Army at 250: Beyond a Slogan, the Army Needs a New Narrative Strategy
Fifty years ago, the Army left Vietnam and entered the American consumer market. The shift to an all-volunteer force in 1973 compelled the Army to define, shape, and communicate a public narrative in ways it had never previously contemplated. For much of the past two decades, that narrative proved remarkably resilient and strong, sustaining high levels of public esteem even as attitudes towards the wars the Army was fighting turned negative. But today that narrative is breaking down. Whether it is increased politicization or the transition out of the “Global War on Terror,” the Army’s public communications capabilities are under pressure on multiple fronts. The drop in public confidence in the military is one indicator of this, but the recruiting shortfall of 2022 — where the Army missed its goals by 15,000, or 25 percent — puts the challenge into stark relief. There are steps the Army is already taking, such as bringing back its highly successful “be all you can be” slogan as part of a new marketing campaign. But they are piecemeal. The recruitment crisis is part of a much larger issue. The Army doesn’t just need a new slogan, it needs a whole new narrative strategy.
The Army should make a serious effort to retake the communications initiative before the situation grows even worse. In new research from my organization, More in Common, we found that many Americans see the military as too involved in politics: Seven in ten say the military should be separate from politics, but only four in ten feel it actually is. Absent a change in this dynamic, the Army could easily fall into a vicious cycle where Americans increasingly see it through a political filter.
With a new narrative strategy, the Army could begin to overcome political polarization and bring coherence to the myriad of communications it sends out. It could focus its storytelling on what researchers call the transactional and the transcendent, or in the case of the Army, pragmatism and patriotism. And it could build a sense of belonging and purpose across all the audiences it needs to reach. Done well, a new narrative strategy would empower all the Army’s messengers, from a senior leader testifying to Congress to a recruiter talking with parents at the dining room table, to deploy messaging that best resonates with the specific audiences while still telling a common story about the Army.
Listening is the first step in building such a strategy. Much of the effectiveness of a narrative strategy flows from the degree to which the storytelling resonates with the values, perspectives, and beliefs of the intended audience. For the Army, this means hearing from Americans — of all backgrounds and perspectives — about how they understand three key concepts: the Army’s purpose, the relationship between the Army and the American people, and the broader threat landscape. The Army has a unique opportunity on the horizon to gather such input: its 250th birthday in 2025. This major milestone presents a natural vehicle to hold Americans’ attention, break through polarized media channels, and hear directly from individuals and communities across the country. The Army should take advantage of this by launching an “Army at 250” campaign to hold large-scale listening and engagement sessions across the nation.
Analyzing the Recruitment Crisis: The Missing Role of Narrative
Overlooked in explanations for the recruiting shortfall is the role that narrative plays in Americans’ decisions about military service. This reflects the fact that, as researchers at RAND noted, individuals’ recruitment decisions “are typically modeled within an occupational choice framework, where individuals are assumed to enlist if the expected value of joining the military exceeds the opportunity cost of not doing so.” Such models generate important insights that have improved policies, benefits, and recruiting practices, but they also tend to isolate recruitment from the broader relationship the Army has with the American people.
The effects of this isolation are visible in the contrast between coverage of the recruitment crisis and recommendations put forth by many researchers. Coverage of the crisis invariably highlights the public debate over whether the military has become too “woke,” yet recommendations from experts tend to focus exclusively on changes to recruitment policy and practice. The disconnect between a public narrative centered on ideology and proposed solutions centered on practical considerations makes it harder for the Army to take constructive action. Even though there is little data to suggest concerns about progressive indoctrination are much of a factor in recruitment (more on this later), the Army has to address the public narrative in order to create durable political support for changes to policy and practice. Effective narrative strategy in this context creates the conditions to successfully implement structural improvements.
This is not to dismiss or minimize the value econometric analyses provide towards recruitment efforts. Studies have consistently found that macroeconomic factors, such as the unemployment rate and the value of military pay relative to civilian pay, exert a significant influence on Americans’ decisions to join the Army. Public opinion also makes this point as well — in the Fall 2021 Joint Advertising, Market Research, and Studies survey of 16- to 21-year-old Americans, for example, 58 percent selected “Pay/money” as a main reason why they might consider joining the military. Similarly, operational considerations, such as the system the Army uses to medically screen recruits, also weigh heavily on recruiters’ success in meeting their goals. It stands to reason that such variables will play a key part in addressing today’s challenge.
However, these econometric models need to be complemented by and integrated with studies that look at narrative and at what sociologist Dr. Charles Moskos described as “institutional” variables such as duty and patriotism. The influence of such variables is evident in surveys asking service members why they joined: The March 2018 New Recruit survey found that the top reason selected for why an individual wanted to join the Army was “pride or self-esteem/honor.” Institutional variables have always been a critical element in why Americans choose to serve in the Army, but they receive much less emphasis in conversations about improving recruiting outcomes. In short, while there are levers the Army can pull that are unique to recruitment, the crisis cannot be addressed in isolation from the broader challenge the Army faces in communicating with the American people.
Crafting Effective Communications: Persuasive Narratives
Before the Army can build a new narrative strategy it has to align behind a shared definition of what narrative is. This is harder than it may seem. While the Army has developed more expertise with narratives over the past two decades, its focus has been at the operational or tactical level. As a result, there is a dearth of research or guidance on the role of narrative in the relationship between the Army and the American society. Fortunately, the Army can draw on both past experience and research executed in support of the wars on terror to form an actionable definition for narrative.
In the aftermath of war or in periods of relative peace such as the current moment, the Army has often struggled to produce a compelling narrative. This is evident with the most recent statement on the posture of the United States Army, which outlined six objectives to guide the force, from becoming more data-centric to building positive command climates. Each objective is important, but the overall package fails the test for persuasive narratives — the sum is not greater than its parts. There is no broader theme, no story of purpose that ties the objectives together to produce a more coherent message, and no thread linking the Army’s past, present, and future. A stark contrast is evident with the posture statement from 2002, which included the following: “Today, we are engaged in a global war on terrorism and defense of our homeland. Soldiers, On Point for the Nation, are protecting and promoting American interests around the globe. They are accomplishing these vital missions much as we have for over 226 years with little fanfare or attention.” These three sentences convey the essence of persuasive narratives in how they articulate a bold, new mission of vital urgency that is, at the same time, a continuation of an uninterrupted legacy of humble service and sacrifice for the nation.
In addition to learning from its own past narratives, the Army can draw from a summary of research on narrative produced for the Assessing Revolutionary and Insurgent Series. Although the focus is on narratives in the context of insurgency, the authors provide a working definition for persuasive narratives that is applicable to the domestic landscape. Drawing on social science research, they define a narrative as “a coherent system of interrelated and sequentially organized stories that serve a common rhetorical desire.” What this means for the Army is that a narrative is a system of stories — themes, frames, slogans, mottos, unit histories, visual cues, etc. — that fit together and reinforce a common meta-story about the Army.
A narrative strategy matches the desired narrative end state — the meta-story about the Army it wants people to hear and feel — with the appropriate methods and resources to reach and connect with different audiences. A strategy creates coherence while allowing for high degrees of customization and enables the Army to be both deliberate and opportunistic in how it communicates. But for a strategy to be effective, the Army needs a clear narrative end state.
The Army’s Narrative Strategy: Purpose, People, Context
The Army’s narrative strategy will only be as effective as the degree to which people can understand what the Army does, why they themselves belong in the Army, and why this matters. Although the Army touches on all three themes — call them purpose, people, and context — in its current vision of Army of 2030, it’s not clear there is alignment in how the Army and the American people understand these themes.
The Army’s purpose, as it understands it, has remained consistent since its founding in 1775: winning wars. When commissioning George Washington as commander in chief of the Continental Army, the Continental Congress described the Army’s purpose as the “Defence of American liberty, and … repelling every hostile invasion thereof.” Today the Army says its mission is to “deploy, fight, and win our nation’s wars by providing ready, prompt, and sustained land dominance by Army forces across the full spectrum of conflict as part of the joint force.” What is less clear today is how Americans outside the Army understand its purpose. Americans have for decades associated winning wars with the types of victories achieved in World War II, yet, as Ambassador Ryan Crocker said in testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2021, “Winning and losing, victory and defeat were terms that I did not use in war zones such as Afghanistan and Iraq.” Reflecting this disconnect, most Americans feel America did not succeed in Afghanistan and Iraq, but there is little data to suggest people feel the Army failed in its purpose. This indicates there is a disjuncture in how the Army and the public conceive of its purpose.
Public perceptions of purpose have also likely been influenced by high-profile domestic missions performed by the Army over the past several years. Whether providing protest response in 2020, deploying to the southern border, or securing the U.S. Capitol in the aftermath of January 6, the Army has had a highly visible role in multiple politically charged events. While additional research is needed to fully understand the effects of these missions on public attitudes towards the Army, it is likely that, in addition to potentially weakening public trust, they caused further confusion and fracturing in how Americans understand the Army’s purpose.
In addition to exploring contrasting conceptions of purpose, the Army also needs to assess how Americans, both those in and out of uniform, understand the relationship between the Army and society. This has vital implications for the way potential recruits understand their place in it. There are longstanding dynamics to examine, such as the tension between perceptions of the Army as a patriotic institution of citizen-soldiers versus a highly technical professional organization and the widening gap between the Army and most Americans in terms of social contacts. Even more urgent, however, is for the Army to grapple with newer developments, most notably the stark ideological polarization in the country and its increasing impact on attitudes towards the Army.
In research my organization conducted in late 2022, we found substantial ideological polarization in attitudes towards the military. For example, 45 percent of Democrats versus 15 percent of Republicans feel the military places too little resources and attention towards addressing racism in the force. 60 percent of Republicans versus 39 percent of Democrats agree with the statement, “There is a tradeoff where the more the military focuses on diversity and inclusion, the less it can focus on preparing for war.”
This polarization is both captured and distorted by headlines about a “woke” military and by commentary suggesting conservatives are turning away from military service. In reality, the picture is much more complex. Republicans’ confidence in the military, while still high overall, has dropped, going from 81 percent to 71 percent in one year, a significant decline. At the same time, however, Americans are still much more likely to think members of the military are more conservative (32 percent) than the rest of society than they are to think servicemembers are more liberal (10 percent). This is particularly true for Republicans, 40 percent of whom say servicemembers are more conservative. Further, recent surveys fielded for the Army found that young Americans were deterred from serving primarily due to concerns about the dangers of Army life or that service would put them behind their peers professionally. Getting a firmer grasp of the myths and realities of how Americans perceive their relationship with the Army is crucial if the Army is to speak effectively in a polarized communications environment.
Finally, the Army needs to hear how Americans understand the broader threat context. Americans sense that we have shifted out of the Global War on Terror era. In the most recent Reagan Foundation survey, Americans reported China (43 percent) and Russia (31 percent) as the countries posing the greatest threat to the US. The Army’s Vision 20230 makes this transition explicit, but lacks an overarching frame to help Americans contextualize the security environment in ideological and material terms.
This is a departure from both the Global War on Terror and Cold War eras, where there were compelling frames about the nature of the threat landscape. A risk the Army faces when there is no single threat analogous to that of the Soviet Union or global terrorism is that it defaults to enumerating challenges — China, Russia, cyber, space, climate, etc. — rather than telling a story about the people, values, and ideas at stake. It also becomes more tempting to emphasize the “what” (“deliver precise, longer-range fires,” “sense farther and more persistently”) over the deeper “why.” Yet it is precisely in such a moment, when there are a multitude of threats and Americans’ concerns about foreign affairs are diverging along ideological lines, that the need for a coherent and crisp articulation of the security landscape, one that speaks to issues of identity and values, is greatest.
It is not the Army’s responsibility alone to describe the overall threat context. Both the National Security Strategy and the National Defense Strategy harness the frame “strategic competition.” This frame may convey significant, if still contested, meaning to policy insiders, but it is of questionable value when talking with most Americans, who are less engaged in the nuance of national security and international relations vocabulary. This means it is incumbent on the Army to apply scaffolding, or vertical integration: linking high-level frames with stories that are more salient at the local and personal levels. Vertical integration is what will enable the Army to be coherent across all its communications about the national security landscape, from Pentagon briefings to remarks from a recruiter at a local high school.
Conclusion: Army at 250
The competing and at times contradictory signals in Americans’ attitudes towards the military underscore the need for more research to better understand how Americans feel towards the Army. Already though, two points are clear. First, the landscape is more polarized than when “be all you can be” was previously launched in 1981. And second, things could get worse. A new narrative strategy will help the Army disrupt these dynamics, but only if it produces stories that resonate deeply and widely across the population.
The best method for generating such results starts with hearing directly from the American people, at scale and in-person. As a mechanism to accomplish this, the Army should harness its upcoming 250th anniversary to launch a major public engagement initiative: Army at 250. The focus of this initiative should be on holding thousands of events across the country over the next few years.
The 250th anniversary presents an unusual opportunity to engage with Americans directly. It is the type of milestone that speaks to the need that people have for collective experiences. It is something that people will instinctively pay more attention to, an enormous asset in a competitive attention economy and polarized communications landscape.
The Army should work with civil society partners to execute this project. Veterans organizations, faith groups, and businesses could all set up events and support with marketing. As they are already doing for the nation’s 250th birthday in 2026, states and localities could pass legislation and establish committees to bring more people into the process. The Army should invite historians and filmmakers to study, write, and produce content about the Army’s history and story. Finally, Army at 250 should also include events with military servicemembers and their families, to ensure the new narrative strategy resonates with those currently serving.
The Army has a uniquely compelling story to tell. It is one of service and patriotism, of social mobility and economic opportunity, and, at a time of polarization, one of Americans from all backgrounds supporting each another in a shared endeavor. But this story will not tell itself. A new narrative strategy will be vital in connecting with the American people for years to come.
Dan Vallone is executive director for More in Common US, where he leads the Veterans and Citizens Initiative, a research project to help bridge the gap between the veteran and military family community and the broader society. A former Army infantry officer, Dan served in Afghanistan as part of Operation Enduring Freedom.