The results, released this summer along with smaller reports summarizing the views of youths and parents who participated in more in-depth interviews, show a disturbing trend for service manpower officials.
In the fall of 1991, soon after U.S. and allied forces clobbered Iraq, and towns across America hosted victory parades, the propensity of males to enlist was strong, with 26.2% responding positively.
The figure fell dramatically the following year and has continued to slide ever since, except for a slight rise in interest in 1995 among whites and Hispanics. The latest survey hits a record low. Only 20.7% of young males expect to enter active service.
The sharpest drop in interest has been among young black males. In 1991, 41.4% expected to enter service. The figure fell the next year to 34%. It has leveled off the past two years at 27.5%.
Interest in the military among Hispanic males actually has climbed, from 37.7% in 1991 to 39.3% in 1996. But the propensity to enlist among white males fell significantly over the period, from 21.3% to 15.2%.
Even as white and black males grow less inclined to serve, interest in the military among young females is rising. Their propensity to enlist fell initially after the Gulf War, but rose from 8.5% in 1993 to 10.6% in 1996. The data show black and Hispanic women three times more likely to enlist than white women.
But why has interest in the military fallen so sharply among black and white males?
The Defense Manpower Data Center says it can't pull a "satisfying explanation" from the survey data. It did draw valuable insights from focus groups with youth and parents in the fall of 1996. One clear finding is that military leaders miss the mark when they blame the force drawdown for a declining interest in joining the armed forces.
"Young people don't understand we're still hiring," Pentagon officials have said over and over since 1992, when a worrisome slide in propensity to enlist first began.
In fact, the decline is not tied to a misperception about recruiting.
"Young men and parents know the military is hiring," wrote Defense Manpower Data Center analysts Anita R. Lancaster and Jerry Lehnus in a paper summarizing the focus group comments. "They said they were swamped with recruiting literature. Sole parents, particularly moms, reported throwing the literature away so their sons would not see it." Both recruiters and their handouts "appear to have little credibility."
"Over and over, parents and youth referred to recruiters and advertising as `painting a rosy picture' that was not believable. Recruiters were perceived as conducting excessive, ineffective soliciting of uninterested youth. Both parents and youth did not trust military recruiters and believed advertising messages are inaccurate and inflated. The focus groups suggested more and more young men, black and white, see a college education as the path to success, and military service as an unnecessary interruption.
"When youth were asked how they would pay for college if conventional sources disappeared (loans, parents' funding), it was disappointing that only a few mentioned joining the military to obtain funding," the paper says.
With the Cold War over, young men see the military as less relevant. Peace-keeping operations in places like Haiti, Somalia, and Bosnia only dampen their interest. "They objected," the paper says, "to being put in jeopardy to fight someone else's battles." They also view service now as more dangerous than during the Cold War.
Black youth and their parents "seemed more sensitive to the dangers of military service and debated whether the military was a good place for blacks today."
While black parents said the military historically has been an honorable way to gain upward mobility, "they greatly preferred their sons to follow the more traditional path of white youth-going to college," the paper says.
Overall, young males perceive the sacrifices of service life-including "humiliations" of boot camp and limits on personal freedoms-as far outweighing benefits such as improved self-discipline and educational funding.
Parents still have the greatest influence over whether youth enlist, but few parents in the focus groups thought the military was right for their sons. Many doubted that their sons could adapt to the discipline. And like their sons, most parents said they did not support post-Cold War humanitarian and peacekeeping missions.