Sociopolitical Problem of the All-volunteer Military: All-volunteer Military

All-volunteer Military

In 1969, four years before the United States eliminated the draft and moved to an all-volunteer force, a member of the President’s Commission on an All-Volunteer Armed Force wrote to its chairman that ‘while there is a reasonable possibility that a peacetime armed force could be entirely voluntary, I am certain that an armed force involved in a major conflict could not be voluntary.’”[1] – Crawford H. Greenewalt

Though despite reservation by the President’s Administration and Administrations prior to the Richard Nixon taking the Oval Office, the United State implemented the All-volunteer military, replacing conscription, which had been the military structure since the end of World War II. “When conceived toward the end of Vietnam, the All-Volunteer Force assured Americans that the government would never again force citizens to fight a war they oppose. Henceforth, when it came to military service, the state might solicit, but it could no longer command.”[2] Andrew Bacevich explains further the intent of the AVF when he writes, “The bargain implicit in the All-Volunteer Force from the moment of its inception redefined military service as choice rather than obligation.”[3] When the question is raised about the effectiveness of the AVF in the current world climate, Bacevich explains that it doesn’t matter because the bargain made by the American government with the American citizens was that the citizen themselves could decide if a war was worth fighting by volunteering or refusing to do so.[4] Greenewalt’s fears have yet to come to fruition, but the last 15 years or so of war has pushed the AVF beyond its limits. However, be discussing the AVF’s shortfalls, it’s important to understand the intent of the AVF.

Quite simply, the AVF was the result of the Vietnam War and the collapse of the military system, most importantly those who served within that system. With the escalation of war in Vietnam in 1966, intellectuals, mostly economists, began researching the possibility of sustaining an all-volunteer military.[5] When President Richard Nixon was elected in he established the Gates Commission to study the feasibility of an All-volunteer military.[6] Named after then Secretary of Defense Thomas Gates, those in the commission, influenced in particularly by economist Milton Friedman, unanimously recommended the “abolition of the draft and the implementation of an AVF,” in 1970.[7] Despite reservations, the country moved forward with AVF. So, what’s the case for the All-Volunteer Force? The American public was willing to accept conscription based on the simple promise of the military draft being equal. However, the belief in the military draft equality began to erode as deferments for education and to the more affluent in society began to increase proving to be divisive enough topic to topple the system of conscription.

There were a few promises that those in favor of the all-volunteer force used to argue the case for an AVF. By the end of the 1960s, those who had opposed any idea of an all-volunteer military had begun to change their minds as pro-AVF began to make their case. The first of five major reasons AVF was accepted was demographics. The American population was growing and continues to grow at such a rate that the amount of draft eligible American men far exceeds what the military would ever need.[8] The 211.91 million Americans in 1973 was far greater than the 130.88 in 1939 at the beginning of the Second World War.[9] Today, there are currently 322.69 million Americans, so more than a hundred million more than in 1973 and more than double the number of Americans in 1939.[10] So the President’s Commission argued that there would be enough volunteers to sustain an American military. By some estimates there are more Millennials, or draft eligible men, than there were Baby Boomers, which was the largest generation in American history.[11] So, it stands to reason that there are more draft eligible men than the military currently requires; however, the argument made by the Commission didn’t take into consideration generational norms about service or civic obligation. There are more Americans today, but according to Pew Research and recent Harvard Polls there are far fewer Millennials willing to serve than in previous generations of Americans. So, it stands to reason that the unwillingness to join the military negates the number of individuals available for the military as an indicator for the success of the All-Volunteer Military.

The second major influence was the Commission’s insistence that an all-volunteer military could be sustained given the right budget. In 1973, Secretary of Defense Melvin R. Laird in his Annual Defense Department Report requested $83.4 billion for the defense budget, which represented 29.8 percent of the total Federal Budget.[12] At the time, the defense budget represented the lowest percentage of the Federal Budget in 23 years despite still being embroiled in the Vietnam War.[13] It’s also important to note that during this Cold War Era the Soviet Union spent roughly 15 to 17 percent of its annual gross national product on military spending, with an increase in the 1980s between 4 and 7 percent per year.[14] In 1989, the Russian military budget was roughly 77.3 billion rubles.[15] However, it’s difficult to really grasp a firm figure when it pertains to the Soviet Union budget during the Cold War. Even the National Security Agency and Central Intelligence Agency were unable to pinpoint an exact amount. However, the best estimates still put the Soviet Union defense budget at much lower than the United States and at a lower percent of the nation’s GDP.[16] So in 1973 as the United States turned toward an All-Volunteer Military it was promised that a reasonable defense budget would be able to maintain an All-Volunteer Force.

In 2015, the United States defense budget was $560.4 billion or 3.3 percent of the Gross Domestic Product.[17] In 2016, that number is expected to be roughly $829.1 billion including money spent on Veterans Affairs and foreign aid.[18] Though the percent of the GDP is significantly less than in 1973, it’s important to remember that was during the Swan Song of the Vietnam War. During the 1980s, the defense spending was roughly 6.8 percent of the GDP.[19] However, prior to World War II the United States never spent more than one percent of its GDP on the military.[20] Since World War II, the budget has never been lower than 3.6 percent of the GDP with 41 percent during 1945 being the highest in American history.[21]

Another way to look at the United States military budget is to compare it to other nations throughout the world. In 2015, all countries combined to spend $1.6 trillion on military spending.[22] The United States accounted for roughly 37 percent of that total.[23] In fact, the U.S. spent more in 2015 on its military budget than the next seven countries combined.[24] For every dollar that China, the next largest military budget, spends the United States spends $2.77.[25] But, it’s important to note that these estimates are just one of many, with some estimates putting the United States spending well over the next 10 countries. So, it can be argued that the U.S. indeed can operate an All-Volunteer Military on a reasonable military budget. However, an argument could also be made that the U.S. spends entirely too much of its GDP on the military. Of the seven countries that follow the United States on the military spending chart, five would be considered allies of the United States. It’s also important to note that the U.S. spends .9 percent of the GDP on Veterans Affairs.

The third argument the Commission made in the early 1970s was that of moral and economic rationale.[26] “Conservatives and libertarians argued that the state had no right to impose military service on young men without their consent. Liberals asserted that the draft placed unfair burdens on the underprivileged members of society, who were less likely to get deferments.”[27] The Conservative views about military service have changed since 1973 whereas the Libertarian view has stayed roughly the same, but they’re ideologies and have no real basis with a Constitutional or legal argument for the Central Government not having the right to force men into military service. So, I won’t delve into what can only be an Ouroboros with no legitimate or definitive outcome.

Moral argument rarely if ever have a definitive outcome, but many argued in the 1960s about the working-class and poorer citizens taken up the burden of war. Appy does a wonderful job of detailing these differences in his book Working-Class War. So, there’s certainly some rationale behind the liberal arguments mentioned in the above quote. However, the statistics show that the All-Volunteer Military did not change who served. In fact, as stated by Bacevich and others, the All-Volunteer Military is less diverse now than it was in Vietnam. Every year the Department of Defense releases a demographic overview of the military as a whole, and in 2014 there were 3.5 million active duty, reserve and National Guard military members serving.[28] Of active duty members, 15.1 percent were women, which is up from 2 percent of enlisted women who served in 1973.[29] So, if modern researchers focused only on the differences in gender representation from 1973 to 2016 then the argument by the Commission that an All-Volunteer Force would be more representative would be a valid one. However, as researchers Eileen Patten and Kim Parker in their Pew Research observe women are their own demographic and they don’t represent the changing dynamics in the military’s male population.

As Appy and other scholars discuss the percentages between the poorer members of society serving versus the more affluent didn’t match up. The All-Volunteer Force was hailed as the way forward in fixing the “the burdens on the underprivileged members of society,” who beginning with the Vietnam War bore the burden of war. In 2016, and throughout the course of the more than 40 year history of the AVF, the disparity between those who serve and the population of the United States as a whole has shrunk even further, making the argument for the AVF in the name of diversity and fairness completely invalid. There were 1,505,283 active duty military members in 2014 of which 31.2 percent identified as a minority.[30] However, the number is skewed in that the military doesn’t count Hispanics as a minority.[31] In 2012, Hispanics made up 11.3 percent of the total population of the active duty military, so roughly 42 percent of service members as of 2014 were a minority.[32] Therefore, the military is closely representative of the country in terms of racial diversity with 63 percent of U.S. citizens in 2013 considered a non-Hispanic Caucasian.[33] So, if the racial diversity is equivalent and the rate of female soldiers has increased it would seem that the justification in the Commission Report about a more balanced military with the AVF would seem valid, but these few statistics that seem to show military progress in the area of U.S. representation within the ranks doesn’t show the full picture.

Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates raised the issue of the growing divide in civil-military relations in a speech he made in 2010. Social divisions and inequality have always been a part of the military, but research in the 1990s that has since been validated with more current research shows that there is now a growing geographic concentration among those who serve.[34] Some of the division between which states provide the bulk of the military which don’t rely somewhat on the fact that base closures in the 1990s concentrated many military installations to just a few states: Texas, Washington, Georgia, Kentucky and North Carolina.[35] But, the closures don’t completely account for the disparity between states.

For example, in a 1990 study conducted by the Martin Prosperity Institute the researchers noted the disparity between population sizes and the number of ROTC programs.[36] Los Angeles with more than 12 million people had four ROTC programs and Chicago with more than 9 million people hosted three, but Alabama, for example, had 10 such programs.[37] Gates noted in his speech that because of the concentration in geography “the military is … less in contact with and in touch with American generally.”[38] Smaller states such as New Mexico, Oklahoma and Kansas etc. have a much greater share of the military population than larger states such as Illinois and New York.[39] Not including states such as Alaska, Washington and Hawaii, which have large concentrations of military installations, “The military is overwhelmingly concentrate in two distinctive areas of the Sunbelt.”[40] The Southeast and the corridor from Texas through states such as Oklahoma, New Mexico etc. make up the bulk of recruits, but more wealth and liberals regions of the country such as the Northeast and Upper Midwest have significantly lower rates of military service.[41] Therefore, not only is the military still comprised mostly of the less affluent of society, but now most of those poorer and working-class recruits have a concentration of culture, political and religious beliefs, making the modern military perhaps the least socially representative the United States has ever had.

The other conclusion the Commission came to for the argument of the All-Volunteer Military was that the opposition to the Vietnam War was so great and so unpopular that the American people were ready for a change to a volunteer force.[42] An example of just how unpopular the Vietnam War was among the American population can be seen in the difficulty for the Nation to uniformly recognize the Vietnam Veterans as the Nation had honored all other previous generations of combat veterans. “The Vietnam War differed from other wars because it was politically controversial and morally questionable and resulted in defeat; it resembled other wars because it called out in participants the traditional virtues of courage, self-sacrifice, and honor.”[43] Vietnam differed because it was the first time the American people, notwithstanding the Confederate soldiers, had to deal with defeat and how to recognize the soldiers who were not responsible for the defeat – the responsibility of the Vietnam War is still a controversial issue – but who participate in what many at the time considered a moral short coming of American foreign policy and without question the low point of the Cold War.

The process of recognizing the Vietnam War veterans is juxtaposition between honoring those who served and commemorating one of the more divisive political and social issues the American public and military faced in the 20th century. Emile Durkheim, a French social psychologist and philosopher in the 19th century, believed “that moral unity is the ultimate object of commemoration.”[44] Therefore, the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial became a study in how “opposing social constituencies articulated the ambivalence attending memories of the Vietnam War.”[45] Sociologists Robin Wagner-Pacifici and Barry Schwartz assert that there was ambivalence in the creation of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial’s design and in the designs of monuments erected throughout the nation to honor the veterans.[46] “The Vietnam Veterans Memorial and devices like it come into view not as symbols of solidarity but as structures that render more explicit, and more comprehensible, a nation’s conflicting conceptions of itself and its past.”[47] So, the assertion the Commission made about the Vietnam War being utterly unpopular was and is still true to this day, but did the American perception of the war really change its perception on how the military operated?

Simply understanding that anytime a military operation or war in the present goes less than swimmingly it’s automatically cast as a form of present day Vietnam. But, was it really the American people who called for an All-Volunteer Force, or was it the Nixon Administration’s attempt to quell the negative poll numbers against his Administration as the war drug on? There is no clear answer, but as Heinl in his article for the military publication Stars and Stripes in the early 1970s indicates, the military needed something to renew its professionalism. So, it can be argued that even if the American people cared little for anything more than redraw from Vietnam; it’s not an unfair assumption to make that the military was seeking a way to rejuvenate its ranks and recapture its former glory and universal respect. A respect that had dimmed considerably over the course of the decade-long Vietnam War.

The last, and perhaps easiest to justify, reason the Commission gave for changing the military model to the All-Volunteer Force model was the military’s desire for change.[48] “The Army had lost confidence in the draft as discipline problems among draftees mounted in Vietnam.”[49] As mentioned in early passages in this thesis, by the end of the Vietnam War soldier discipline, especially in the Army, had disintegrated to such a point that soldiers were routinely committing perhaps the most egregious act of military defiance by fragging various officers and their commanders. Although it’s difficult to fault the United States Armed Forces for the defeat of the Vietnam War, it is without a doubt that by the end of the war the military was a less than ideal organization that no longer embodied the ideals of previous military veterans.

If there is any true example of just how unfortunate the military situation in Vietnam was one only needs to look at the recent scholarship of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars and those scholars usage of the war in Vietnam as an illustration of all that has gone wrong in the United States’ most recent conflicts. Take for example James McAllister’s passage in his 2010 article in International Security, “As the United States finds itself involved in a dire counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan, with little apparent reason for optimism, some political scientists have turned their attention to the origins and development of U.S. military strategy in Vietnam for readily applicable lessons.”[50] So, one way to look at this author’s passage is to understand that Vietnam has become synonymous with defeat or failure. Therefore, anytime a modern war or military conflict goes south the military and scholars look to the Vietnam War to see if there are similarities that the current military brass can learn from. However, “despite the passage of four decades and the declassification of millions of pages of documents, diplomatic and military historians still have not reached a consensus as to why the United States pursued a flawed military strategy in Vietnam.”[51] Therefore, if James McAllister, a political scientist who teaches at Williams College, is correct the real culprit for the defeat of the United States military in Vietnam is still a question still left to be answered. But, as Heinl described in his editorial for Stars and Stripes, if the military wasn’t to blame it certainly wasn’t a beckon of American values and honor in the way past generations of military veterans were generally regarded.

However, though the question of who was at fault for the failure in Vietnam is still a hot topic for debate, what is without questions as the Commission noted in its affirmation for the All-Volunteer Military the Armed Forces were ready for a change of how it was staffed and operated. An article by Alex Dixon, a military journalist, in July of 2013 captures the opinions of many service members on the 40th anniversary of the implementation of the All-Volunteer Force. Though Sgt. Maj. Ray Moran, who was part of the Army’s transition from the draft to the All-Volunteer Army, admitted that the change was a difficult one. Ultimately, he saw the change as a positive.[52]  The military went from a more austere existence to a military that now featured upgrades such as comfortable furniture to entice volunteers to join.[53] Though some of the “improvements” proved to be more of a nuisance than the Army had hoped for such as allowing alcohol in once prohibited circumstances, overall the change to the All-Volunteer Military was a positive.[54] Moran reiterated the success of Desert Storm as a justification of the All-Volunteer Military as did Bacevich in his book on the new American Militarism.[55] However, in retrospect historians such as Bacevich have begun to question the legitimacy of the claim that Desert Storm was a resounding success. On the battlefield there had possibly been no more definitive an outcome, with the most recent initial military successes in Afghanistan and Iraq notwithstanding. But, as has been the case with U.S. foreign policy throughout the Cold War and into today, the Administration failed to look at the long-term consequences. For example, Saddam Hussein remained in power, killing thousands of Kurds in Northern Iraq and, perhaps more importantly, the U.S. presence in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia during Desert Storm gave rise to anti-U.S. sentiment, most notably in the form of al-Quada leader Osama bin Laden.

However, the Commission’s argument that the military wanted the All-Volunteer Military still, despite a lack of foresight on Administrations’ parts with respect to foreign policy. The All-Volunteer Military gave the nation’s storied warrior class a renewed sense of importance by providing a higher caliber recruit to partake in the Cold War and into the 21st Century battlefield. As 32-year Army veteran Maj. Gen Thomas C. Seamands, director of military personnel management in 2013, describes the 40-year transition from the draft to the All-Volunteer Force, “Everybody in the Army wants to be in the Army.”[56] Seamands continued, “Everyone’s volunteered to come in and be a part of something bigger than themselves.”[57] Though the military, congress and Presidents have done their part to entice recruits to voluntarily join by offering incentives that range from college loan repayments, free college etc., any effort to mask the difficulty of the military life, ultimately, cannot undo the knowledge recruits have of the burdens of being a soldier. As Seamands alluded too, many, if not the vast majority, of those who decided to join the All-Volunteer Military have a sense of being a part of something bigger to go along with any incentive-laden reasons for devoting a portion of their youth to the nation.

“Following and during the Vietnam War, pubic trust in the Army was at an all-time low.”[58] Seamands said that “significant amounts of draftees didn’t’ want to serve and faced hostile environments when they returned home.”[59] However, due to the AVF, the American people no longer look down upon the military, instead, it is routinely listed as the most trusted and highest valued governmental organization in the United States, far surpassing Congress and any presidents. Much of that, as Seamands suggests, is because the military is able to be more selective about who it chooses to let serve.[60] Though this selectivity sounds enticing, in reality it is severely restrained by the task given to them as evident in the Iraq Surge of 2008. As previously mentioned, standards dropped considerably so that the United States Army could meet its quotas. However, interestingly, what Seamands and other military leadership point to as being a positive, recruiting higher caliber individuals, has also lead to a widening between civil-military relationships. Service men and women no longer see themselves, for the most part, as members of the community insomuch as they see themselves as a separate and significantly superior entity.

[1] Rostker, Bernard, “The Evolution of the All-Volunteer Force,” RAND Corporation (2006) accessed Aug. 17, 2016 from http://www.rand.org/pubs/research_briefs/RB9195.html

[2] Morris

[3] Bacevich, “Why America’s All-Volunteer Force fails to win wars”

[4] Ibid

[5] Warner, John T. & Asch, Beth J. “The Record and Prospects of the All-Volunteer Military in the United States,” Journal of Economic Perspectives, vol. 15, no. 2 (Spring 2001), pp. 169

[6] Ibid

[7] Ibid

[8] Rostker, “The Evolution of the All-Volunteer Force”

[9] US Census Bureau, accessed Aug. 21, 2016 from http://www.multpl.com/united-states-population/table

[10] Ibid

[11] MarketingCharts staff, “So How Many Millennial Are There in the US, Anyway?(Updated), Marketing Charts (May 3, 2016) accessed Aug. 21, 2016 from http://www.marketingcharts.com/traditional/so-how-many-millennials-are-there-in-the-us-anyway-30401/

[12] Laird, Melvin R. “Annual Defense Department Report: FY 1973,” National Security Strategy for Realistic Deterrence (1973) accessed Aug. 21, 2016 from http://history.defense.gov/Portals/70/Documents/annual_reports/1973_DoD_AR.pdf?ver=2014-06-24-150625-420

[13] Ibid

[14] Russian Military Budget accessed Aug. 21, 2016 from http://fas.org/nuke/guide/russia/agency/mo-budget.htm

[15] Ibid

[16] Ibid

[17] Harrison, Todd, “Analysis of the FY 2015 Defense Budget,” Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (2015)

[18] “What is the Total US Defense Spending?” Government Spending (2016) accessed Aug. 21, from http://www.usgovernmentspending.com/defense_spending

[19] Ibid

[20] Ibid

[21] Ibid

[22] “U.S. Military Spending vs. the World,” NationalPriorities.org (2016) access Aug. 21, 2016 from https://www.nationalpriorities.org/campaigns/us-military-spending-vs-world/

[23] Ibid

[24] Ibid

[25] Ibid

[26] Rostker, “The Evolution of the All-Volunteer Force”

[27] Ibid

[28] “2014 Demographics: Profile of the Military Community,” Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense accessed Aug. 21, 2016 from http://download.militaryonesource.mil/12038/MOS/Reports/2014-Demographics-Report.pdf

[29] Patten, Eileen & Parker, Kim, “Women in the U.S. Military: Growing Share, Distinctive Profile,” Pew Social & Demographic Trends (2010) accessed Aug. 21, 2016 from http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/files/2011/12/women-in-the-military.pdf

[30] “2014 Demographics: Profile of the Military Community,”

[31] Ibid

[32] “2012 Demographics: Profile of the Military Community,”

[33] Kayne, Eric, “Census: White majority in U.S. gone by 2043,” NBC News (June 13, 2013)

[34] Florida, Richard, “The Military’s Deepening Geographic Divide,” The Atlantic (Oct. 5, 2010) accessed Aug. 22, 2016 from http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2010/10/the-militarys-deepening-geographic-divide/64012/

[35] Ibid

[36] Ibid

[37] Ibid

[38] Ibid

[39] Ibid

[40] Ibid

[41] Ibid

[42] Rostker, “The Evolution of the All-Volunteer Force”

[43] Wagner-Pacifici & Schwartz, Barry, “The Vietnam Veterans Memorial: Commemorating a Difficult Past,” American Journal of Sociology, vol. 97, no 2 (September 1991), pp. 376

[44] Ibid, pp. 367

[45] Ibid, pp. 367

[46] Ibid, pp. 367

[47] Ibid, pp. 367

[48] Rostker, “The Evolution of the All-Volunteer Force”

[49] Ibid

[50] McAllister, James, “Who Lost Vietnam? Soldiers, Civilians, and U.S. Military Strategy,” International Security, vol. 35, no. 3 (Winter 2010/2011), pp. 95

[51] Ibid, pp. 95

[52] Dixon, Alex, “July marks 40th anniversary of all-volunteer Army,” Army.mil accessed Aug. 29, 2016 from https://www.army.mil/article/106813/July_marks_40th_anniversary_of_all_volunteer_Army

[53] Ibid

[54] Ibid

[55] Ibid

[56] Ibid

[57] Ibid

[58] Ibid

[59] Ibid

[60] Ibid

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