Most Americans Would Discourage Young People from Joining Military as Enlisted Service Members, Report Says

Oath of enlistment to eight new Army accessions
Lt. Gen. Daniel L. Karbler, commanding general, U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command, delivers the oath of enlistment to eight new Army accessions at a Future Soldier Swear-In ceremony conducted Oct. 20, 2023. (U.S. Army photo by Ronald Bailey)

Most Americans would discourage a young person close to them from enlisting in the military, but a wide majority would encourage them to join as an officer, according to a new Rand Corp. study published this week.

The study found that 54.4% of respondents would dissuade a 17-year-old relative from joining the military as an enlisted service member, though nearly two-thirds of Americans would encourage them to go the officer route, either through a service academy or the Reserve Officer Training Corps, also known as ROTC.

The study comes amid one of the worst recruiting periods the all-volunteer military has known, with most branches failing to meet goals for signing Americans up to serve. Meanwhile, Rand also analyzed public perceptions of veterans, which were "overwhelmingly positive," according to the report.

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The report cited the services' current recruiting crisis as a reflection of public perception about the military, with dwindling confidence in the armed forces, the end of the war in Afghanistan, politicization of the military, and polarization of the general public all as contributors to wavering esteem for a typically bulletproof institution.

"At the same time, military propensity -- the likelihood that young Americans will enlist in the military -- and general confidence in the military are declining just as the number of veterans dwindles," the study said. "More than two years out from the end of the longest war in U.S. history, these trends raise important and pressing questions about public perceptions of the military and uniformed service."

The study found that Democrats are less likely than Republicans to encourage a young person they know to enlist in the military, but both are relatively on the same track in encouraging them to join via the officer route.

Rand also found that holding negative views about veterans is associated with a lower chance of encouraging a young person to enlist. Respondents who have served in the military themselves were more likely than their civilian counterparts to believe that most Americans look down on the armed forces, according to the study.

It measured certain veteran stereotypes, both negative and positive.

Some positive stereotypes included veterans being self-disciplined, loyal, practical and responsible. Negative stereotypes included being "cold," volatile and unsociable. Most Americans, depending on the stereotype measured, endorsed positive perceptions of veterans, though responses varied based on age and demographic.

Nearly 80% of respondents said that veterans were self-disciplined, while 20% said that veterans were aggressive.

"Negative stereotypes can lead to stigma and discrimination, which is the behavioral manifestation of such beliefs," the study said. "For example, if veterans are thought to suffer from war-induced mental illness, then individuals might avoid interactions with them. But stereotypes do not merely shape the perceptions and behaviors of those who hold them; they can also affect the stereotyped themselves, culminating most problematically in self-stigmatization."

The Rand report was somewhat at odds with another study from the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute, which was published last month. It said that a slim majority of Americans would encourage friends and family to join the military.

Rand conducted its work for the report in February and June of 2022.

Related: Public's Confidence in the Military Drops Again

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