I spent last week at Angelo State University in remote central Texas as a panelist for the annual All-Volunteer Force (AVF) Forum. It was a strange forum in many ways, but nonetheless instructive. I was the youngest (and most progressive) member, as well as the lowest-ranking veteran among a group of leaders and speakers that included two retired generals, the chief of staff to former Secretary of State Colin Powell, a few former colonels and several academics. Despite having remarkably diverse life experiences and political opinions, all concluded that America’s all-volunteer military is not equitable, efficient or sustainable. The inconvenient truth each of the panel participants had the courage to identify is that the end of the draft in the U.S. had many unintended—and ultimately tragic—consequences for the republic.
The oft-praised U.S. military is, disturbingly, the most trusted public institution in the country. These days, active service members and veterans are regularly paraded before an otherwise apathetic citizenry at nearly every sporting event. Public figures and private citizens alike fawn over and obsessively thank the troops at every possible opportunity. It seems strange, however, that Americans are so hyperproud of their military, seeing as it neither reflects society nor achieves national objectives overseas. After all, the military only accounts for about 0.5 % of Americans and, as recent statistics indicate, the Army is falling well short of its recruiting goals. Not to mention that for all the vacuous pageantry and celebrations of a military that is increasingly divergent from civil society, few seem to ask an important question: When was the last time the AVF won a war?
The AVF is ultimately an unfair, ineffective and unsustainable organization charged with impossible, ill-advised missions by policymakers and a populace that actually care rather little for the nation’s soldiers. As the AVF nears its 50th anniversary, there’s no better time than now to assess the model’s flaws and its effect on American democracy.
Way back when the U.S. military was bogged down in an unwinnable, immoral and ill-advised war in Vietnam, newly elected President Nixon faced a serious problem. Tricky Dick, as he is sometimes known, wanted to prolong and escalate the war into Cambodia and Laos in order to achieve “peace with honor”—in other words, seem tough and save some American face. Only the growing domestic anti-war movement that was gaining influence in Congress stood in his way. No doubt cynically, but also astutely, Nixon surmised that fear of individual conscription largely motivated youthful anti-war activists. Thus, in a Faustian devil’s bargain, he helped end the draft and usher in a brand-new all-volunteer force. Surprisingly, his gambit worked, and the steam blew out of the anti-war movement over time. Today, it is with the same all-volunteer force Nixon left us with that the U.S. wages war across the breadth of the planet.
Proponents of the volunteer military force promised equity. No longer would the poorest Americans be forced to serve in foreign wars. Rather, only those who truly wanted to serve the nation would do so. On the surface, this seemed intuitive. What actually happened was a different matter entirely. In a sort of economic draft, the military mostly began to draw servicemen from the third and fourth income quintiles. Those who needed the money the military offered and were lured by modest cash bonuses would serve, while the wealthiest, perhaps unsurprisingly, opted out. This meant the U.S. elites would no longer serve and, in fact, would become almost totally absent from the new AVF. The tiny percentage that would serve America’s neo-imperial war machine wouldn’t reflect U.S. society at all. Today, volunteers are far more rural, Southern and likely to hail from military families than their civilian peers. Thus, an unrepresentative warrior caste—not the citizens’ Army that won World War II—became the norm.
While most Americans and their political leaders seem completely fine with the glaring injustice inherent in such a system, those who serve have had to deal with the consequences. America’s soldiers have been subject to multiple combat tours, while reserve and National Guard troops have been activated for war at record rates. As a result, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide rates have skyrocketed, topping off recently at 22 self-inflicted veteran deaths per day. To keep these soldiers “in the fight,” damaged individual troopers were loaded up with psychotropic medications and sent back overseas. What’s more, a dangerous civil-military gap opened between the vast majority of Americans—who are rarely exposed to real soldiers—and a military that has learned to resent the populace. And when a military becomes so professionalized and distant as to resemble a Roman Praetorian Guard, the republic is undoubtedly in peril.
Contrary to early optimistic promises, the U.S. military since 1973 sports a poor efficiency record. Especially since 9/11—the real first test of the new system—American armed forces have produced exactly zero victories. Prior to the World Trade Center attack, it can be argued that a much larger AVF crushed Saddam Hussein’s poorly led and equipped Iraqi army in 1991, but it’s important to remember that that war was an anomaly—Saddam’s troops fought us in an open desert, without any air support, and according to the conventional tactics the U.S. military had been training against for years. I also refuse to count the imperial punishments inflicted on Panama (1989) and Grenada (1983) as victories, because neither was a necessary or even a fair fight. Besides, the invasion of the tiny island of Grenada was more fiasco than triumph.
Worst of all, the AVF is inefficient because it enables the militarization of U.S. foreign policy, ensuring high costs and much wear and tear on equipment and personnel. The lack of a draft means the loss of what the co-founder of the AVF Forum, retired Maj. Gen. Dennis Laich, calls “skin in the game.” When the citizenry isn’t subjected to the possibility of military service, it becomes apathetic, ignores foreign affairs and fails to pressure Congress to check presidential war powers. Without this check, president after president—Democrats and Republicans—have centralized control of foreign affairs in what has resulted in increasingly imperial presidencies. With its huge budget, professional flexibility and can-do attitude, the military has become the primary—in some ways, the only—tool in America’s arsenal as presidents move living, breathing soldiers around the world like so many toy soldiers.
The AVF could also bankrupt us, or, at the very least, crash the economy. Thanks to the influence of the military-industrial complex and the militarization of foreign policy, U.S. defense budgets have soared into the stratosphere. At present, America spends more than $700 billion on defense—a figure greater than all domestic discretionary spending and larger than the combined budgets of the next seven largest militaries. As the Vietnam War should have taught us, skyrocketing military spending without concurrent tax increases often results in not only massive debt but crippling inflation. After 18 years of forever global war without any meaningful increase in taxation on the nation’s top earners, get ready for the next crash. Trying to stay a hegemon (a dubious proposition in the first place) with rising deficits and a paralyzing national debt is a recipe for failure and, ultimately, disaster.
As recent recruitment shortfalls show, getting volunteers may not be a sustainable certainty either. This also increases costs—the military has had to train more full-time recruiters, pay cash bonuses for enlistment and retention, and hire extremely expensive civilian contractors to fill in operational gaps overseas. Nor can the AVF count on getting the best and brightest Americans in the long term. With elites opting out completely and fewer Americans possessing the combination of capacity—only 30 percent of the populace is physically/mentally qualified for the military—and propensity to serve, where will the military find the foot soldiers and cyberwarriors it needs in the 21st century?
In sum, throughout this century the U.S. military has won zero wars, achieved few, if any, “national goals” and cost Americans $5.9 trillion tax dollars, more than 7,000 troop deaths, and tens of thousands more wounded soldiers. It has cost the world 480,000 direct war-related deaths, including 244,000 civilians, and created 21 million refugees. Talk about unsustainable.
An Unpopular Proposal
At the recent forum, Laich proposed an alternative to the current volunteer system. To ensure fairness, efficiency and sustainability, the U.S. could create a lottery system (with no college or other elite deferments) that gives draftees three options:
serve two years on active duty right after high school,
serve six years in the reserves,
or go straight to college and enroll in the ROTC program.
Additionally, this lottery would apply to both men and women, and would require only one combat deployment from each reservist. Whether or not one agrees with this idea, it would create a more egalitarian, representative, affordable and sustainable national defense tool. Furthermore, with the children of bankers, doctors, lawyers and members of Congress subject to service, the government might think twice before embarking on the next foolish, unwinnable military venture.
Few Americans, however, are likely to be comfortable delegating the power of conscription to a federal government they inherently distrust. Still, paradoxically, the move toward a no-deferment, equitable lottery draft might result in a nation less prone to militarism and adventurism than the optional AVF has. Parents whose children are subject to military service, as well as young adults themselves, might prove to be canny students of foreign policy who would actively oppose the next American war. Imagine that: an engaged citizenry that holds its legislators accountable and subsequently hits the streets to oppose unnecessary and unethical war. Ironic as it may seem, more military service may actually be the only workable formula for less war. Too bad returning to a citizens’ military is as unpopular as it is unlikely.