Military recruitment has been voluntary throughout most of the history of the United States armed forces. However, to increase the size of its forces during extraordinary times the US military has enacted policies of involuntary recruitment, commonly referred to as conscription, in which citizens are selected for military service through a government draft. Involuntary military recruitment was used during the Civil War from 1863 to 1865, during World War I from 1917 to 1918, and for an extended period of time from 1940 to 1973. While the military has functioned as an all-volunteer force (AVF) since 1973, all males between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five who live in the United States must register with the Selective Service System (SSS), a database of men eligible for potential military conscription should the need arise. This requirement is not limited to citizens; only males with current nonimmigrant visas are exempt from registration. Without conscription the US military depends on voluntary recruitment to staff its ranks.
In February 2017, the US Army announced plans to increase its recruitment target for the year by 6,000 troops, calling for an additional $300 million in advertising and enlistment bonuses. The US Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps also announced increases to their recruitment targets, representing a shift from the Department of Defense’s 2014 initiative to reduce the overall size of the US armed forces. Policy analysts have expressed concerns about the military buildup, referring to events of the previous decade in which the demands of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as growing disillusion with the military operations, resulted in a shortfall of recruits and changes to eligibility standards. Some recruiters were also found to have used unethical tactics, such as lying to recruits, threatening applicants with arrest, and advising recruits to forge documents.
Military recruiters maintain recruitment centers but also regularly visit high schools, colleges, job fairs, shopping malls, and public events to find new applicants. The military has launched recruitment campaigns through billboards, television, radio, and social media. One of the challenges facing the US military in the twenty-first century is finding enough people to meet each branch’s recruitment quotas who are both willing to enlist and fit to serve. Incentives to enlist, including signing bonuses and skills training, are used in conjunction with appeals to a recruit’s sense of patriotism. Although recruiters are bound by a code to maintain specific ethical standards, detractors have criticized the military for aggressively targeting low-income communities, minorities, and minors.
High schools, colleges, and universities provide military recruiters with a large pool of potential recruits. Recruiters frequently set up booths in cafeterias, in student centers, and at career fairs. Additionally, recruiters seek the support of school faculty, such as teachers, coaches, and guidance counselors, who have strong relationships with students in the hopes that these people will encourage students to enlist. The military offers Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) programs at over 1,100 colleges and universities as well as Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (JROTC) programs at over 1,600 high schools. ROTC programs prepare students to serve as military officers and help with college tuition in exchange for pledging service after graduation. JROTC programs provide an introduction to the military and teach leadership skills but do not require students to commit to military service.
Several organizations and student groups have protested the presence of military recruiters on school campuses. The Coalition for Alternatives to Militarism in Schools (CAMS), the Project on Youth and Non-Military Options (Project YANO), the Quakers’ American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), and other organizations seek to provide young people with ways to serve their country without joining the military. In an additional argument, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and others contend that JROTC programs violate the Optional Protocol to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which provides special protections for minors to prevent the recruitment of child soldiers.
Protests to prevent military recruiters on campus have been hindered by legal protections afforded to the military by an amendment to US Code Title 10, originally proposed by Republican congressman Gerald Solomon. This amendment, commonly referred to as the Solomon Amendment, denies federal funds to any college or university, except those with a tradition of religiously motivated pacifism, that does not permit military recruitment or ROTC programs on campus. Additional legislation requires that military recruiters be afforded the same access to high school students as colleges and employers. These provisions include providing recruiters with students’ contact information when requested. Proponents of allowing military recruiters on campus contend that such legislation is essential to maintaining an all-volunteer force.
Targeting Specific Segments of the Population
Financial incentives continue to be a driving force behind enlistment in the military. Recruiters often try to entice young recruits with the promise of assistance for college tuition, skills training that could foster a lucrative career, and competitive military salaries. The military has had success using financial incentives to attract new applicants, but recruiters have been criticized for misleading recruits about the likelihood that they will receive these benefits. For many people with limited career options, military service can provide opportunities that would otherwise be out of reach. Consequently, military recruiters have been accused of targeting low-income communities and creating what is sometimes referred to as a “poverty draft,” a term to which most military personnel take offense.
Many military personnel deny that a “poverty draft” exists, often citing a 2008 study by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, that concluded that, on average, soldiers are more educated and come from more economically advantaged communities than civilians. However, critics note that the military does not provide data on the household incomes of individual recruits, so studies must be based on other factors, such as a recruit’s zip code, to determine their economic background. The military does adjust its standards for new recruits, such as minimum test scores or maximum enlistment age, when it is unable to meet its recruitment goals. While accusations of a “poverty draft” may be exaggerated, the military’s willingness to lower its educational and aptitude standards causes concern that an all-volunteer force may not provide the best possible security. The targeting of economically disadvantaged communities bolsters the arguments of anti-war activists who contend that it is unjust for the poor to fight wars for the rich.
The military often tailors its methods when recruiting from different communities, including launching advertising campaigns that appeal to different demographics. These targeted campaigns rely on market research to maximize their impact. For example, a television ad aimed toward African Americans may air during programming that is popular with young members of this demographic and feature an African American soldier. Because research has indicated that enlistment bonuses and the Army College Fund have been effective in recruiting African Americans, the ad would likely mention such incentives. Advertising campaigns represent one component of a successful effort to increase diversity among enlisted personnel. While racial and ethnic minority groups represented only 25 percent of active-duty military personnel in 1990, this percentage had grown to 40 percent by 2015. Supporters of targeted campaigns assert that they allow the military to inform minority communities about opportunities to serve the country’s interests while also improving their future education and employment prospects. Critics of these practices, however, argue that these campaigns pressure certain communities to accept the responsibility and sacrifice of national defense.
Recruitment of Noncitizens
Foreign-born residents have also attracted the attention of military recruiters. Benefits available to servicemembers aspiring to become US citizens have included waivers of continuous residence and physical presence requirements as well as filing fees. Between 2002 and 2015, over 100,000 foreign-born servicemembers obtained expedited citizenship through qualified military service. In most cases, only permanent residents of the United States, informally known as “green card holders,” have been eligible to enlist in the military. In 2009 the Department of Defense (DoD) introduced the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest (MAVNI) pilot program, which focused on the recruitment of nonpermanent residents lawfully admitted into the United States, such as asylees and holders of selected nonimmigrant visas, allowing them to become eligible to apply for citizenship. Some individuals with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status were also able to enlist in the military through MAVNI. Defense officials suspended the program in September 2016, halting further recruitment and leading to the cancellation of enlistment contracts for hundreds of enlistees throughout the following year. Many of these enlistees have faced legal challenges, including possible deportation, due to their uncertain immigration status.
In October 2017, the DoD released a new policy requiring green card holders to delay entering the military until a background investigation has been completed, a change from the previous policy that allowed entry after a background investigation had been initiated. The DoD also announced changes to the number of “honorable service days” that green card holders and MAVNI participants must complete in order to qualify for expedited citizenship. The period of service increased from one day to 180 days for active-duty members and to one year for members of the reserves.