As the other large military branches fall short of their goals despite offering signing bonuses and other incentives, the Marine Corps easily fills its ranks on swagger alone.
These are dark days for military recruiting.
The Army, Navy and Air Force have tried almost everything in their power to bring in new people. They’ve relaxed enlistment standards, set up remedial schools for recruits who can’t pass entry tests, and offered signing bonuses worth up to $75,000. Still, this year the three services together fell short by more than 25,000 recruits.
Military leaders say there are so few Americans who are willing and able to serve, and so many civilian employers competing for them, that getting enough people into uniform is nearly impossible.
Tell that to the Marines.
The Marine Corps ended the recruiting year on Sept. 30 having met 100 percent of its goal, with hundreds of contracts already signed for the next year.
The corps did it while keeping enlistment standards tight and offering next to no perks. When asked earlier this year about whether the Marines would offer extra money to attract recruits, the commandant of the Marine Corps replied: “Your bonus is that you get to call yourself a Marine. That’s your bonus.”
In a nutshell, that is the Marine Corps’ marketing strategy: Dismiss financial incentives as chump change compared with the honor of joining the Corps. Brush off the idea of military service as a steppingstone to civilian career opportunities. Instead, dangle the promise of the chance to be part of something intangible, timeless and elite.
It’s more than a little mystifying to the other service branches, because the Marine Corps — a quick-reaction force made up of light, highly mobile infantry, armor and supporting attack aircraft — is not so different from the rest of the military. Except in its rabid insistence that it is. But mystifying or not, the message is working.
At the main Marine recruiting office for the state of Arizona on a recent morning, Gunnery Sgt. Daniel Burrell mused about what might have been the hardest part of finding enough recruits this year. Nothing came to mind.
“We’re in a healthy position to ship more than we’re scheduled to,” he said, adding that recruiters in Arizona already had a sizable pool of recruits contracted for next year.
Sergeant Burrell said he simply tells young people — mostly men — what the Marine Corps offers: “The opportunity to call yourself a Marine, to earn that title.”
“But I have to tell people, it’s not for everyone,” he quickly added.
Katherine Kuzminski, who studies military personnel issues at the Center for New American Security, said that the Marine Corps’ tough and coyly negging message — broadcast through commercials, posters, and the terse words of hard-bodied Marines — has changed little in 50 years.
“The message they sell is, ‘You should be so lucky to be one of us,’” she said. “The Marine commercials market this vision of a disciplined corps who sleep on the ground, eat dirt and fight dragons. For certain people, that has had a lasting appeal.”
To be sure, the Marine Corps does not have to fill nearly as many boots as the Army does. And it outsources many of its noncombat jobs to the Navy, so comparing the different branches is difficult. Still, Ms. Kuzminski said, the mystique the Marine Corps has managed to build around itself has young people reliably lining up to join.
The Marine Corps exceeded its goal of 28,900 enlistments this year, and also exceeded its goals for officers and reservists. It did offer a few bonuses, but they were small and limited to a few hard-to-fill computer jobs.
The real secret, Marines say, is consistency: The corps has stuck with the well-worn message that they are looking for “the few, the proud” to fight the nation’s battles.
The other branches have frequently rebranded themselves, trying to find something that would have the same resonance. The Army went through at least four recruiting slogans over the past 20 years, and then reverted in 2023 to a 1980s-era standby, “Be all that you can be.”
It hasn’t helped. In the year ended Sept. 30, the Army wanted to recruit 65,000 active duty soldiers, but ended up with about 50,000. It was the third straight year the Army missed its goal, forcing the active duty Army to cut unfilled positions and shrink to 452,000 troops, from 485,000 in 2021.
“This is an existential issue for us,” Army Secretary Christine E. Wormuth said in a call with reporters earlier this month.
The Army is by far the largest branch, and must find the most recruits each year. But other branches are facing similar problems.
The Navy began offering cash bonuses and a student loan repayment program, raised the maximum enlistment age to 41 from 39, and took in the maximum allowable number of what are called Category IV recruits, who score fairly low on military aptitude tests. It barely met its goal last year and fell about 7,500 sailors short this year.
Even the Air Force, which once could rely on having its pick of recruits, faltered this year, falling about 10 percent short of its goal of 26,877 new airmen.
“It’s been getting harder to recruit, and the military expects it to continue to get harder,” said David R. Segal, a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland who has studied recruiting trends for decades.
For one thing, about 77 percent of young people are ineligible to enlist because they are overweight, or have disqualifying mental or physical conditions or issues with drug use, according to a Defense Department report.
Recruiters have long known that the biggest factor in a young person’s decision to enlist is whether the prospect has a trusted mentor — a parent, relative, coach or teacher — who served. But the military has been shrinking for decades, and service has become more concentrated in a few regions and demographic groups, so those mentoring relationships have been getting rarer.
The Marines have an advantage on this front, Mr. Segal said. The other branches rely heavily on career professionals who stay in uniform for many years. But the vast majority of Marines are combat troops who serve only one four-year enlistment.
“That means you have all these young, fit people who love the Marine Corps, going back to their neighborhoods and telling their story,” he said. “It’s a huge, informal recruiting force.”
The Army plans to revamp how it finds new soldiers, in part by seeking out more recruits who have completed some college and are searching for direction. The Navy and Air Force also have strategies for better outreach, including an Air Force program that offers free flying lessons.
The Marines don’t have any plans to change.
For decades, Marine recruiters have set 11 small metal “benefit tags” in front of prospective recruits, each listing a reason to join the corps. Pick the ones that appeal to you, recruiters say. Some of the tags list material benefits like financial security and professional development, but most are for intangibles like courage, discipline, challenge, and pride of belonging.
The people who choose the material benefit tags are often encouraged to try one of the other branches instead. The ones who are drawn to the intangibles, recruiters say, will probably become Marines.
Sergeant Burrell, the recruiter in Arizona, said that when he was thinking about joining the Marines more than a decade ago, he asked the recruiter for a bonus. The recruiter replied that if it was money he wanted, he should go somewhere else. He enlisted in the Marines anyway.
“I guess I just wanted to prove my worth,” he said. “There is a lot of value in that.”