Manhattan Institute

A Path Not Taken

Too few of today’s college graduates even consider serving in the military.

Very few of the 10 million people who tuned into the Army–Navy football game on December 8 were watching for the quality of the play. They were watching for the quality of the players.

The 119th contest between the Black Knights of the U.S. Military Academy and the Midshipmen of the U.S. Naval Academy exemplified the ideals of amateur athletics—which is not to disparage either academy’s actual athleticism. Indeed, to a person, virtually every West Point Cadet and Annapolis Mid was a high school athlete—even if they weren’t all stars. They all participate in extracurricular sports or on a varsity team every semester that they attend the academies. 

The television announcers called it “America’s game,” gushed about the players’ commitment to service, and marveled about their anticipated assignments after graduation. These sentiments weren’t surprising; there is something special, and increasingly rare, about young people who choose to join the military today. Today, just 7.5 percent of the American adult population has ever served in the military; less than half of 1 percent of all Americans are on active duty.

At the beginning of the game, a moment of silence was observed in remembrance of former president George H. W. Bush. Until they heard the eloquent funeral eulogies for the former commander-in-chief, many Americans—including those serving in my active-duty Marine son’s platoon—didn’t know that Bush was a decorated Navy pilot. The future president deferred his admission to Yale, volunteered for naval service in World War II right out of high school, earned his wings, and flew 58 combat missions. Only after his discharge did he matriculate, graduate and, along the way, captain Yale’s baseball team.

This was all fresh in my mind the day after the Army–Navy game, when a friend’s son called me for some career advice. “John” is a senior at Yale, an A-student, and a varsity baseball player. He’s a terrific kid whom I’ve known since he was born; his father and I were school chums. John was interested in working for a consulting company. He wasn’t looking for a connection or a recommendation, just sincere advice.

I told him that he’d do a terrific job at any consulting firm lucky enough to hire him, but that I didn’t think he should pursue such a career—at least, not yet. Bright and hard-working as he was, he was an inexperienced 22-year-old with minimal real-world experience and little exposure to the world outside of his privileged background. While he would undoubtedly make a contribution to any team he was on, I thought that exposing himself to a different world might make him a far better consultant—and citizen. I suggested he consider the Navy.

John listened politely as I explained that Officer Candidate School would indoctrinate him to the military’s traditions and orient him to the Navy’s way of doing things, in just 12 weeks. (That’s why they call them “90-day wonders.”) Then he would be sent to the fleet. I also told him that the best athletes from my Naval Academy class had gone on to become aviators. But I knew that if I suggested Navy air, his parents would kill me.

Aboard ship, he’d learn how to lead young sailors and manage a small part of a complex organization—something larger than himself. These experiences would prepare him for any future endeavor.

John thanked me for my unexpected advice. We both knew that his parents would probably consider it unwelcome meddling. But he promised that he’d think about it.

Sadly, too few of the best and brightest of today’s college graduates even consider serving in the military—and serving their country. Instead, they rush off to pursue paths in consulting or finance or entrepreneurship. That’s not just a loss for America, but for them.

By the way, Army won the game.

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