The other reasons for the military's woes can be found in veterans' halls, on college campuses and in Hollywood movie studios, where today's military has failed to create mythical warriors to match the 1980s' "Top Gun" and "Rambo."
Military retirees are angry over health-care cuts and are not promoting military careers. College enrollment is at an all-time high, thinning a marginal recruiting pool. And baby boomers raised on Vietnam don't feel connected to the military.
The 'Net Generation'
The source of the disaffection also can be found in millions of Internet-connected American homes, where the "Net Generation" lives. In its own research, the Army acknowledges that the characteristics of today's young adults don't mesh with military life.
Maj. Rick Ayer is among a growing number of Army officers studying why Net Generation young people seem less likely than their predecessors to join the service.
"There has been a real shift in their attitude about where they can get the skills, the personal assets they need to succeed in life," says Ayer, who heads Army Recruiting Command's research at Fort Knox, Ky.
"It's a shift toward civilian industries, jobs and education as the place to pick up those skills."
Lt. Col. Fred Kienle, who commands a basic-training battalion at Fort Jackson, has witnessed changes in youth attitudes that he believes are profound. Reflecting on 21 years in the Army, and the daily headaches of training marginally interested recruits, he makes this observation:
"We have a world-class problem."
Petty Officer 1st Class Felix Martinez leans across the table at the air-operations building at Mayport Naval Station, Fla., and blurts out a bittersweet truth.
"I'm willing to die for my country," Martinez says. "But I will not recommend the military to my son."
The military just doesn't take care of its people like it once did, he says.
Seated around a wood-paneled conference room, a half-dozen sailors share stories of where they believe the Navy is headed.
Shangri-La is probably not among the ports of call. A few are hopeful things will turn around. But most are tired, overworked and concerned about how Uncle Sam will find people in the future. The Navy, its fleet cut by a third to 324 ships, soon may have to send out an SOS for warm bodies. Strapped to fill even the downsized fleet, naval commanders announced recently that they would no longer dismiss sailors who failed the service's regular physical-fitness tests.
Army officials say they are considering a similar move.
Having greatly increased the number of recruiters and lowered standards to take significantly more teens without high-school diplomas, the Navy isn't expecting a shortfall this year.
However, the Navy these new sailors will enter might shock some of them.
Ethan Williams, a petty officer third class, works on gas-turbine helicopters at Mayport. While his maintenance shop should have "six to eight people," Williams says, it has three.
He plans to leave the Navy after seven years, though he loves his job.
"It's kind of scary," Williams says, describing the shortage of manpower and the continued exodus of experienced sailors.
Helis, the Army recruiting commander, describes the downward spiral that has vexed the military's best planners.
Because so many people are leaving the military today, he says, it creates a larger demand for new recruits. The Army and other services, driven by the annual need to find about 200,000 new enlisted people, must recruit increasingly uninterested prospects, who leave at a higher-than-normal rate.
The result is an ever-escalating workload for career military people that is reminiscent of the U.S. military's decay after Vietnam.
"We don't know how to break the cycle," Helis says, trying to describe the services' attempts to get off the treadmill.
The Army is losing 37 percent of all soldiers before they complete their first enlistment. Many, Helis and others believe, simply don't want to be there. Although the volunteer enlistees are under contract, they can leave for numerous reasons, from physical problems to failure to adjust to military life.
It is common to walk onto most military bases today and find a veteran noncommissioned officer doing the work of two or three people.
That kind of workload won't sustain a downsized military of 1.4 million, especially with a vibrant civilian economy offering good-paying jobs.
Says one Army commander who's served 20 years and fears for the future: "I can't believe the military leadership thinks we can do what we do around the world with this size force."
Col. Clyde Slick has seen a couple of generations of Marines come and go, from the post-Vietnam days when castoffs filled the military's ranks to the Pentagon's remarkable renaissance in the 1980s.
Slick now heads Marine Corps recruiting in the Southeast from his office at Parris Island, S.C. The good news: The Marines are finding enough recruits this year.