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November 30, 2023

Are we in trouble? The US now has the smallest Army since World War II, a force of 452,000 troops that is currently “losing the existential fight to recruit new soldiers.” While strained by the wars in Gaza and Ukraine, the Army is also challenged by new technologies: cyber, counter-drone warfare and extended-range battlefield artillery. While these new disciplines require smart, well-trained and highly adaptive soldiers, “the bottom…has fallen out of the high school graduate recruiting market.”

Retired generals and admirals frequently grouse about the need for better messaging, increased pay and better benefits. But today, some raise more basic issues: “Only 9% of those who are 16 to 21 years old are willing to serve.”

And just in time for Veterans Day, Newsweek reported even more disturbing news: “A majority of American adults would not be willing to serve in the military were the U.S. to enter into a major war…while public confidence in the armed forces appears to be waning.” In the succinct summation of one Marine recruiter, "We have strike groups, aircraft carriers with a Marine Expeditionary Unit outside Israel now…We're funding two wars, but we're actually boots on the ground, drones above Gaza. So we're already involved in there—and we're not sure what's happening in Taiwan.”

As a retired Army officer, most of the usual explanations for our continuing manpower difficulties leave me cold. As a Vietnam-era draftee, I well remember our transition from a conscript to a volunteer force, including my first responsibilities as a newly commissioned officer. But few of us ever imagined that the contemporaneous passage of Roe versus Wade would inaugurate an era of scarce, expensive manpower resources, made even worse by a steadily declining percentage of Americans volunteering to wear the uniform. Today, that percentage is less than half of one percent, a military establishment largely segregated from the society it defends. Does such a divided nation truly deserve its freedom?

Having spent most of my adult life as either a military or civilian educator, I have also seen the dumbing-down of all forms of history – and the virtual extinction of military history. I directly experienced that dichotomy as an NBC News military analyst before and after 911. One of our continuing challenges was to explain this new form of warfare to a national audience that often lacked even a basic familiarity with the grim calculus of combat. The residual question: How could a nation of military illiterates select the right civilian leaders to ensure our national survival?

My cynicism reached new heights over the Thanksgiving weekend when an old friend sent me an interesting communication from Lycoming College, our common alma mater.  Lycoming has a solid reputation as a competent liberal arts college, often praised by national publications for its cost-effective tuition. Even those who know little about Lycoming may recall its location in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, home of the Little League World Series and an enduring symbol of Middle America.

Unhappily however, Lycoming students were sent home for Thanksgiving with a memo urging their reflection “on the misrepresented history of Thanksgiving,” including video references from YouTube, NPR and PBS. The videographers slanted their lenses to reflect a panoply of native activism, bemoaning “European colonialism,” the taking of “our land” and “teaching the appropriator’s version” of the “harvest feast.” Worst of all, “The (neighboring) Wampanoags weren’t invited.” Without any apparent irony, the student memo concluded, “President Abraham Lincoln established this holiday to improve the relationships between northern and southern states (Really, amidst the Civil War?) and between the US and tribal nations.” (Email memo Lycoming College Office of Student Involvement, “The Truth Behind Thanksgiving,” November 23, 2023.)  

It would be difficult to assemble a more blatant collection of errors in history and logic in any memo not prepared by the Biden White House. One can certainly rejoice that at least Lycoming students aren’t brandishing hatchets and demonstrating for Hamas. However, a number of older alums, perhaps reflecting on that recent unpleasantness, have vowed to review their collegiate bequests, maybe even requiring more in-depth oversight of Lycoming’s leadership.

As an old professor, however, I wonder why no one recalled that the primary mission of college teaching is neither indoctrination nor presentations slanted to one side or the other: But rather the more refined arts of debate and critical thinking



Colonel (Ret.) Kenneth Allard is a former West Point professor, Dean of the National War College and NBC News on-air military analyst.

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Comments 1-1 of 1

  • Thomas K. Herron

    11/30/2023 03:40 PM

    As always, Colonel Allard is on point - and as one of his best friends at Lycoming College - I, too received that frightening "ThanksTaking" email from my alma mater and appreciate Ken's effort and ability to use this as an example of how far we have strayed!