Over the past couple of years, there has been a spate of MSM articles about the military’s struggle to meet recruiting goals. Most of the problems have been in the Army, but the pundits suggest that continuing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan are making it tougher to find recruits across the board.

But in reality, our long-term recruiting problems may be less a reflection of the War on Terror, and more about societal issues, namely the large number of young Americans who are ineligible for military service.

According to a panel of senior military officers, most of the nation’s youth are not eligible for military service because they are too fat, too weak, not smart enough and prone to drug-use and criminal behavior.

Vice-Admiral John Cotton, Commander of the Naval Reserve (and a panel participant) said 72% of young men and women between the ages of 17 and 24–considered the prime target group for armed forces recruiters–are ineligible for military service due to fitness and academic deficiencies, or past problems with the law. He also noted that 30% of American males drop out of high school, and said the nation will be surprised as the number of military-eligible youth continues to decline:

“We are all victims of our own past success. We all have a conscript mentality that there’s a never-ending supply of perfect high school graduates that are over the horizon coming at us to fill every job we have,” said Admiral Cotton. “I’ll tell you what, we’re about to be shocked, because they are not there.”

The panel on recruiting and retention efforts featured officers from each branch of the military, and was conducted as part of a “Transformation Warfare” Conference, held this week in Virginia Beach, Virginia. The event was sponsored by the U.S. Naval Institute and the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association, according to Air Force Times.

Admiral Cotton’s remarks represent the “inconvenient truth” of military recruiting; demographic and qualification issues that will persist long after our forces leave the Middle East. Simply stated, a generation raised on junk food, medicated with psychotropic drugs, prone to criminal behavior, unaccustomed to physical activity and with marginal academic skills–is simply a poor fit for the U.S. military.

And remember: the statistics cited by Admiral Cotton and his fellow panel members refer to basic entrance requirements. If you want to teach recruits to maintain a state-of-the-art military system, or give them a Top Secret/SCI security clearance, they must meet even higher standards. Finding young men and women who meet those criteria will be even more difficult in the years ahead, if present trends continue (and there’s no reason to believe they won’t).

This isn’t a military problem, it’s a societal problem, with daunting consequences for our national security and America’s future. Readers will note that none of the officers on the panel offered any quick fixes for this dilemma because they simply don’t exist. Barring some sort of turn-around among the nation’s young people, military recruiters will face a declining base of men and women who meet requirements for enlistment.

That, in turn, will force even more hard choices. Do we: (A) Bring back a draft, to widen the pool of eligible youth; (B) Water-down entrance standards for our current, all-volunteer force, or (C) accelerate the trend toward automation and outsourcing on the battlefield, despite the fact that military “boots on the ground” may our best weapon in the types of conflicts we’re likely to face.

Historically, a military has been the product of the nation it serves. But in many respects, our current military forces are atypical, reflecting levels of education and standards of conduct that are well above societal norms. The young men and women who join the armed services have been rightly described as our best and brightest. Sadly, their ranks are dwindling, and no one seems willing to address the social, educational and behavioral issues that are driving this problem.