Project Fortress: Citizens and Subjects, Worries and Warnings

December 2022

On September 21, 2022, in a bid to salvage his blood-soaked debacle in Ukraine, Russian dictator Vladimir Putin ordered 300,000 retired and reserve military personnel back into service. Over the following four weeks, 200,000 Russian men fled to Kazakhstan, 70,000 fled to Georgia, 66,000 fled to European Union countries, and thousands more to Turkey and Mongolia. In addition—or subtraction, in this case—at least two Russian men dragooned into Putin’s war of war crimes fled by boat across a stretch of the Bering Sea to Alaska, where they have sought asylum. All the while, an army of citizen-soldiers—a seemingly limitless supply of warriors representing the whole of Ukraine—continues to fight and sacrifice, bleed and die, for their country and cause.

This stark contrast between the Russian behemoth and Ukraine reveals much about what motivates individuals to fight for their country, what it takes to defend a country, and how important it is—especially in a time of testing—to believe in one’s country and one’s cause.

Fight or Flight

In September, 10,000 Russians were fleeing into Georgia—per day—to avoid Putin’s war. Wealthy Russians are paying $27,000 per seat to escape their homeland via private jets. Those who can’t find a way out have refused to deploy or redeploy. Some are purposely shooting themselves to be removed from the warzone. Some units have killed their commanding officers. Some conscripts have attacked recruiting centers. Others have turned basic training into fratricidal massacres. Entire Russian regiments have rioted and mutinied.

In a sign of Ukraine’s humanity and Putin’s cruelty, Ukrainians have set up hotlines to help Russians find out if their loved ones deployed to Ukraine are dead or captured—even as Putin’s henchmen set up firing lines behind the frontlines to prevent conscripts from retreating.

Now, compare those reactions of Russians being coerced into a war of aggression with the reactions of Ukrainians. In the former, those who have the means are fleeing, and those without the means are hiding, shooting themselves to avoid combat, refusing to fight, and killing their commanding officers. In the latter, a people’s army of shopkeepers and artists, young women and old men, students and soldiers, farmers and techies are rushing to the fight, picking up weapons, and crafting their own makeshift weapons to defend their country and cause.

What we are observing is the difference between an army of subjects fighting for a madman and an army of citizens fighting for a just cause.

Warning Signs

Against this not-so-distant backdrop, some of us glimpse worrisome signs about the readiness and willingness of American citizens to defend America’s cause—our security and territory, interests and ideals.

Take, for example, the U.S. military’s difficulty recruiting and retaining personnel. The Army met only 70 percent of its FY2022 recruiting goal. The Marine Corps hit its recruiting target, albeit for the first time in 10 years. The Air Force managed to hit its active-duty recruiting goal for FY2022, but it fell short of its target for Guard and Reserve components. The Navy is concerned about a growing gap between the number of sailors at sea and the number of empty at-sea billets: a shortfall of some 9,000 personnel. And it’s worth noting that these recruiting and retention shortfalls are happening in a military that many experts believe is too small to do all the things Americans are asking it to do. The Heritage Foundation concludes, “The active component of the U.S. military is two-thirds the size it should be.”

There are many factors contributing to these recruitment and retention woes.

First, when the U.S. has a strong labor market, as it does currently, service-eligible Americans have more choices, which means the military has more difficulty filling the ranks.

Second, COVID-19 vaccine concerns are impacting recruitment and retention. Some 45,000 National Guardsmen are unable to train or deploy because of the current COVID-19 vaccine mandate; 14,000 Army National Guard personnel will likely separate from the service due to differences over the mandate.

Third, there is less trust of institutions today than in decades past. Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger points to a number of examples, including the performance of government institutions during the pandemic and “the steady decline of public trust and confidence in the military.” The latter has been fueled, from his perspective, by the way America withdrew from Afghanistan, a perception that the military has become politicized, concerns about sexual harassment in the ranks, reports of “preventable mishaps” suggesting “incompetence” within the military, and “examples of poor leadership across the joint force.”

Fourth, even though America has a larger population than ever, the pool of service-eligible Americans is shrinking. As reports, a staggering “77 percent of young Americans would not qualify for military service without a waiver due to being overweight, using drugs, or having mental and physical health problems.” America’s obesity epidemic represents the biggest share of that 77 percent. In 1987, 6 percent of Americans aged 18 to 34 were obese. Today, 17 percent of Americans between 18 and 25 are obese. Almost 40 percent of Americans 20 and older are obese. And 30.7 percent of children aged 10 to 17 are obese. During World War II, by contrast, 40 percent of military-aged recruits were undernourished.

In response to this subset of factors, the Army is testing a pilot program that offers recruits who are overweight or fail academic entrance standards a chance to work their way into the service. The Air Force and Space Force are considering lowering standards related to pre-enlistment drug use. The Navy is raising its enlistment-age ceiling to 41, while lowering its aptitude-test floor.

Fifth, decreasing numbers of young Americans are motivated to serve. As Sen. Thom Tillis, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, observes, “I am worried we are now in the early days of a long-term threat to the all-volunteer force. [There is] a small and declining number of Americans who are eligible and interested in military service.”

As Tillis notes, we need young people who are both eligible to serve—physically, mentally, ethically qualified—and interested in serving.

When the draft was phased out in 1973, in favor of the all-volunteer force (AVF), the thinking was that a military comprised solely of people who wanted to serve would be more effective than a military comprised of people who would rather be somewhere else. That theory proved sound. The AVF is the most lethal, most intelligent, most effective, most cohesive, most advanced, most creative, most adaptive, most motivated military in history. It’s also perhaps the most over-stretched, over-worked and over-burdened military in history.

Given all of these factors—along with the metastasizing threats posed by a highly complex threat environment—it may be time for policymakers to consider reinstating the draft. If we hope to deter a rising China and a revisionist Russia, America will need, as it did during Cold War I, to deploy personnel around the world in substantial numbers. Deterrence is largely about presence, and presence is about personnel.

Ending the AVF would certainly solve the recruiting challenges facing our military. Even with all the ineligibility issues detailed above, 1.2 million eligible, service-ready recruits turn 18 every year. Of course, reinstating the draft would create other challenges. A conscription-based military will have the numbers, but it could lose the discipline and commitment to mission ensured by the AVF. And that would have a negative effect on the military’s effectiveness, cohesion, capability and lethality.

For Mankind

Rep. Jason Crow, a former Army Ranger, concludes that “We’re going to have to provide enlistment incentives and bonuses, and I think we also have to educate people…about military service and what it looks like and what it means.”

Indeed, we need to educate up-and-coming generations not just about what military service means, but more broadly about what America means.

Polling tells us that Millennials and Generation Z are decidedly less proud of America than older generational cohorts, less likely to embrace the concept of American exceptionalism than older generations, and more likely than older generations to view the American flag as a symbol of “imperialism,” “greed” and/or “intolerance,” rather than a symbol of “freedom.”

This is largely a function of inadequate and/or inaccurate civic education. The way to reverse this is through better civic education—an education effort that transcends the classroom (more on that in a moment). This is not to suggest that Americans should be uncritical about American history. In fact, one of the characteristics that makes America exceptional—and indeed strengthens America—is our capacity for self-criticism, which leads to self-correction. However, after being taught that America is no better than—and perhaps worse than—other countries, many members of the Millennial Generation and Generation Z engage not in healthy self-criticism that leads to necessary course corrections, but rather in moral relativism that results in the patriotism gap detailed in the above paragraph.

This trend is deeply worrisome as these generations begin to take the reins of leadership and as the nation wades into Cold War II—a multifaceted global struggle that, like Cold War I, will demand the support, sacrifice, unity, endurance and tenacity of the American people. If Americans don’t believe in America, don’t believe America is worth defending, and don’t believe America’s cause and purpose are worth defending, then they won’t serve their country—whether in the military, government or everyday life—and Cold War II will not end as favorably for the Free World as Cold War I.

Americans need to relearn that the measure of a nation, like that of an individual, is direction, not perfection—and that America was born headed in the right direction. But don’t take my word for it. Consider the words of one of America’s greatest leaders. Calling the Declaration of Independence “a great dream,” he explained how America’s founding document “distinguishes our nation and our form of government from any totalitarian system in the world” because “it says that each of us has certain basic rights that are neither derived from or conferred by the state…They are God-given, gifts from His hands. Never before in the history of the world has a sociopolitical document expressed in such profound, eloquent and unequivocal language the dignity and the worth of human personality.” And then, in words that would trigger many of those trapped in our postmodern muck, he concluded that “God somehow called America to do a special job for mankind and the world.”

In these words, Rev. Martin Luther King was echoing something President Abraham Lincoln had said and foreshadowing something President Ronald Reagan would say. Lincoln described America as “the last best hope of earth.” Reagan called America the “shining city on a hill.” Lincoln, King and Reagan were very different men raised in very different times, but each of them believed in America, in American exceptionalism and in America’s cause. No, they didn’t think America was perfect. But they understood that America was born headed in the right direction. That idea is totally foreign to too many Americans.


Reagan recalled of his earlier years, “We absorbed, almost in the air, a love of country and an appreciation of its institutions. If you didn’t get these things from your family, you got them from the neighborhood, from the father down the street who fought in Korea or the family who lost someone at Anzio. Or you could get a sense of patriotism from school. And if all else failed you could get a sense of patriotism from the popular culture. The movies celebrated democratic values and implicitly reinforced the idea that America was special.” But sensing an erosion of America’s belief in itself, he worried how “younger parents aren’t sure that an unambivalent appreciation of America is the right thing to teach modern children. And as for those who create the popular culture, well-grounded patriotism is no longer the style.” Gazing at that changing cultural landscape, he warned of “an eradication of the American memory that could result, ultimately, in an erosion of the American spirit.” And here we are.

The good news is that Reagan’s solution to this challenge still applies. “Let’s start with some basics: more attention to American history and a greater emphasis on civic ritual,” he counseled. He urged Americans “to teach history based not on what’s in fashion but what’s important—why the Pilgrims came here, who Jimmy Doolittle was…Omaha Beach.”

To that list, we might add those eloquent words King spoke about America; how Americans rescued West Berliners and South Koreans from the prisonyard of communism, Indonesians and Japanese from tsunamis, Yazidis from ISIS, Somalis from famine, millions of Africans from AIDS, Ebola and malaria, and all mankind from smallpox and polio; how Americans built the Internet and then shared its limitless possibilities with the world; how Americans are protecting Kuwaitis, Kurds, Kosovars and Koreans from violent neighbors; how American industry and ingenuity have saved millions in South Asia, South America and Africa from COVID-19; how America has delivered 664 million COVID-19 vaccines overseas and poured more into global pandemic relief than any other country (12 times more China).

This education effort should begin at home—as Reagan observed, “All great change in America begins at the dinner table”—and extend into schools and the broader culture.

Some colleges are trying to tell the fullness of America’s story to new generations, trying to highlight for young Americans that important distinction between perfection and direction. For example, tiny Hillsdale College (enrollment 1,466) requires students to take courses on America’s heritage and history. Hillsdale also has created an entire curriculum to help K-12 teachers teach American history and civic education to a new generation of Americans. Similarly, city-sized Purdue University (enrollment 49,639) has created a civic-literacy component for all undergraduates to build a “more informed citizenry” and “expand…awareness of and options for civic participation.”

Purdue also is doing its part to promote what Reagan called “civic ritual.” Since 1967, Purdue’s home football games have included a stirring pre-kickoff tradition known as “I Am an American.” With an arrangement of “America the Beautiful” playing softly, fans are invited to rise, remove their caps and read these words: “I am an American. That’s the way most of us put it, just matter-of-factly. They are plain words, those four: you could write them on your thumbnail, or sweep them across a bright autumn sky. But remember, too, that they are more than just words. They are a way of life. So, whenever you speak them, speak them firmly, speak them proudly, speak them gratefully. I am an American!” When the crowd roars those last four words, it’s a reminder that it’s possible for people of different races, religions, means, politics, backgrounds, homelands, and even alma maters to be united on what matters—and that America is indeed exceptional.

These universities need help sharing that message with America’s up-and-coming generations. Toward that end, civic leaders and policymakers should promote teach-the-teacher programs to deepen what current and future educators know about America’s story. This is where organizations like the American Legion, VFW, DAV, Vietnam Veterans of America, Iraq & Afghanistan Veterans of America, city and state chambers of commerce, and civic-minded nonprofits can lend a hand. Sagamore Institute’s Liberty Tracks initiative and Pathfinder project are doing just that, as are the American Story podcast, 1776 Unites, the 1620 Project, and other initiatives that defend the institutions that make America exceptional.


America is not going to end up like Putin’s Russia. America’s military is not a broken force. We remain a nation of citizens, not subjects. The challenges facing America, quite unlike the cascading catastrophes confronting Russia, can be addressed through policy reform and cultural renewal. However, we have to have the will to take up the twin tasks of reform and renewal. That begins with relearning America’s story. If Americans don’t learn America’s story, they won’t believe in America’s cause. And that will open the door to dangers as Cold War II unfolds.

“Battles are won,” as Gen. Omar Bradley observed, “by soldiers living in the rains and huddling in the snow. But wars are won by the great strength of a nation—the soldier and the civilian working together.”

Alan W. Dowd leads the Sagamore Institute Center for America’s Purpose and the Project Fortress initiative.

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