The Sociopolitical Problem of the All-volunteer Military: Exacerbated By U.S. Foreign Policy and the Loss of Civic Obligation


“Today, the people have by-and-large tuned out war or accept it as someone else’s concern,” Andrew J. Bacevich, April 21, 2016[1]

The implementation of the all-volunteer military on June 30, 1973, in large part a response to Vietnam, has created a subculture within the United States that no longer socially represents the nation at large and has led to a divide between the military and civilian society. Furthermore, the reliance on an ever-shrinking pool of recruits has also helped create an ideological “warrior class” that has negatively impacted civil-military relations and the domestic social structure within the United States while providing a new military political cleavage.

In a 2011 interview with the Washington Post, then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen concluded that “America doesn’t know its military and the United States military doesn’t know America.”[2] In another article for the Washington Post in 2011, about the disconnect between the military and civilian population, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates was quoted just before his retirement as saying that “he worried that the wars have remained an ‘abstraction’ for most Americans – a ‘distant unpleasant series of news items that does not affect them personally.’”[3] In a Pew Research Center study conducted in 2011, roughly 96 percent of veterans who served on active-duty in the post-9/11 military said they were proud to serve.[4] The research center conducted another survey in 2013, but this time asking the civilian population about how they perceived the military. Fully 91 percent of Americans who were surveyed said they “felt proud of the soldiers who have served in the military in the post-9/11 era,” and roughly 75 percent of those surveyed said they personally thanked a post-9/11 era veteran or service member.[5] So, where’s the disconnect? How can troops proudly serve and those they serve to protect look upon the troops and the military equally, positively, but yet the divide between the two continues to increase? Recent poll numbers and statistical analysis, while not conclusive, provide great insight into the growing civil-military divide.

“This growing gap has roots in a watershed event: the elimination of the draft in 1973 following the contentious years of the Vietnam War.”[6] Since 9/11, roughly .5 percent of the American population has served on active duty while military participation was .8 percent during the Gulf War – all post military draft.[7] When those percentages are compared to Vietnam, 1.8 percent, the Korean War, 2 percent, and World War II, 9 percent, the reason for the growing disconnect between civil-military relations starts to become more clear.[8] The foreign policy decisions of the United States that calls for armed conflict no longer affects the number of American citizens it had previous to the Vietnam War. However, an even more disproportionate tale of those who served begins to develop more fully when the statistics delve into the service of draft eligible men beginning with World War II.

Christian Appy, a Professor of History at the University of Massachusetts, wrote, “During World War II virtually all young, able-bodied men entered the service – some 12 million. Personal connections to the military permeated society regardless of class, race, or gender.”[9] As the Pew Research statistics indicate there was a drop-off in military participation from World War II to the Korean War; however, as Appy explains “roughly 70 percent of the draft-age population of men served in the military,” during the Korean War, but he further asserts, “from the 1950s to the 1960s, military service became less and less universal.”[10] Vietnam represented “less than 10 percent of America’s male baby boomers,” or “2.5 million men of that generation.”[11] So, it’s a safe assumption to assume that Appy’s dismay at the dwindling participation in the military from World War II to Vietnam would find equal consternation in the lack of participation in the post-9/11 military serving in the nation’s longest continued conflict, with no estimable conclusion, but already in its 15th year. Appy’s 1993 critique of the Vietnam War focuses primarily on the plight of the working-class soldier and the disparity between the proportion of blue color deaths to white color participation and deaths; however, his quote about the dwindling participation by the American population in the country’s war is still apt to describe the continuing trend of reliance on the few to wage the nation’s wars when he wrote, “What had been, in the 1940s, an experience shared by the vast majority gradually became the experience of a distinct minority.”[12]

Though understanding the proportion of the population that served in the nation’s wars is a good indicator of how military conflicts affect the nation, it’s equally important to understand the impact war has had on families and friends, which ultimately ties into the tightening or loosening of civil-military relations. Seventy-seven percent of adults over 50 in a Pew Research study said “that they had a spouse, parent, sibling or child who had served in the military.”[13] However, between the ages 30 and 49 the number is 57 percent and for those under the age of 29 only 33 percent had family members in the military.[14] In the same study, roughly half of Americans polled said the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had little to no impact on their lives.[15] Veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan are aware of the disinterest or lack of understanding of the military by the civilian population. Both civilians and the military agree on this point; in fact, time and again throughout the most recent surveys conducted by Gallup, Pew Research etc., veterans, active military and civilians essentially agree that there is a divide, despite public support. Eighty-four percent “of post-9/11 veterans say the public does not understand well or at all the problems that those in the military face.”[16] Seventy-six percent of the pre-9/11 veterans agree with that assessment whereas 71 percent of the public agrees as well.[17] Again, why the disconnect? Ultimately, there are many reasons for the growing divide between civil-military relations that as Richard C. Atkinson, a former president and regent of the University of California system, believes has resulted in military members becoming “a separate tribe in the republic.”[18] Though as with most topics civil-military relations is a nuanced subject, the divide began in earnest with the implementation of the All-Volunteer military in 1973.

Andrew Bacevich, a Professor Emeritus of International Relations and History at Boston University and a retired United States Army colonel, explained in his 2005 critique of America’s foreign policy in his book The New American Militarism that until Vietnam “citizenship and military service remained intimately connected.”[19] Furthermore, the late Morris Janowitz, a prominent sociologist at the University of Michigan who helped found the study of military sociology, asserted in 1974 that prior to Vietnam and the end of conscription with the implementation of the AVF, “Military service emerged as a hallmark of citizenship and citizenship as the hallmark of political democracy.”[20] However, with the creation of the All-Volunteer Military, which stemmed from the unpopular conflict in Southeast Asia, what had once been a universal example of citizenship and the bridge between the military and civilians – the United States reliance on volunteers and conscripts – had become an option rather than an obligation. This option beginning with the Vietnam War through deferments and began in mass with the AVF. In a later chapter, this thesis will discuss the impact AVF had on future policy makers and those with the power to deploy the United States Armed Forces.

Though Bacevich’s quote broadly summarizes the essence of the thesis, Pew Research statistics and Bacevich and Janowitz’s summations of the beginning of the separation of military service from civic obligation provides an adequate start point and foundation for the argument that the All-Volunteer military, as promised in 1973, hasn’t lived up to its promise. Janowitz, who a decade before his 1974 article about the sociopolitical consequences of AVF, in a collection of essays titled The New Military: Changing Patterns of Organization that discusses how the military was losing its warrior mindset and instead adopting a more “constabulary” mindset such as the peacekeeping Swedes and other Northern European nations.[21] So, why did Janowitz and the scholars who participated in The New Military change their perception in the direction of the military? The easy answer: Vietnam and the creation of AVF as the result of the Vietnam War. Of course, the topic is more nuanced, and there is more to the story than simply an unpopular war that resulted in a military system that no longer socially represented the citizens of the United States. Ultimately, the goal of this thesis is to provide an obvious correlation between the Vietnam War, creation of the AVF and the change in U.S. foreign policy as a direct result of the AVF and how it has negatively impacted civil-military relations. However, simply critiquing failed U.S. foreign policy as a direct result of the AVF would provide no positive benefit without the inclusion of potential solutions to the problems currently plaguing the U.S. military and the burden placed on U.S. service members, which results in an ever-increasing gulf in civil-military relations. This thesis is an attempt to provide remedies to a topic of growing importance that if left in its current state could potentially lead to even more negative consequences than those already mentioned in the previous paragraphs.

The persistent use of military force as a means of foreign policy coupled with the decline in the civic/military obligation by a large majority of the U.S. population has led to the dependence of a small minority to represent the majority in war and on the home front. An Associated Press-GfK poll conducted in 2014 compared to a similarly conducted poll in 1984 showed a decrease by 13 percent in the perceived importance of “six civic activities: voting, volunteering, serving on a jury, reporting crime, knowing English and being informed about the news and other public issues.”[22] Though military service in the United States isn’t necessarily considered a civic obligation, in many nations throughout the world it is; however, what the poll illustrates is that there is an increasing lack of interest in what was once perceived as the hallmarks of being a United States citizen. It would appear there’s a corollary between disinterest in civic duties and participation in the military. A lack of civic obligation obviously doesn’t correspond to the AVF implementation in 1973, but the shift in attitude of the American population toward civic obligation does induce more than coincidental curiosity when the trends both spiral downward. For instance, an American Bar Association article found that those under 25 were less likely to vote and that 28 of the 50 states surveyed received failing grades in American History and social studies.[23] So, though this thesis doesn’t focus on the American population’s growing lack of interest in social studies and civics, it is an important reminder that some could argue that generational attitudes could, though perhaps in no measurable terms, provide some of the reason for the apparent lack of interest in serving in the United States military.

This thesis will posit that the growing burden on the few who serve, the creation of a post-Vietnam and the widening gap in civil-military relation is the result of what some could call a series of unfortunate albeit preventable events. The research presented here will connect the dots between the creation of the AVF and increase in military intervention worldwide by the United States, which, ultimately, has led to the aforementioned fallout. Furthermore, the research will provide potential solutions for reversing the current trajectory, shrinking the gap between civilians and the military, decreasing the use of military might before using diplomatic means and increasing the overall civic obligation of the American people. However, before advocating any changes to the current military structure and advocating for a system of universal civic service it’s important to understand the historical relationship between the military and the civilian administrations that they served.

[1] Bacevich, Andrew, “Why America’s All-Volunteer Force fails to win wars,” The Dallas Morning News (April 21, 2016)

[2] Greg Jaffe, “Adm. Mike Mullen observes disconnect between U.S. military and broader public,” Washington Post (Jan. 11, 2011)

[3] Ukman, Jason, “The American military and civilians, worlds apart,” The Washington Post (Oct. 5, 2011)

[4] “Iraq and Public Opinion: The Troops Come Home,” Pew Research Center (Dec. 14, 2011)

[5] Drake, Bruce, “On Memorial Day, public pride in veterans, but at a distance,” Pew Research Center (May 24, 2013)

[6] Ibid

[7] Ibid

[8] Ibid

[9] Appy, Christian, Working–Class War: American Combat Soldiers and Vietnam (The University of North Carolina Press; 1st New edition; Feb. 26, 1993), pp. 95

[10] Ibid, pp. 96

[11] Ibid, pp. 94

[12] Ibid, pp. 96

[13] Drake

[14] Ibid

[15] Ibid

[16] Ibid

[17] Ibid

[18] Iraq and Public Opinion

[19] Bacevich, Andrew, The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced By War (Oxford University Press; 2nd updated edition, April 2013), pp. 161

[20] Janowitz, Morris, “The All-Volunteer Military as a ‘Sociopolitical’ Problem,” Social Problems, vol. 22, no. 3 (Feb., 1975), pp. 435

[21] Janowitz, Morris, The New Military: Changing Patterns of Organization (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1964)

[22] Breitman, Kendall, “Poll: Americans’ sense of civic duty wanes,” Politico (Dec. 29, 2014)

[23] Hansen, Mark, “Flunking Civics: Why America’s Kids Know So Little,” American Bar Association (May 1, 2011)

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