Today, for the first time in history, a young American can enlist to fight in a US war that started before he or she was born.
As the war in Afghanistan enters its 18th year and the US Army falls thousands short of its recruiting goals, the Pentagon is recognizing it has to do something different to recruit an age group that does not remember 9/11 and for whom the “war on terror” has been background noise their entire lives. This includes rethinking some of its traditional military PR, which has unintentionally turned the corner from inspiring to morbid by highlighting that some of the young people enlisting today are taking over the same tasks in the very same places their parents fought almost a generation ago.
This has led to a strangely poignant overlap between real military press releases and the brutal satire of The Onion. A story this summer titled “History Repeats: Son Follows Father’s Footsteps Into Army Service” celebrated a recruit who was joining the same unit his father had previously been assigned to in Afghanistan. A few months earlier, a widely shared satirical article had been titled “Soldier Excited to Take Over Father’s Old Afghanistan Patrol Route.”
The grim reality was not lost on the military.
“There’s a New ‘Father and Son Served in Afghanistan’ Puff Piece, and Boy Is It Depressing,” read the headline on Task & Purpose, a news site run by military veterans.
But this underscores a very real concern for military leaders — that the cost of the US “war on terror” is being borne by an increasingly smaller number of families, isolated and unnoticed by the rest of the country. At the same time, the US military footprint across the globe has expanded rapidly since former president George W. Bush ordered US troops into Afghanistan in Operation Enduring Freedom on Oct. 7, 2001. The US still has 15,000 troops in Afghanistan, but last year Americans also died in combat in places like Yemen, Niger, Syria, and Somalia, where most people back home — including some members of Congress — were not even aware the US was fighting.
“Most Americans are only vaguely aware that we’re still fighting overseas, and the reason for that is that they don’t have any skin in the game,” retired Army Lt. Gen. David Barno, a former US commander in Afghanistan, told BuzzFeed News. “That’s not a very healthy thing for a society, if it becomes the same 1% doing this from generation to generation while the rest is relatively oblivious.”
Seven US service members have died in combat in Afghanistan this year, part of more than 2,300 Americans who have been killed there since October 2001. Nearly 21,000 have been wounded.
A “family business”
There’s a reason that the US Army itself promotes service as a “family business.” Having a relative who served in the military has long been a key indicator of whether young people will consider enlisting. Roughly 83% of young Americans who enlisted in 2015 had a family member who served in the military, and more than a third had a parent who did so, according to Defense Department data.
And that group is shrinking. More than three-quarters of adults over the age of 50 said they had an immediate family member who had served in the military, according to a Pew Research Center survey from 2011. Only a third of those ages 18–29 did.
The same pattern also influences who gets to positions of leadership. A 2009 analysis of Defense Department data showed that 65% of white officers had a father who served in the military.
It’s not unusual for children to follow in their parents’ footsteps — the children of doctors and lawyers also are more likely to enter those professions — but it’s different when that “war has become the family business,” said Amy Schafer, who wrote a report on the issue at the Center for a New American Security.