Lower the age for military service to 16? An excellent idea

The U.S. military is having a tough time recruiting members in the vibrant Trump economy, and is falling short of its recruiting goals. One idea, and it's a good one, is in lowering the recruitment age for members to 16. The idea is now being considered, according to this report in the Washington Times. Here's a non-subscription version of the story, too.

The best way to fix the U.S. armed forces’ recruiting challenges may involve dipping further into the nation’s high schools.

As the Army, Navy and other services contend with a thriving economy and a directive to expand their ranks, there is a growing debate over whether the military should consider lowering the minimum enlistment age from 17 to 16. More than a dozen countries, including the United Kingdom, already have adopted the policy.

Critics say the idea is deeply flawed and presents a host of societal problems, but supporters argue that the Pentagon needs to think outside the box if it wants to continually overcome one of the toughest recruiting environments in decades.

Neither the military nor lawmakers have given any indication that they are entertaining the idea, but some analysts say that opening the ranks to younger Americans could provide unique benefits and may be the kind of fundamental overhaul the recruiting system needs for the 21st century.

The analysts quoted, such as one from the Rand Institute, Beth J. Asche, have a kind of circular logic, saying that for potential youth recruits, the Army needs to skip the 'Be all you can be' slogan and .... focus on 'Be all you can be.' Here's the passage:

But analysts say the military’s past tack of using marketing slogans such as the Army’s “Be all you can be” mantra no longer works.

Instead, they say, the branches should craft multiple appeals centering on the host of benefits that come from military service, including educational assistance, patriotism, career benefits, and the host of jobs a man or woman can perform in the military outside of a combat zone.

“I think what’s happening now — and it’s not that messages aren’t important — but I think there’s a realization that different people are interested in different things,” said Ms. Asch. “It’s not one message. People want to join for a variety of reasons, so the message has to be somewhat tailored.

Ummm, that's what it has been doing for the past 40 years since the Vietnam War, Beth. Poor gal has no originality. And it sure as heck isn't what's working now.

Other arguments have it that child soldiers is a bad idea, with no doubt some thinking of Africa or Colombia's FARC terrorists, or else the idea that teenagers are pretty immature.

But the idea of letting 16-year-olds in, sometimes on the front lines, is actually a pretty old one. Kids in the past worked farms and went to war at very young ages, learned self-reliance, responsibility and independence and as result, grew up rather fast. On those grounds alone the idea should be considered.

We often think of the migrants flooding in from Central America as military-aged young men, and generally they are, even if they are around 14, which is a correct reading of things - except that instead of joining a legitimate military, they've joined a quasi-military gang such as MS-13. It's another argument for the idea that this actually could be done.

And quite rightly, the argument is made by one analyst in the Washington Times piece that fewer people within the recruit pool of 16 year olds have criminal records which disqualify them from service than older teens. Some kids, historically, join the military precisely to stay out of trouble. Anyone who wants to join at 16 is more likely to have a focus and a mission and a role in the world he can't get in high school, which is ideal for keeping him out of aimless crime.

Which brings up what the military's angle of approach to potential recruits, youthfully 16 or a bit older, really ought to be: The failure of the public schools, the boredom, the ennui, the perpetual adolescence, the artificial isolation of the public school experience, which a certain number of kids simply can't stand and will otherwise act out on. Target the dullness of public schools run by deadening teachers unions, and many 16 year olds will sign up. Tell the kids they don't have to take it anymore and some will choose to come. Anyone who feels himself or herself a misfit in this regard may find a very satisfactory solution in joining the military - a role, a place in a tribe, a feeling of belonging. Historically, the military has always served that role well, even leading the path to racial integration as a result. It might even be a good idea to open recruitment -- and the promise of a path to citizenship -- to 16-year-old illegal aliens. Most Americans on the outside would have no problem with an illegal who has a serious desire to earn respect and prove his loyalty to the country through military service. And it might keep some of them out of MS-13.

The other area where the military can compete is among those young people whose family structures have failed. Again, the historic role in giving a sense of worth and belonging is an attractive alternative to those who haven't had the blessings of any intact family. 

How much stronger the recruitment appeal could be if those two areas were zeroed in on, both ideal to 16 year olds, over the be-all-you-can-be bennies approach, which can't be matched by private industry.

And lastly, the appeal to patriotism has long been ignored. 16 year olds are likely to respond to it as much as anyone, given their idealist nature and longing for action. 

At a minimum, the matter should be looked into. But I think 16 year olds having that chance of joining the military could very well be an idea whose time has come.

Image credit: Von Marie Donato, U.S. Army // public domain