Rethinking the Shape of the Military
Not all controversies in foreign affairs and national affairs are new. Some are old, and have been with the American voter and policymaker for some time. But even these issues sometimes require reexamination—especially when conventional wisdom changes. So it is today when, after weathering four decades and two major wars, two prolonged insurgencies and a host of lesser contingencies, the American All-Volunteer Force (AVF) is finally beginning to draw sustained, critical attention.
At first glance, such revisionism might seem like heresy, because the AVF is arguably one of the most successful defense policies in the nation’s history. In her definitive history of the AVF, scholar Beth Bailey concludes,
Short of massive, total war, the United States is not going to reinstate the draft. There is little public desire; there is no political will. The majority of citizens in this democratic nation have chosen to define military service as a choice rather than an obligation.(1)
There is considerable evidence confirming her assessment. Like the Vietnam War’s last casualty, its draftee Army—constantly challenged by social unrest and political dissent—in 1973 gave way to the all-volunteer force. Though silently opposed by most of the military brass, the AVF was demanded by the American public and gladly supplied by President Richard Nixon. Thereafter, the long post-Vietnam turnaround began, led by commissioned and non-commissioned officers who gradually transformed the new volunteers into professionals. Almost twenty years later, one-sided American victory in the first Iraq War banished any lingering stereotypes and translated into popular esteem that has endured ever since.(2)
So why argue with success? Indeed, why bother to reassess the AVF, one of the few examples of a deliberate policy choice that still functions much as it was intended? One obvious reason is the passage of time, which begs hard questions about ground truths. Are the ideas, perspectives and scholarship which framed the transition from conscript to volunteer force still valid after nearly a half-century? As Beth Bailey also notes, the Gates Commission, formally known as the President’s Commission on an All-Volunteer Armed Force, met from March 1969 to February 1970, during which period, “6,106 American servicemen died in Vietnam.”(3) In his voluminous 2006 study, RAND’s Bernard Rostker argues that popular acceptance of the AVF grew because of, inter alia, opposition to the war in Vietnam; changing demographics, as Baby Boomers reached draft age; and, the expectation, based on those demographics, that volunteer recruitment would be cost-effective.(4) Such perceptions inevitably shaped the deliberations of the Gates Commission (which included future Nobel Laureate and free market apostle Milton Friedman) as it reached consensus and rendered its final judgments. Yet those causes read today like the half-forgotten relics from an earlier era in American history.
Long before either war in Iraq, it was possible to wonder if the AVF, despite being a conspicuously successful manpower policy, also carried hidden costs which became visible only over time. As one of those draft-eligible Baby Boomers, I devoutly wished that the Gates Commission had been empanelled far earlier. Following college graduation in 1969, I “enlisted” for Officer Candidate School as a “draft-induced volunteer.” Back then, such grim absurdities were shared by every American draft-age male. But by the time I entered graduate school, now a captain en route to the West Point faculty, things had dramatically changed. During those days of Argo, when President Jimmy Carter resumed draft registration, an Israeli Army classmate observed, “In Israel, our army is Us. But in your country, the U.S. Army is Them.”
His incisive comment eventually shaped the prologue to my 2006 book Warheads, which read as follows: “Despite living in a nation at war, we Americans are as likely to know a resident of North Dakota—by population our 48th-smallest state—as a soldier serving on active duty in the United States Army"(5). At that point, both populations numbered around 600,000. Today, however, we usually state the same ratio in a slightly different way: Less than one percent of the American population serves in uniform (i.e., Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines) while more than 99 percent do not.(6) As Warheads argued, we have become a nation that habitually fights our wars using Other People’s Kids. That pejorative phrase was deliberately chosen to convey the wall of separation that now exists in America between the defender and those they defend, the most significant social segregation to have occurred over my lifetime. It hardly requires emphasis that this separation is the responsibility of both parties, and of presidential and congressional leadership, bi-partisan and bi-cameral.
Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, an early AVF advocate and still a persuasive defender, points out that the one percent who serve also have important if unquantifiable impacts on their families, extended families as well as friends and other acquaintances.(7) True enough; so too the caveat that America’s wars have all been fought by the few, selected to defend the many left at home. But whether the actual ratio of defender to defended is slightly greater or slightly less than one percent, what happens when the soldier goes to war while his country does not? Even more troubling, does the failure to share high stakes and a common public purpose after 9/11 effectively compromise the social contract between the soldier and the citizen? Or has the American citizen-soldier become just another contradiction joined principally by a hyphen?
Those are important questions for any generation, but are now especially timely. As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down, what lessons should be drawn from our collective experience with the AVF during the Wars of 9/11? What might they suggest about future changes or possible alternatives? Is conventional wisdom finally changing?
The long gray line looks back
Some of the most probing insights into the AVF originate from within the U.S. military, proffered by those whose distinguished military careers have been shaped by events most Americans saw only at a distance. Take just three.
General Stanley McChrystal, former commander of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, began his 2013 memoir with a reference to Horatius at the bridge. In addition to his own leadership consulting group, General McChrystal today chairs the leadership council of the Aspen Institute’s Franklin Project. Its lofty goal: to “create one million civilian national service opportunities every year for Americans between the ages of 18 and 28… A one-million-strong civilian service corps would be on a par with one million Americans on active duty in our Armed Forces.” Although the Franklin Project is a private sector initiative, General McChrystal also believes that
…it’s time to strongly consider a return to conscription. In my view, it’s less to fill the force with talent, than it is to ensure the opportunity (to distribute) military service is more evenly…across our population. As important as military service is during the years of service, graduating military service alumni into every part of American society is critical. And we don’t do that very well right now… I had a Congressman actually recommend to me in 2009 that we put illegal aliens into Battalions and if they survive Afghanistan—they’d win their freedom. I reminded him of the Janissaries—but don’t think he got the point.(10)
General McChrystal crisply underlines the steadily increasing separation of the veteran from American elites, logical enough for a one-percent minority. His work on the Franklin Project may suggest that some of those elites have begun to pay attention. But Congressional isolation from the military forces it oversees is a persistent trend. Warheads cited statistics showing that only 25 percent of the 109th Congress had previous military affiliations. In today’s 113th Congress, the Congressional Research Service reports that only 19 percent had those affiliations, continuing the 40-year decline which began the same year the AVF was inaugurated.(11)
Another expert worth noting is Ambassador Karl W. Eikenberry. The former commander of the U.S. contingent in Afghanistan before being named as the American ambassador, retired Lieutenant General Eikenberry is the author of a widely noted 2013 Washington Quarterly article in which he argued persuasively that the most sacred assumptions of the Gates Commission have become dead letter issues. For example, conscription played an unappreciated but crucial role connecting the American people to their military. Unraveling one side of that equation necessarily led to a “political decoupling of the military from the American people…” Among its worst effects: an annual deployment ratio for the AVF “five times higher than that of the draft force.” With a professional force now brandished over every thorny international issue, overcommitment became an easy alternative. Or, as the ambassador aptly noted, “with well-resourced and capable volunteers, supplemented by generally willing reservists, America’s politicians have not faced significant grassroots opposition (since 9/11)… quite unlike the Vietnam experience.”(12)
The same decoupling has led to a general lack of political ownership over the military, with congressional oversight becoming more symbolic than real:
With the attendant loss of expertise, family ties and perhaps even interest, Congress appears less inclined to rigorously challenge senior military officers’ advice or question their management practices. Indeed, nearly abject congressional deference to the military has become all too common.(13)
An especially perverse logic seems to be at work. With congressional disinterest, the AVF enjoys unprecedented degrees of “corporate autonomy and entitlement.” Left largely to its own devices, military accountability suffers too. But perhaps Ambassador Ikenberry’s most damning argument is his final one: ending conscription has also compromised American civic virtue. “We collectively claim the need for robust armed forces given the multi-faceted threats our country faces; and yet as individuals we do not wish to be troubled with any personal responsibility for manning the frontier.”(14)
Finally, there is Andrew J. Bacevich, a Vietnam veteran, retired career Army officer and, as a professor at Boston University, one of the nation’s leading military scholars. With the publication of his 2013 book, Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country, it can be argued that the post-AVF revisionism is in full swing. Professor Bacevich is merciless in showing the current breach of trust that characterizes the relationship between the American people and the U.S. armed forces. Even after the catastrophic attacks on 9/11, he notes,
the nation did not mobilize. Congress did not raise taxes, curtail consumption or otherwise adjust…That a state undertaking what it explicitly called global war might consider reinstituting conscription was too far-fetched even to contemplate.(15)
When America attacked Afghanistan shortly afterwards, we deployed elite Special Forces and precision-
technology, bunker-busting, super-bombs—all of which quickly shocked the locals into submission. The 2003 invasion of Iraq was planned in similar fashion, using the Army’s high-tech armored formations as the main striking force. But while victory in both Afghanistan and Iraq was easy, winning the peace proved more difficult. As both conflicts morphed into gritty insurgencies, the high-quality force proved chronically short of numbers:
Given the reliance on volunteers—(since) military service had become a matter of choice rather than obligation—there existed no easy way to convert a too-small force into a sufficiently large one…For career regulars, all this translated into recurring combat tours…. This became the new normal…They kept going back again and again to wars they could not win.(16)
And while AVF was too small, it was also too expensive. While the Gates Commission might have nodded sagely at the modest monthly wage of the volunteer Army private first class ($1,757), even Milton Friedman would surely have recoiled at the costs of deploying that soldier to war zones half a world away. As Bacevich notes, “to maintain each and every soldier that the United States deployed to… Iraq and Afghanistan, the army was spending a million dollars per year.”(17) Even for a rich nation such as ours, paying such sums eventually adds up to real money.
Lessons we should learn
In wartime, it is often difficult to assess the underlying damage until after hostilities have ended. Even as American soldiers were still fighting in Afghanistan, a little-noticed 2013 RAND report documented another grim milestone. Updating a 2008 study, RAND measured existing strains on the hard-pressed American soldier. It found that “roughly 73 percent of (Army) soldiers had deployed to Iraq and/or Afghanistan… Most of these soldiers were (now) working on their second, third or fourth year of cumulative deployed duty.”(18) Maybe it was just coincidence, but the year before, 325 US Army soldiers had committed suicide, more than were killed in combat by their Taliban opponents—a record total.(19) Out of sight and out of mind, American troops were still saying goodbye to their families time after time, repeatedly risking hazards ranging from death and divorce to the signature wounds of the wars of 9/11: traumatic amputation, traumatic brain injury and PTSD. The logic was both seductive and enduring. AVF manpower was expensive and scarce while manpower demands were unrelenting; the only possible answer was that the soldier was deployed and redeployed.
The troops could only hope that the Law of Averages had somehow been repealed; yet the evidence suggested otherwise. Although virtually unnoticed, James Johnson’s 2010 book Combat Trauma provided a dramatic new look at the long-term effects of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Describing PTSD as a “combat wound to the soul,” Johnson gathered first-person accounts from 16 other decorated combat veterans to back up his argument that, “The greater the exposure to traumatic events, the greater the likelihood that psychological injury will occur.”(20) In other words, PTSD is like radiation: its effects depend directly on the soldier’s degree of exposure. Even more sobering: Johnson’s first-hand testimony reflected the combat trauma he and his friends had sustained not in Iraq or Afghanistan but in Vietnam 30 years earlier. These wounded veterans had battled PTSD for a generation after Vietnam; yet their combat tours averaged only one year, not three or four. Given that grim precedent, there is simply no way to imagine how long the agonies of our Iraq and Afghanistan veterans might endure.
So what lessons should we have learned about the use of the AVF during the Wars of 9/11?
9/11 and the missing mobilization
When terrorists struck on 9/11, I was an on-air military analyst for NBC News, glibly assuring the national TV audience that America would surely declare war on its enemies and mobilize its citizenry for the first time since December 7th, 1941. The evidence of just how wrong I was is extensively documented by the voluminous memoirs of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Condoleezza Rice.(21) Their books are filled with insider accounts of how laws were changed, strategies planned and frameworks endlessly developed. Yet what appears nowhere in those pages is the definitive defense of why the American people were not called to the colors on 9/11. Instead, we were urged to return to life as usual—from shopping malls to college campuses—because America’s vaunted AVF would handle any bleeding or dying that might be required. Far and away the best history, Donald Rumsfeld’s exhaustively documented memoir (and accompanying website) will be treasured by current and future scholars. He even included a fascinating account of his famous October, 2003, “Long, hard slog memo,” warning of what might be ahead after the recent “victory” in Iraq.(22)
Yet none of those decision-makers appear to have taken a leaf from the books of our wisest historians—like Barbara Tuchman, Ernest May or Eliot Cohen—to ask inconvenient, possibly infuriating but absolutely essential questions that re-examined first causes.(23) For example:
- Why are we doing things the way we are doing them?
- If Iraq and Afghanistan prove to be longer conflicts than we first thought, then what adjustments should we make?
- Since we are relying more heavily on both the active-duty force and the Reserves, should we expand our manpower base—and if so, how?
Those failings are not solely the fault of Messrs. Bush, Cheney, et al., because Congress shares an equal and possibly greater responsibility “to raise armies and maintain navies:” So where were they, when a rethink was necessary? And if Congress fell short in its responsibilities for Constitutional oversight, then what about “We the People?” What culpability is borne by the ordinary citizen when we send our soldiers to war while the country remains at peace—untouched, uncaring and blissfully uninvolved?
Smaller wars, closer to home?
Since World War II, the U.S. Army’s principal missions have been “expeditionary” rather than its traditional 19th-century constabulary functions of territorial and hemispheric defense. Especially in defending the homeland, there is good reason for believing that our hard-pressed Reserve components may shortly find themselves responsible for new applications of much older missions. Thomas Ricks, for example, is only the most prominent defense analyst to warn that
We are now living in an era of strategic uncertainty, just as Marshall was in his first years as chief of staff…Old adversaries have disappeared…and new ones may be emerging. In addition, non-state foes, such as terrorists, loom much larger in American calculations than ever before.(24)
In addition to the now familiar responsibility of combating terrorism, the laundry-list of nightmarish 21st-century challenges includes: cyber warfare, electromagnetic pulse, natural disasters, human trafficking and the myriad complexities spawned by failed or failing states. In the border states of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California, illegal immigration is barely distinguishable from the continuing low-intensity conflict with the Mexican drug cartels. These formidable non-state actors are prototypes for the formless, highly networked pattern of 21st-century conflict, in which drug smugglers differ from terrorists only by their objectives, not their tactics. The Texas Department of Public Safety reports that they annually apprehend thousands of a new and growing demographic: OTM, or Other Than Mexicans. Making matters even more interesting is the presence of the Eagle Ford Shale Formation, bisecting the Tex-Mex border and bringing the new wealth of an oil boom to a chronically underdeveloped and often violent region.
As these challenges of defending the American homeland are re-discovered in the 21st century, what role should be played by the AVF, particularly its Reserve components? If territorial defense of the American homeland becomes an urgent strategic issue, then how will our Reserve forces help meet that challenge? In particular, will their recent exposure to counterinsurgency warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan make them an especially useful military asset much closer to home?(25)
Onward from the AVF
There may be no better reason to revise our thinking about the AVF than to update our thinking on both its possibilities and challenges. Beth Bailey is surely correct when she concludes that, absent “massive, total war,” there is virtually no prospect for the draft to be reinstated.(26) Yet so is Andrew Bacevich when he passionately calls for the return of the American citizen-soldier:
The problem for the rest of us… grasping the implications, moral and political, of sending the few to engage in an endless war while the many stand by—passive, mute and, yet, whether they like it or not, deeply complicit.(27)
Although America may not need a draft, it does need to engineer a more flexible military manpower system. How else to repair the profound social cleavages now separating the defender from the defended? The answer may be a tiered system of national service.
In the 21st century, such a graduated system would leave the active-duty military precisely as it is today: an all-volunteer force sustained by voluntary enlistments that offer a variety of monetary and educational incentives. Its major mission: projecting American military power abroad.
To help re-create the incentive for national service, create in law an objective for young people to complete a year of national service sometime between the ages of 18 and 25. Each young adult would be required to complete a year of service in return for enjoying the lifetime privileges of American citizenship. Completing that minimum requirement would also be a prerequisite for education benefits, currently linked only to need. Or, as renowned military sociologist Charles Moskos famously put it, “American educational policy is like having the GI Bill but without the GI.” So why not begin there?
The greatest beneficiaries from a system of tiered military service would be the reserve component, re-purposed and expanded to become the bulwark of homeland defense. That refinement would effectively end the present use of the reserves as a manpower slush fund for foreign deployments, particularly if retained at state level as part of the National Guard. The reserves might still be volunteers, a tradition dating back to the Minutemen. But their terms of enlistment could vary from the one-year national service minimum to longer periods—and proportionally greater educational benefits.
Public-private initiatives like the Franklin Project would be another way of satisfying the one-year obligation. Many different forms of public service could be included, especially appealing for young people lacking the aptitude or inclination for military service.
However commendable, ambitious initiatives like the Franklin Project are only baby steps in creating a vastly different set of individual and institutional expectations. The only scholarship which seriously examined national or voluntary service as potential alternatives is almost as dated as the AVF. While that earlier generation was naturally shaped by the end of conscription, contemporary American society is profoundly different, especially in matters of individual responsibility and accountability. How could the notion of national service even be considered when the zeitgeist of social disengagement has been memorably characterized as Bowling Alone?(28)
If that sounds visionary, then a timely counterpoint arises from a nearly forgotten chapter in American history. In his 2010 article in Armed Forces & Society, retired colonel Charles Heller reminds us that the Civilian Conservation Corps began as a Depression-era program reluctantly shepherded by an understrength and under-equipped United States Army. The Army brass felt that a mere jobs program was not their responsibility while President Roosevelt worried that “the program might be construed as similar to the German Hitler Youth.” But with strong Congressional backing and FDR’s active involvement, CCC camps were quickly established across the country, most commanded by regular Army officers. One of those commanders was a promising young colonel named George Marshall. While Marshall may have had reservations about this non-martial duty, he instructed his junior officers that their futures depended on “the efficiencies of their companies, their administration of the camp, the excellence of the mess, morale of the men and the work done in the woods.” But if they failed to perform well then he would be “compelled to protect the interest of 200 boys rather than one reserve officer” who needed work.(29)
Neither George Marshall nor any of his officers had any way of knowing that the leadership lessons honed in those rough CCC camps would be tested a decade later during World War II; much less that many of the disheveled, unemployed and generally hopeless youth who graduated from those camps would become the non-commissioned officers on whom victory in a thousand battles would depend. The lesson then and now is that giving young people a mission, high expectations and a reason to excel is an investment that will always pay high dividends.
Colonel Kenneth Allard, USA (ret.) is the former Dean of Students at the National War College, among numerous other military postings. He holds a Ph.D. in International Security from the Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy at Tufts University, and writes about national security issues as a columnist for the Washington Times.
2. For example, a Pew Research poll published on July 11, 2013, “Public Esteem for Military Still High,” found that 78 percent of Americans had a high regard for the American military, more than any other professional group. At the bottom of the list were journalists, business executives and lawyers.
6. In introducing his 2013 book, David M. Kennedy lists those numbers as 0.5 percent, in contrast to the 2 percent who served in Vietnam and the 9 percent who served in World War II. David M. Kennedy, ed., The Modern American Military (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 2.
11. Allard, Warheads, 4; Jennifer E. Manning, Membership of the 113th Congress: A Profile (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, 14 March 2014), http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R42964.pdf.
18. Dave Biocchi, Measuring Army Deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2013), http://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR145.html.
21. Specifically, George W. Bush, Decision Points (New York: Crown Publishers, 2010); Dick Cheney, In My Time: A Personal and Political Memoir (New York: Threshold, Simon & Schuster, 2011); Donald Rumsfeld, Known and Unknown (New York: Sentinel, 2011); and, Condoleezza Rice, No Higher Honor (New York: Crown Publishers, 2011).
28. The definitive treatment of this issue is by Richard Danzig & Peter Szanton, National Service: What Would It Mean? (Lexington: MA: D.C. Heath & Co, 1986); see also Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000).