Societal fatigue is difficult to quantify, but lurking beneath the US military’s struggle to persuade enough young Americans to join its ranks is the exhaustion felt by the American people who just witnessed a generation of servicemembers deploy again and again to a war without bounds. A nation going to war possesses a limited budget in social capital—support for the war by the population. The Global War on Terrorism—with its major troop contributions to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the associated, far-flung set of counterterrorism operations elsewhere—spent this capital early, borrowed on credit, and abused the resource to extremes after two decades. The American people (to include future viable service candidates) are exhausted at the cost of these years of war.

It is significant that multiple theaters of war, drone strikes in a range of countries, and smaller deployments, especially of special operations forces, around the world were lumped together under the label of the Global War on Terrorism, or GWOT. The term’s nebulousness did little to convey achievable strategic objectives. Even after President Barack Obama retired the term from official use in 2013, it has endured as the catchall of military operations, ranging by type and location, all justified by the attacks on September 11, 2001. It also is poignant that there was no overt declaration of the end of America’s longest war; rather, servicemember eligibility for the National Defense Service Medal—the ubiquitous award received by all servicemembers since September 11, 2001—ended on December 31, 2022 with nary a whisper. Unceremoniously, the next generation of recruits entered the queue for the American military’s next era haunted by the ghost of GWOT.

Much has been written about the Defense Department’s flagging efforts to address the growing challenge of military recruitment in recent years. Since 2021—GWOT’s apparent end, bannered by the ignominious withdrawal from Afghanistan—DoD has consistently missed its recruiting goals across its service branches, resulting in the lowest recruiting numbers seen since 1999. It should be noted that, in every era of America’s emergence from conflict, recruiting numbers always shrink amid demobilization. The post-GWOT era, however, carries greater risk than before because of the ghost that hangs over the enterprise.

The Army missed its recruitment goal for 2022 by more than ten thousand, while the Air Force fell short of its goals across active and reserve components by just over two thousand. The Navy was approximately seven thousand recruits short. The Marines and Space Force are by far the smallest service branches with the lowest targets, but the Corps barely met its goal in 2022 while incoming Space Force guardians were short on new officers despite crossover from other services to specific roles and positions. For 2023, signs indicate it will be worse yet in terms of meeting recruitment goals.

Among the most common answers to the riddle are lack of competitive pay compared to private and commercial opportunities, substandard living conditions for entry-level servicemembers, and abysmal healthcare for both active duty and veterans. The politicization of diversity in the ranks is another key factor cited as a shortcoming in recruiting and failures to meet recruitment goals. The COVID pandemic made service even more volatile after the blowback of forcefully separating servicemembers over vaccine mandates during a chaotic time in our nation’s history. The widespread problems with sexual assault reporting and victim support are yet another detractor for new recruits.

Each of those factors has contributed to the recruiting crisis, but they are not the fundamental reasons the Defense Department is short of recruitment goals. There is an elephant in the room that must be acknowledged.

A Gallup poll conducted in July 2023 unveiled the harsh reality: Americans’ confidence in the military is at its lowest mark since 1988, with the average rating hovering around 60 percent. This is predictable based on the stark drops often seen in postwar environments, after confidence remained at or near 70 percent throughout GWOT’s duration. At wider glance, this is reflective of the startling decline in institutional faith across American democracy and society; only the military and small businesses rate at or above the 60 percent threshold, while law enforcement, banks, schools, big tech/businesses, and the medical system range from 20 to 50 percent confidence. Congress rates in the single digits.

The American people have lost faith in the military as an institution—if not entirely at least to a worrying degree that must be addressed. And it needs to happen before the next crisis—potentially a conflict with a peer adversary—to rebuild the social capital that has been overdrawn.

History indicates that recruitment will abruptly reverse course should that next war break out. It happened in 2001 after the terror attacks on the American homeland, which saw an 8 percent increase over the year prior. And it happened in the early 1960s with the advent of the war in Vietnam. It also remained relatively stable throughout the 1970s and 1980s with the threat of the Cold War in full swing.

But after twenty years of war, a failure to commit to a clear strategy, or even specify a feasible strategic military goal, and the eventual decline of public support for a military effort that defied outlining a realistic or achievable outcome, the current recruiting crisis is far deeper and more complicated than previous postwar eras. While the American military certainly did not lose the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, achieving overwhelming tactical success against overmatched adversaries, they still ended or transitioned without achieving identifiably positive strategic outcomes.

Therein lies the ghost of GWOT: the difficult withdrawal from a war that policymakers failed to understand yet sustained across decades and generations. That ghost takes the form of the stark loss of faith in the military as an institution. How could the burden of the outcome not weigh heavily, even if unspoken, in the minds of American citizens deciding whether or not to join an all-volunteer force as the American war machine looks ahead to an increasingly complex world of threats?

It was easy to sell young American men and women on the ideal of protecting the homeland from terrorist groups and violent extremists during the GWOT generation. These were relevant and valid threats, to be sure, but deterring and defeating those genuine threats was undermined by the endlessly expansive scope of the war. It was easy for policymakers to package patriotism and love for country into recruitment slogans with the ever-expanding Overseas Contingency Operations pool of funds to sustain a war with few discernible bounds.

During that war, servicemen and women returned to the same sands and mountains of GWOT again and again, with no end in sight to the war that could claim their lives at any time. Veterans might naturally struggle with the question of their service’s purpose: “Blood, sweat, tears and treasure, and those of us who made it through the other side ask ‘why’? What was that precious human capital spent for? . . . We were all caught up in the notion that maybe we’d be able to effect a change. Maybe, after all these years of being away from home . . . we could look back in a generation and tell our grandchildren that we did some good in the world that lasted.” Those same questions take on an even wider meaning when framed in the subject of recruitment. Many Americans today—especially the younger ones who the armed services need to recruit—have GWOT as the only reference of what their blood and treasure can buy. There is little to point to as an answer.

The ghost of GWOT haunts the recruitment offices across the cities and towns of the United States. The failure to effect change with the most powerful machine that human history has ever assembled looms over the decision to volunteer. These are the long-term consequences of the choice to send our forces overseas absent clear, articulate, and realistic objectives against which to align resources and hard power, to a war that was unwinnable but spent lives in the endeavor anyway.

Ethan Brown is a senior fellow at the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence and Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress. He is an eleven-year veteran of the US Air Force, serving as a special operations joint terminal attack controller with six deployments to multiple combat zones. He can be followed on twitter @LibertyStoic.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.

Image credit: Matthew Moeller, US Army