environment, people are more likely to enlist because they have a reasonable expectation of future benefit.
Unfortunately, anyone considering service today can look to myriad examples of the Army failing to meet their end of the bargain. Whether it is a lack of adequate and safe housing for soldiers and their families, the persistence of sexual assault, an inability to address suicide rates or to accurately account for property and funds — or even to develop a comprehensive physical fitness test — the Army, and the Department of Defense more broadly, consistently fail to achieve results.
But these shortcomings, while disastrous, pale in comparison to the Army’s ultimate failure: the failure to win wars.
Considering the wreckage listed above, it is little wonder that the American people have markedly lost confidence in the institution and its leaders in recent years and could explain the unwillingness to volunteer for service. Essentially, signing up for the military is starting to look like a really bad bet.
Adding insult to injury, a recent survey of military members indicates their enthusiasm to recommend military service has also declined significantly. While quality of life issues are highlighted as a concern, one cannot ignore the impact of failed wars on this trend. The 2021 Afghanistan withdrawal, leaving the Taliban in control of the country after 20 years, has left veterans feeling betrayed and humiliated, and naturally, unlikely to encourage others to follow their path in life.
Instead of flailing about trying to overcome challenging market dynamics, therefore, the Army should immediately commit to fixing itself. It can start by admitting its significant failures and its baffling inability to be honest with the American public about them. There are plenty of retired officers who have had public epiphanies about these systematic failures, but this kind of candor and responsibility needs to propagate among currently serving senior officials across the defense enterprise and the political establishment.
Once honesty is re-established as a core value, and the Army has come to grips with the fact that it failed, it can then begin to explore the reason why.
Simply put, the Army fails because it is set up to fail. It was asked to accomplish objectives in Afghanistan and Iraq that it could not possibly hope to achieve. Professors Leo Blanken and Jason Lapore point out what every senior defense official should clearly understand by now: that despite its impressive capabilities, the U.S. military is of limited utility in the type of non-existential conflicts we have fought in the past two decades. This is because the U.S. military is built for and excels at “battlefield dominance,” yet it was saddled with conducting counterinsurgency, reconstruction and building democratic institutions, tasks it was not trained for or prepared to accomplish.
These revelations are not new, senior defense officials should have understood these dynamics all along, and speaking frankly, they did. From General Shinseki’s ignored warnings about the number of troops at the beginning of the Iraq invasion, to ongoing assessments throughout both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, it seems that it was clear throughout the defense establishment (at least behind closed doors) that the U.S. military could not and would not achieve the nation’s political objectives.
Yet despite this, top defense officials assured the American public that the U.S. military was “making progress” towards its goals, right up to the point that it was manifestly evident that they were not. And yet, at precisely the moment the American public is looking for accountability, many of the same senior officials who failed to achieve results for the nation, are instead rewarded with lucrative positions in the defense industry and with foreign countries.
Seeing that the military refuses to hold itself accountable, it is unsurprising that by withholding their most precious resources, their sons and daughters, the American public is.
The service’s leadership handbook states that “trust is the foundation of the Army’s relationship with the American people, who rely on the Army to ethically, effectively and efficiently serve the Nation.”
To earn back the trust of the American people and solve the recruiting crisis, the Army is going to have to do what everyone else has to do when relationships are broken: accept responsibility and begin to show, by deeds not words, a commitment to change.
If the Army lets this opportunity pass them by, however, claims that the military and the broader defense establishment are in a position to decisively win the nation’s wars lack credibility, as the American public will understandably remain uneasy about making a personal investment in the Army.
Justin Overbaugh is a Colonel in the U.S. Army with experience in Combat Arms, Special Operations, Intelligence, and Talent Acquisition. In his 25-year career, he led operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and across Europe and he commanded the Tampa Recruiting Battalion from 2017-2019. This article reflects his own personal views which are not necessarily endorsed by the United States Army or the Department of Defense.
A female US Army (USA) Drill Sergeant (left) provides security for the Color Guard as they post the colors at the start of the graduation ceremony for the Recruits \\graduating at the end of the nine-week Basic Combat Training (BCT) program at Fort Jackson, Columbia, South Carolina (SC) in 2006. (Photo SSGT STACY L PEARSALL, USAF)
Ukraine would consider inviting Russian officials to a peace summit to discuss Kyiv’s proposal for a negotiated end to the war, according to Andriy Yermak, the Ukrainian president’s chief of staff.
“There can be a situation in which we together invite representatives of the Russian Federation, where they will be presented with the plan in case whoever is representing the aggressor country at that time will want to genuinely end this war and return to a just peace,” Yermak said over the weekend, noting that one more round of talks without Russia will first be held in Switzerland.
The comment represents a subtle shift in Ukrainian messaging about talks. Kyiv has long argued that it would never negotiate with Russian President Vladimir Putin, yet there is no reason to believe Putin will leave power any time soon. That realization — along with Ukraine’s increasingly perilous position on the battlefield — may have helped force Kyiv to reconsider its hard line on talking with the widely reviled Russian leader.
Zelensky hinted at a potential mediator for talks following a visit this week to Saudi Arabia. The leader “noted in particular Saudi Arabia’s strivings to help in restoring a just peace in Ukraine,” according to a statement from Ukrainian officials. “Saudi Arabia’s leadership can help find a just solution.”
Russia, for its part, has signaled that it is open to peace talks of some sort, though both Kyiv and Moscow insist that any negotiations would have to be conducted on their terms. The gaps between the negotiating positions of the two countries remain substantial, with each laying claim to roughly 18% of the territory that made up pre-2014 Ukraine.
Ukraine’s shift is a sign of just how dire the situation is becoming for its armed forces, which recently made a hasty retreat from Avdiivka, a small but strategically important town near Donetsk. After months of wrangling, the U.S. Congress has still not approved new military aid for Ukraine, and Kyiv now says its troops are having to ration ammunition as their stockpiles dwindle.
Zelensky said Sunday that he expects Russia to mount a new offensive as soon as late May. It’s unclear whether Ukrainian troops are prepared to stop such a move.
Even the Black Sea corridor — a narrow strip of the waterway through which Ukraine exports much of its grain — could be under threat. “I think the route will be closed...because to defend it, it's also about some ammunition, some air defense, and some other systems” that are now in short supply, said Zelensky.
As storm clouds gather, it’s time to push for peace talks before Russia regains the upper hand, argue Anatol Lieven and George Beebe of the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
“Complete victory for Ukraine is now an obvious impossibility,” Lieven and Beebe wrote this week. “Any end to the fighting will therefore end in some form of compromise, and the longer we wait, the worse the terms of that compromise will be for Ukraine, and the greater the dangers will be for our countries and the world.”
In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:
— Hungary finally signed off on Sweden’s bid to join NATO after the Swedish prime minister met with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Budapest, according to Deutsche Welle. What did Orban get for all the foot dragging? Apparently just four Swedish fighter jets of the same model that it has been purchasing for years. The prime minister blamed his party for the slow-rolling, saying in a radio interview prior to the parliamentary vote that he had persuaded his partisans to drop their opposition to Sweden’s accession.
— French President Emmanuel Macron sent allies scrambling Tuesday when he floated the idea of sending NATO troops to Ukraine, according to the BBC. Leaders from Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, Poland, and other NATO states quickly swatted down the idea that the alliance (or any individual members thereof) would consider joining the war directly. Russia said direct conflict with NATO would be an “inevitability” if the bloc sent troops into Ukraine.
— On Wednesday, Zelensky attended a summit in Albania aimed at bolstering Balkan support for Ukraine’s fight against Russia, according to AP News. The Ukrainian leader said all states in the region are “worthy” of becoming members of NATO and the European Union, which “have provided Europe with the longest and most reliable era of security and economic development.”
— Western officials were in talks with the Kremlin for a prisoner swap involving Russian dissident Alexei Navalny prior to his death in a Russian prison camp in February, though no formal offer had yet been made, according to Politico. This account contrasts with the one given by Navalny’s allies, who claimed that Putin had killed the opposition leader in order to sabotage discussions that were nearing a deal. Navalny’s sudden death has led to speculation about whether Russian officials may have assassinated him, though no proof has yet surfaced to back up this claim. There is, however, little doubt that the broader deterioration of the dissident’s health was related to the harsh conditions he was held under.
U.S. State Department news:
In a Tuesday press conference, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said the situation on the frontlines in Ukraine is “extremely serious.” “We have seen Ukrainian frontline troops who don’t have the ammo they need to repel Russian aggression. They’re still fighting bravely. They’re still fighting courageously,” Miller said. “They still have armor and weapons and ammunition they can use, but they’re having to ration it now because the United States Congress has failed to act.”
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Janet Yellen, United States Secretary of the Treasury. (Reuters)
On Tuesday, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen strongly endorsed efforts to tap frozen Russian central bank assets in order to continue to fund Ukraine.
“There is a strong international law, economic and moral case for moving forward,” with giving the assets, which were frozen by international sanctions following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, to Kyiv, she said to reporters before a G7 meeting in San Paulo.
Furthermore on Wednesday, White House national security communications adviser John Kirby urged the use of these assets to assist the Ukrainian military.
This adds momentum to increasing efforts on Capitol Hill to monetize the frozen assets to assist the beleaguered country, including through the “REPO Act,” a U.S. Senate bill which was criticized by Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in a recent article here in Responsible Statecraft. As Paul pointed out, spending these assets would violate international law and norms by the outright seizure of sovereign Russian assets.
In the long term, this will do even more to undermine global faith in the U.S.-led and Western-centric international financial system. Doubts about the system and pressures to find an alternative are already heightened due to the freezing of Russian overseas financial holdings in the first place, as well as the frequent use of unilateral sanctions by the U.S. to impose its will and values on other countries.
The amount of money involved here is considerable. Over $300 billion in Russian assets was frozen, mostly held in European banks. For comparison, that’s about the same amount as the entirety of Western aid committed from all sources to Ukraine since the beginning of the war in 2022 — around $310 billion, including the recent $54 billion in 4-year assistance just approved by the EU.
Thus, converting all of the Russian assets to assistance for Ukraine could in theory fully finance a continuing war in Ukraine for years to come. As political support for open-ended Ukraine aid wanes in both the U.S. and Europe, large-scale use of this financing method also holds the promise of an administrative end-run around the political system.
But there are also considerable potential downsides, particularly in Europe. European financial institutions hold the overwhelming majority of frozen Russian assets, and any form of confiscation could be a major blow to confidence in these entities. In addition, European corporations have significant assets stranded in Russia which Moscow could seize in retaliation for the confiscation of its foreign assets.
Another major issue is that using assets to finance an ongoing conflict will forfeit their use as leverage in any peace settlement, and the rebuilding of Ukraine. The World Bank now estimates post-war rebuilding costs for Ukraine of nearly $500 billion. If the West can offer a compromise to Russia in which frozen assets are used to pay part of these costs, rather than demanding new Russian financing for massive reparations, this could be an important incentive for negotiations.
In contrast, monetizing the assets outside of a peace process could signal that the West intends to continue the conflict indefinitely.
In combination with aggressive new U.S. sanctions announced last week on Russia and on third party countries that continue to deal with Russia, the new push for confiscation of Russian assets is more evidence that the U.S. and EU intend to intensify the conflict with Moscow using administrative mechanisms that won’t rely on support from the political system or the people within them.
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Activist Layla Elabed speaks during an uncommitted vote election night gathering as Democrats and Republicans hold their Michigan presidential primary election, in Dearborn, Michigan, U.S. February 27, 2024. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
A protest vote in Michigan against President Joe Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza dramatically exceeded expectations Tuesday, highlighting the possibility that his stance on the conflict could cost him the presidency in November.
More than 100,000 Michiganders voted “uncommitted” in yesterday’s presidential primary, earning 13.3% of the tally with most votes counted and blasting past organizers’ goal of 10,000 protest votes. Biden won the primary handily with 81% of the total tally.
The results suggest that Biden could lose Michigan in this year’s election if he continues to back Israel’s campaign to the hilt. In 2020, he won the state by 150,000 votes while polls predicted he would win by a much larger margin. This year, early polls show a slight lead for Trump in the battleground state, which he won in 2016 by fewer than 11,000 votes.
“The war on Gaza is a deep moral issue and the lack of attention and empathy for this perspective from the administration is breaking apart the fragile coalition we built to elect Joe Biden in 2020,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a progressive leader who has called for a ceasefire in Gaza, as votes came in last night.
Biden still has “a little bit of time to change this dynamic,” Jayapal told CNN, but “it has to be a dramatic policy and rhetorical shift from the president on this issue and a new strategy to rebuild a real partnership with progressives in multiple communities who are absolutely key to winning the election.”
Rep. Ro Khanna, a prominent Biden ally, told Semafor the vote is a “wake-up call” for the White House on Gaza.
The “uncommitted” option won outright in Dearborn, a Detroit suburb with a famously large Arab American population. The protest vote also gained notable traction in college towns, signaling Biden’s weakness among young voters across the country. “Uncommitted” received at least 8% of votes in every county in Michigan with more than 95% of votes tallied.
The uncommitted campaign drew backing from prominent Democrats in Michigan, including Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and state Rep. Abraham Aiyash, who is the majority leader in the Michigan House. Former Reps. Andy Levin and Beto O’Rourke, who served as a representative from Texas, also lent their support to the effort.
“Our movement emerged victorious tonight and massively surpassed our expectations,” said Listen to Michigan, the organization behind the campaign, in a statement last night. “Tens of thousands of Michigan Democrats, many of whom [...] voted for Biden in 2020, are uncommitted to his re-election due to the war in Gaza.”
Biden did not make reference to the uncommitted movement in his victory speech, but reports indicate that his campaign is spooked by the effort. Prior to Tuesday’s vote, White House officials met with Arab and Muslim leaders in Michigan to try to assuage their concerns about the war, which has left about 30,000 Palestinians dead and many more injured. (More than 1,100 Israelis died during Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks last year.)
The president argues that his support for Israel has made it possible for him to guide the direction of the war to the extent possible, though his critics note that, despite some symbolic and rhetorical moves, he has stopped far short of holding back U.S. weapons or supporting multilateral efforts to demand a ceasefire.
Campaigners now hope the “uncommitted” effort will spread to other states. Minnesota, which will hold its primaries next week, is an early target.
“If you think this will stop with Michigan you are either the president or paid to flatter him,” said Alex Sammon, a politics writer at Slate.
Meanwhile in the Republican primary, former President Donald Trump fended off a challenge from former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. With 94% of votes in, Trump came away with 68% of the vote, while Haley scored around 27%.