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Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

'Be All You Can Be' and the TikTok Mutiny

The crisis of military readiness is a predictable result of the culture of liberalism.

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(Bumble Dee/Shutterstock)

With a recruiting slogan like “Be All You Can Be,” it’s no wonder the Army is enduring a “Tik Tok Mutiny.” When the military—a force built for the ruthless and concentrated application of mass violence—promises self-actualization to Generation Z, why should the country be surprised when those recruits revolt over a military lifestyle of sacrifice and service? 

Multiple news outlets observe a trend of active duty servicemembers in uniform posting complaints about life in the military to popular social media accounts. These soldiers complain about such surprising facts of active-duty life as fitness tests, body composition regulations, and the occasional mediocre field dining. 

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Maybe the problem started when potential recruits were encouraged to enlist so they could “Be All You Can Be.” Now they are complaining to their internet audiences because they discovered the military is not really designed for “you.” The military remains, as it always has been, a “we” project. But the Army is stuck in an endless, incoherent loop of presenting military service as a compelling means of self-expression for young Americans addicted to selfies.

Decades ago, Samuel P. Huntington described in The Soldier and the State the tension between the military’s adherence to the functional imperative of military lethality, and the social imperative to serve and defend a contrastingly liberal society. For Huntington—and for too few modern-day defense leaders, senators, or think tank officials—the military must adhere to the values that make the services effective, at the expense of the ideologies, politics, and passions of civil society. 

In 2023, the military missed recruiting goals by a staggering 40,000 recruits. The Pentagon’s capitulation to the social imperative of our increasingly progressive society manifests in declining service commitments. This recruiting crisis continues, even as the Army, in particular, tries to convince young Americans that a career of service is the best way to fulfill your personal potential.

Conservatives should reclaim Huntington’s conception of the institutional military and imbue the recruiting environment with honesty about the sacrifice that makes a life in the military so unique. While the servicemembers who expressed their misgivings with military life have received some justified scrutiny, it’s hard to blame them when they were recruited under the expectation of serving in an institution built for their own self-development. 

To attract more capable recruits who will not pursue influencer status via lifestyle gripes, the military should be direct and honest about the sacrifice and relative hardship that service entails. Army Rangers, for example, are required to spend at least 62 days on 45 to 90 minutes of sleep and two meals a day during training to prove their mettle under the stress of ground combat. 

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While typical combat deployments are rarer these days, and very few recruits will ever undergo Ranger training, other units spend 4 to 6 weeks in the California desert to train for the unknown in an uncertain world. In these settings, the food is rarely good, the hours are long, and the physical stress immense. This is a life utterly foreign to a modern America, where almost by default one can live a life of comfort and ease. In fact, a strikingly small percentage of Americans are even eligible for recruitment. The Army should stop lying to them about finding personal achievement through enlistment. 

American boys are coming of age in a rudderless society largely indifferent to their formation as men. There is little need for a boy to learn to fend for himself, and he grows up in a world meant to cater, not challenge. The result of this cultural chaos is increased addiction and early mortality

These men are not joining the Army. Recent surveys from the American Principles Project indicate that almost 75% of veterans think the military is too politicized, and almost a third of these veterans would not want their own children to serve. 

The recent “Tik Tok Mutiny” is a sign that young Americans are not buying the military’s spin. In the spirit of Samuel Huntington, the military should appeal to prospective recruits in a spirit of ruthless candor. The message is simple: Join the only team on earth where you can give everything there is to give in exchange for a modest paycheck, preservative-laden food, and long nights at work. And where they can learn that there is more to life than can be expressed in an Instagram post.