Forty years after the end of conscription, can we fix the all-volunteer force?
- By Phillip CarterPhillip Carter, an Iraq veteran and former Pentagon official, is a non-resident senior fellow with the Center for a New American Security.
Forty years ago Sunday — on January 27, 1973, the same day the United States signed the Paris Accords ending its involvement in the Vietnam War — then-Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird announced that "the Armed Forces henceforth will depend exclusively on volunteer soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines." This communiqué ended the draft, and ushered in the era of America’s all-volunteer military.
Four decades later, the costs of that decision have come into greater relief. Even with the all-volunteer force, issues of equity and burden-sharing persist. Without the forced march of each generation through military service, the civil-military divide has grown, shaped by self-selection and labor market dynamics. Arguably, the all-volunteer force has made us more likely to use force abroad, by eliminating conscription as a major source of dissent and decoupling the military from most people. And, although it pays the current force well, the United States pays too little attention to signs of stress like military suicides, recruiting and retention woes, and post-discharge employment struggles. If we want to continue to rely on an all-volunteer military, we must do better to serve our troops as well as they serve us.
Both conscription and today’s large volunteer force are historical anomalies. For most of the nation’s history, we have relied upon a relatively small military, manned (it was almost all men until only recently) almost exclusively by volunteers, as Jim Wright explains in his excellent history of the nation’s veterans. Conscription was used sparingly during the Revolutionary War, and then again for the Civil War, World Wars I and II, and the Cold War period ending in 1973. This model of a small volunteer force, interrupted by conscription during major wars, changed at the end of World War II, with the United States for the first time developing a large permanent military filled with a mix of conscripts and volunteers.
However, this manpower machine broke down during Vietnam. Conscription fanned dissent against the war, and discipline and effectiveness crumbled throughout the force. The desire to end the draft for political reasons, and the military’s concerns about efficacy, found a receptive audience in the Nixon administration, including among senior advisors like economist Milton Friedman, who believed an all-volunteer force would be more compatible with the nation’s market economy than a conscript one. The Nixon administration convened a high-powered commission on the subject, and used the end of the war to end the draft and create the military we know today.
The all-volunteer force (or what some experts call the "recruited force," because of the role enlistment incentives play in attracting volunteers) solved some of the problems associated with conscription, but not all of them. The question of "who serves when not all serve" remains a pressing one, particularly during time of war, when less than 1 percent of Americans serve on active duty or in the reserves. And it remains unclear whether our nation can make sound strategic decisions unless there is a more direct and personal connection between the Army, the people, and the state — and particularly between the military and civilian elites.
The Iraq and Afghanistan wars have also tested the viability of the all-volunteer force. At the height of the Iraq war, the Army struggled to fill its ranks, with some (including me) suggesting that it was ahistorical and hugely inefficient to generate military manpower for protracted war without conscription. Most of the military’s current personnel and readiness problems — including suicides, combat stress, and financial difficulties for servicemembers — relate in some way to the decision to use a small volunteer force and cycle it through multiple deployments, rather than raise a large conscription-based army to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan. Similarly, many issues relating to the use (or overuse) of the reserves, and reliance on private contractors, trace back to decisions to fight the last 12 years of war with a small active force.
Some of these stresses will subside after the wars end, but larger questions about the force’s sustainability will remain. Manpower costs — including pay, benefits, healthcare, and housing — represent the fastest growing part of the Pentagon budget. Arnold Punaro, a retired Marine general who chairs the Reserve Forces Policy Board, has famously quipped that the Defense Department is on track to become a benefits company that occasionally kills a terrorist. The current pay and benefits structure has grown over the past 40 years, and today reflects the need for generous compensation to recruit and retain a force in wartime, as well as the political value of financially supporting the troops. However, its sustainability, like many other parts of the Pentagon budget, has been called into question. The nation can probably afford a smaller force with the current package, or it can afford the current force with lesser compensation (and fewer deployments, too), but it likely can’t afford both. The Pentagon must wrestle with these questions during its 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review, and develop better options than the status quo for the president and Congress to consider, such as rebalancing the mixture of active and reserve forces, and addressing the mixture of service members, civilians, and contractors the force relies upon.
As the military evolves, so too will the veteran population. Over the next 30 years, the large conscription-based cohorts of the Cold War and Vietnam War will fade away, giving way to a population that is smaller, more dispersed, and more diverse in terms of age, race, and sex than previous generations of veterans. Based on current utilization and claims rates among post-9/11 veterans, the future veteran population will also place much higher demands on the Department of Veterans Affairs. This will extend the cost of military service for decades to come, and add trillions of dollars to the ultimate bill for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The VA has begun planning for this reality, but it must do more, adapting its benefits models, healthcare models, and physical infrastructure to serve the veterans of the future.
The federal government should not do this alone. Thousands of veterans organizations have sprung up over the past 12 years of war. However, these agencies and groups too often duplicate each other’s efforts, act ineffectively, or worse, take funds that would be better spent elsewhere. We need a new business model for the broader community that serves veterans — one that measures performance and rewards those who produce tangible, measurable results.
With the Iraq war over, the Afghanistan war ending, and the nation entering an age of fiscal austerity, the United States will face an array of hard choices about how to best support and sustain the all-volunteer force and its veterans. To begin with, America needs a national strategy to address the needs of the veterans and military community — to set goals and priorities, and assign agencies, budgets, and personnel to meet those objectives. This strategy must balance our commitments to those who serve with our national resources and means to pay for those commitments. We must also use the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review process, and others like it, to make hard choices about military manpower and force structure. We can no longer rely on wartime excess to conceal the very real tradeoffs between people, hardware, operations, and other parts of our national security enterprise. And if we are to maintain the all-volunteer force model, one which asks so little of our nation but so much of our volunteers, we must find a better model for making decisions about where, when, and why to send our nation’s sons and daughters to war.