Veteran’s Day and the All-Volunteer Force

The United States has not forced the involuntary service of any of its citizens into the U.S. military since 1972, when it suspended the Selective Service system’s conscription of young Americans to fight in the enormously unpopular war in Vietnam. Since the beginning of 1973, the U.S. military has instead been based in the All-Volunteer Force (AVF) concept, meaning it is composed entirely of service members who volunteer for that duty.

As America’s veterans were being feted yesterday, there were inevitable comparisons between those forces who fought America’s historic wars and contemporary warriors. The patriotic remembrances of veterans in particular was quite complimentary, suggesting that today’s military is every bit as good as that which fought, for instance, World War II or Korea.

It is, however, a different force. The U.S. armed forces of the past were true citizen forces drawn from and requiring the support of all Americans; the AVF is not that kind of force at all, with both positive and negative implications.

Joseph L. Galloway, one of the true deans of American military reportage best known for his role in the Ia Drang Valley in 1965 and as co-author of the book “We were Soldiers Once…and Young,” captured the difference strikingly in his column marking yesterday’s Veteran’s Day observation: “Military service today,” he observes, “is reserved for the few who volunteer, unlike the days of big wars and conscription or the draft….Today in this nation of 300 million, fewer than 1 million wear the uniform, and with their families, bear all the burden and sacrifice of protecting and defending the rest of us who give little thought to those who pay the price of our freedom.”

This latter part of the statement forms the heart of what should be the legitimate question about the AVF in the present and future: does its existence free us of the need critically to consider the consequences of military activity because we know we will be personally unaffected by those consequences? Joe Galloway does not believe so, stating flatly, “It isn’t right and it certainly isn’t what those bold revolutionaries who ripped a continent out of the hands of a king at the risk of their own lives and property intended for the nation they created.” 

The AVF is, despite those reservations some (the present author included) have about it, not going away. Some people, especially within the professional military, like the force much better than the conscript-based force it succeeded 36 years ago. The quality of soldiers is better and their morale is higher (since they want to be there doing what they are doing), and there are far fewer disciplinary and other problems among AVF members (the tragedy at Ft. Hood last week, of course, reminds us problems are not non-existent). The AVF has performed at high levels in the eyes of its members and most observers, and professional soldiers, sailors, and airmen all blanch at the prospect of having to go back and to deal with a rank and file full of reluctant conscripts.

Having said that, the concept is not above criticism. One is that an AVF will inevitably be a smaller force than a conscript force, because less people will volunteer than can be compelled to serve. This means that it can only be used in situations where its upward manpower limits are not strained intolerably or succeeded, as has happened over the past decade. From a strictly numerical perspective, a conscript force would have been much better for Iraq and Afghanistan. Moreover, if some problem requiring large-scale American military involvement were to break out today with the force already tied down, the only way the U.S. could respond would either be by activating much larger parts of the reserves or by reinstituting the draft. Neither are happy political choices.

The AVF is also very expensive, in at least three ways. First, volunteer soldiers must be paid much more competitively than conscripts, since the AVF competes with society at large for their services. Second, one response to the limits on size of the AVF has been to contract out functions previously performed by members of the armed forces to civilian contractors. Such contracts are both expensive and raise lots of other problems such as accountability and contractor conduct. Third, the strains produced by having to overuse a small AVF include a myriad of post-service physical and psychological injuries and debilities only the tip of the iceberg of which are now apparent. To this point, all these costs have been reasonably cheerfully borne by a populace consoled by the fact that the AVF keeps the wolf of potential service away from most of our doors.

Will this continue to work in the future? The price of the AVF is going to be tougher to justify in the future, and continuing this basis for military manpower will mean the U.S. will be constrained in what it can do in the world in rhe future. That may or may not be a bad thing, but it is a question rarely raised in AVF terms.

The deeper and more troubling question is whether it should be continued. Veterans’ Day reminds us that military commitment and sacrifice has historically been a national burden, not one borne by those we hire to perform our duty for us (we have, of course, also done that, as in the provision for draftees to hire replacements on the Union side of the Civil War). Philosophically, the danger is that we become so disconnected from the military obligation that we forget that sacrifice is a national, not a minority, responsibility. I do not want to saddle the military with an unruly force, but I would like a force that is more representative of us all and which cannot be activated without a conscious recognition that we and those we all hold dear may be very personally affected.

As President Obama wrestles with the question of whether or not to send more troops to Afghanistan, I wish one of the factors he had to consider was how he would explain his decision to the American families whose sons and daughters would be drafted into the military to implement those decisions, especially since some would pay the highest sacrifice. Until 1973, all presidents faced that concern; wouldn’t it be better if they still had to?

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One Response to “Veteran’s Day and the All-Volunteer Force”

  1. Phil Myers Says:

    Afghanistan has never worked well for American strategists or for strategists of the other powers in or out of the cold war era. Why is Afghanistan thought of as such a critical indicator of American power? Is it? I think Obama must base his expanding U.S. troop levels, or not, on what experts know of our past involvements there and in adjacent country where the U.S. foreign policy record is also not credible. Russia’s defeat there, what the Vietnam Syndrome about how to invite defeat still tells us–more troops is not better for victory– and Obama’s current public malaise are all indicators for withdrawal not escalation in that country and in that region. The president will need to make the popular decision to move out and not in with more troops.

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