The Negative Effects of an All-Volunteer Force on Individualistic Societies

By: Olivia Lanaras, CMC ’17

In 1973, the United States made the bold move to an All-Volunteer Force (AVF). This was done for a number of reasons. First, there were simply too many young men coming of draft-eligible age each year compared to the needs of the military; this meant that drafting could no longer be universal. Second, the U.S. had the money in its budget to pay an AVF. Third, there was a moral argument against forcing men to fight, and also that the draft targeted underprivileged members of society, since they were less likely to get deferments. Lastly, with the disciplinary issues from the draftees and lack of public support during the Vietnam War, the country was ready for a change in the system.[1] The AVF was seen as a sustainable, effective means of alleviating these issues, while creating an overall superior force. However, forty years on, the AVF has created a military elite that is both physically and culturally removed from the civilian population. This division has led to distrust between the civilian and military leadership, along with the creation of a society that is worryingly disengaged in military conflicts. This paper will use the case of the United States to expose the circumstances that have caused this separation. It will outline the targeted nature of who the AVF attracts; how the military has become an elite portion of society; the division between the civilian and military populations; the domestic implications of this dynamic; and finally, universal psychocultural dimensions that may predict similar civilian-military relationships in other countries. As more nations move to an AVF, it is important to assess their susceptibility to creating this same dynamic between the military and civilians, depending on their societal structure the resulting morality.

 The Effect of an All-Volunteer Force on the Composition of Enlistees

The AVF has greatly concentrated the demographics of enlistees to disproportionately represent economically underprivileged groups. Original critics of the AVF predicted that this system, in conjunction with labor market dynamics, would lead to a self-selection among those who did not have better economic prospects through education or jobs.[2] This was correct. Since its installation in 1973, African Americans have consistently comprised 20-22% of the AVF[3]; this is compared to the overall African American population of 11-14% during that time.[4] Hispanic representation in the military has also greatly increased. Though the portion of Hispanics is less than that of their share of the general population, this is misleading, as it includes those who are not eligible to enlist based on their level of education. Taking this into account, out of the eligible population, they are slightly overrepresented.[5] For instance, in 2001, Latinos made up 8.2% of the population qualified to enlist, while they made up 9.5% of enlisted service members.[6] A shockingly disproportionate representation falls to minority women. Though women only make up around 14% of active duty members and 16% of officers[7], “half of the women serving in the military are minority women, with African Americans accounting for 30 percent of all military women,” which is double their representation in the U.S. population.[8] Though these racial minorities are examples of overrepresented groups, it is not their race that makes them more likely to enlist. It is their disadvantaged position as a result of discrimination or lack of opportunity because of their race.

Overall, the AVF military attracts members from the lower classes “with lower family incomes, larger family sizes (more sharing of scarce resources), and less educated parents.”[9] Though studies have recently reported that it is actually the upper class is overrepresented in the military,[10] it cannot be taken as evidence that we have an elite military. Our “upper class” is considered to be the top 5% of the population[11], so this is a very small proportion of the military, even if they are “overrepresented.” Also, it is highly likely that the reason those from the lowest class are underrepresented is that they are not even eligible for service to begin with. The Pentagon reported that 70% of those aged 17-24 in the United States are eligible to serve.[12] The prerequisites for enlistment naturally favor the middle to upper class. A GED or high school diploma, which is positively correlated with income, is required.[13] An inverse relationship applies to income and body mass index, which is another qualification for enlistees.[14] Enlistees also cannot be previously convicted of a crime, which is more common in the lower class. Even seemingly superficial things like ear gauges and certain tattoos can deem someone ineligible, and they are all factors more common in the lower class. In this way, the data on the upper class being overrepresented is very skewed based on the fact that it takes everyone into account, instead of just those eligible for service.

Another circumstance that increases the chance of enlistment is personal relation to the military, through the family or community. In a test measuring state-to-state enlistment, there was a high correlation between enlistment and military presence in the state. Veteran presence was especially indicative of enlistment by state, with the South and the West having the highest rate of enlistment.[15] In the qualitative portion of the study, the researchers found that many of the current troops said that this was true because they had knowledge of the military, and understanding of the culture, since their own communities were often closely intertwined with veteran or military communities.[16] In another study, U.S. troops interviewed shortly after their service were asked why they chose to enlist. Significantly more of them answered that they wanted “to follow in the footsteps of a family member who had been in the military,” as opposed to patriotic duty.[17] Military service is quickly “becoming a family trade,” as younger relatives of soldiers are often inspired or encouraged to enlist.[18]

Both groups- those who are economically disadvantaged and those personally connected to the military- are overrepresented, and are more likely to either be career soldiers or have their military experience affect their future careers. This is not to say the military is entirely composed of these two groups- there are certainly enlistees that are from the privileged classes of society, and do not have ties to the military. However, the reason for enlistment differs by group, and this suggests a different long-term influence of the military on the soldier. For example, research has shown that black seniors in high school are more likely to enlist than their white classmates, but not as an alternative to the same situation. They do not join the military as a stepping stone to higher education, but instead as a direct link to their career, whether in the military or the job force. In these studies, the researchers compared black and white students in terms of which of these three options they chose after high school: college, workforce, or the military.[19] While the majority of Caucasian enlistees see the military as the ‘next best thing to college,’[20] African Americans generally see the military as an alternative to the civilian work force; they often go in either to become career soldiers or train them for a career upon their exit.[21] This suggests that the black enlistees will either be in the military for longer, or that the military will more greatly affect their future, since it is not just a stepping-stone to higher education. The implication of this is that the influence of the military is most likely intensified in economically disadvantaged groups, in which it serves as a larger and more essential role in the current and future livelihood of the soldiers. Similarly, those that come from military families or communities will likely have a strong military influence throughout life, as it was part of their upbringing and is what they are familiar with. Their service, then, would reinforce values with which they have grown up on. The nature of the AVF has concentrated the enlistment and influence of the military within these two groups, by either being the most viable economic option or the option most familiar based on the enlistees’ background. The military accounts for a smaller portion of the population than ever at around .5%, but due to this role as an economic necessity or a family trade, “more than half” of all soldiers serve more than four years.[22] This means that, within this small group, they are more heavily invested in the military as a career or major part of life.


The Rise of the Military Elite

By way of being a voluntary service, the AVF has come to be considered an elite and noble portion of society. Recruitment advertising for all of the branches focuses on the honor and righteousness that comes from being a soldier. The Marines are “The Few. The Proud.”[23] The Navy is “100% on Watch” as a protecting force for the United States.[24] The Army is “Army Strong.”[25] In order to get enlistees, since it is a volunteer force, all of the advertisements create the impression that joining their respective service makes enlistees part of an elite. The fact that it is a voluntary force also gives enlistees the moral high ground, since they are voluntarily sacrificing their civilian lives in order to protect the rest of the country. This impression of being an elite member of society is compounded by troops’ education. They are taught the importance of individual sacrifice for the collective success of the nation and, in a manner very similar to hazing, they are steeped in discipline in order to become the best possible tools of the military leadership. This has a very distinct function:

To use sociological jargon, the latent function of hazing is that it differentiates and separates one from, and at the same time makes one feel superior to, whatever mainstream you’re defining yourself against… seems like a post-Vietnam-era phenomenon, as the military got separated from the mainstream of society.[26]

One could argue that in drafted wars, the soldiers were still taught to be obedient and patriotic. The key difference is that today’s soldiers knowingly and willingly engage in this education, by volunteering for it, and are also exposed to it for much longer with their extended tours and soldier careers.

Society also reinforces the elitism of the military, as there are numerous discounts and movements dedicated to honoring soldiers. Many companies give military personnel reduced prices on movie tickets, home goods, etc. Though it can be argued that this may just be to incentivise this traditionally lower income group to buy more of their goods, the publicized reason for these discounts is to honor the service. There are social movements, like the yellow ribbons with “Support Our Troops” that were seen on bumpers across the U.S., as well as elementary school in-class projects where students draw pictures to send to deployed troops. In general, there is a societal expectation and norm to thank troops for their service. Public opinion polls consistently report high esteem for military personnel.[27] This is only some of the ample evidence of the U.S.’s idolization and respect for the soldiers, regardless of the opinion of the conflict they may be involved in. This creation of the military elite, reinforced both by internal military forces and societal views, has created a group is greatly disconnected from the civilian population.

The Division Between the Military and Civilian Population

As the AVF has both concentrated the influence of the military and its perceived moral righteousness, it has widened the military’s separation from the civilian population, both culturally and physically.

As stated before, the military teaches collectivist values in order to make soldiers able, disciplined and selfless. This is directly at odds with American society. Hofstede’s cultural dimension test, which is commonly used in the field of cultural psychology, shows that Americans are both highly individualistic and indulgent, and that they are becoming more and more so as time goes on.[28] The United States is considered a vertically individualistic society, meaning that it values individual accomplishments more than the group’s welfare, and accepts the hierarchical structure of society based on fundamental differences between individuals.[29] Applying this information to the dynamic between the military and civilian population, it makes sense that there is an ideological divide. The AVF concentrates and solidifies the values of the military into a small group of acutely invested people.

However, American civilian society and the military do have one thing in common: they are vertical structures that accept inequalities among members. This, in conjunction with the fact that Americans are socially educated and exposed to the propaganda of military as an upstanding group, explains the idolization and overwhelming amount of respect given to military personnel in the country, even if it is superficial. In this way, the AVF has exacerbated the cultural division; the civilian population becomes increasingly individualized, while military personnel become more entrenched in their collective values.

Along with the cultural division, the AVF has also exacerbated the physical division between the military and civilians; civilians are decreasingly exposed to military influence. Due to the aforementioned self-selection factors (economic disparity and personal proximity to military) the military’s sphere of influence is more concentrated. There are geographic regions and communities that have a higher concentration of military influence. As soldiers become career soldiers with relatives, military communities become more common, often centered around military bases, and those military bases are in increasingly concentrated areas:

“Basing changes in recent years have moved a significant percentage of the Army to posts in just five states: Texas, Washington, Georgia, Kentucky and here in North Carolina. The state of Alabama, with a population of less than 5 million, has 10 Army ROTC host programs. The Los Angeles metro area, population over 12 million, has four host ROTC programs. And the Chicago metro area, population 9 million, has 3.”[30]

With a military mentality in the family, surrounded by other families that are operating the same way, it becomes an insulated society. Fundamentally, people choose friends and close relations based mainly on shared values and physical proximity to one another[31]; military families live near each other and share values and are physically separated from most civilians, who live off bases or posts and usually far away from military enclaves. Overall, “…rural America is overrepresented in the American military and urban America is underrepresented.”[32] For instance, the “10 congressional districts with the lowest percentage of veterans by population are closely associated with major cities, such as Los Angeles, Chicago and New York City.”[33] Thus, by the nature of basic infrastructure and logistics, most of the country is not directly engaged, informed, or emotionally invested in the military and its affairs.

Implications of a Divided Society

The division between the civilian population and the military force has troubling implications. The first is the lack of respect the military has for civilian leadership. This was captured perfectly in the McChrystal scandal. In a Rolling Stone piece on General Stanley McChrystal, former commander of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, he and his “brothers” divulged the tense relationship between them and the political leaders that they had to deal with, especially President Obama:

Their first one-on-one meeting took place in the Oval Office four months later, after McChrystal got the Afghanistan job, and it didn’t go much better [than their first meeting]. “It was a 10-minute photo op,” says an adviser to McChrystal. “Obama clearly didn’t know anything about him, who he was. Here’s the guy who’s going to run his fucking war, but he didn’t seem very engaged. The Boss was pretty disappointed.”[34]

And concerning other politicians, the opinions weren’t any more favorable:

In private, Team McChrystal likes to talk shit about many of Obama’s top people on the diplomatic side… Politicians like McCain and Kerry, says another aide, “turn up, have a meeting with Karzai, criticize him at the airport press conference, then get back for the Sunday talk shows. Frankly, it’s not very helpful.”[35]

If political leaders do not take interest in military personnel, and are not “very engaged”, they run a great risk of ineffectively planning missions, or misusing the military. Just like the rest of society, “in the absence of a draft or universal service, it is already the case that many of the nation’s current political leaders have no personal experience of military service.”[36] Though this makes McChrystal’s views more understandable, contempt from military leadership towards the civilian leaders is dangerous. These feelings are founded in the fact that the military leaders feel that with their experience, they know how to win a war; the inexperienced civilian leaders have no place directing them. They see the role of the military as a body meant to fight for the sake of winning militarily. As the military has become a voluntary, lifetime profession, it is understandable to want to be the best at that profession and execute missions in the most effective way possible on the basis of winning the conflict. However, the military is a political tool of the government- and success in war is irrelevant if it does not meet the intended political ends.

Another negative implication of the military’s isolation is the decrease in the public’s interest in war. Many experts postulate that societal ignorance is the reason the second Iraq War persisted for so long without public backlash.[37],[38] Though it was widely seen as an ineffective war, it continued for over 10 years. If there had been a drafted force, there most likely would have been far more civilian opposition.[39] Instead, the population was uninformed and un-invested. Studies and polls have shown that public concern about the conflict was dismal. For instance, in 2008, only 28% of the public knew the accurate amount of American soldier fatalities from the War.[40]

[41] Even at the outset of the conflict, public interest has been astoundingly low. It peaked at around 60-65% in 2003, and steadily decreased from that point, with a low of under 20%. Simply, the public did not care about the Iraq War.

Without the concentration effect of the AVF, this could not happen. A conscripted service, even if it were the same size as now, would force the military to have a more diverse pool of soldiers, and thus increase their sphere of influence. More people would have a connection to a soldier, and be more emotionally invested in understanding and following military affairs.

Universal Implications

Despite it being well intentioned, it is clear that the AVF system is not entirely beneficial to the United States, as it has caused segregation between the civilian population and the military. As outlined before, a large reason for the division in the U.S. is the fundamental difference in military values compared to those of the rest of the population. Universally, soldiers are educated to create a vertical collectivist culture. However, the AVF system hyper-concentrates these traits, and its soldiers apply these throughout life more so than short-term draftees do. Essentially, the vertical collectivist structure is stronger in an AVF.

This is completely counter-intuitive: individualists value individual freedom over the good of the group, and so would naturally want the choice to join the military. There seems to be a tension between the cultural acceptance of how one joins the military and the long-term effects on military-civilian relations, in the context individualistic culture. It may be necessary for a nation to forgo adhering to individualist ideals and favor a military draft in order to maintain the soldiers’ value of individualism long-term. On the outset, it would feel counterculture, but it would ensure less cultural isolation for the soldiers when rejoining the rest of society.

Almost all individualist nations have moved to an AVF, while strongly collectivist cultures tend to keep to a drafted military.[42] The intense cultural and physical segregation of soldiers, and the resulting difficulty upon reintegration, is not only an issue in the United States. All of the other Anglo-Western militaries (Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and United Kingdom) have very similar military cultures to the U.S., with the intensity varying based on their military power.[43] In the United Kingdom, which also has an AVF with rising numbers of career soldiers, “the British armed forces have occupied a ‘self-contained social world.’”[44] There is an acknowledged commonality of a cultural and physical segregation between the Anglo-Western militaries and civilians, where “it’s at least as much about preserving necessarily distasteful (to civilians) military virtues and about a sincere wish on those civilians’ part not to know too much of what the military does.”[45]

Interestingly, these countries all have strikingly similar psychological profiles.[46] They share a high amount of both indulgence and individualism. Like the U.S., this puts the civilian culture at odds with the military culture.

Unfortunately, there are not any strongly individualistic nations that also still use conscription.[47], [48] Germany was the last to make the change in 2011, and were hesitant based on the consequences that have been seen in the other individualistic nations with an AVF. Given their history, they were especially worried of the division between the society and the military, believing that conscription was “essential to German democracy because it supposedly anchored the army within society, preventing it from becoming an elitist force, as in the Nazi era.”[49] Up until 2011, the military had been very connected to society. It will be interesting to see if they follow the same trajectory as the other individualist nations, or if their past will overpower the natural separation from occurring.


The All Volunteer Force has its merits. It is the appropriate system given the modern needs of the military in that it produces a smaller number of more technically skilled soldiers. However, in a holistic examination, it becomes apparent that an AVF does not make sense under certain cultural circumstances. Though it would seem like the best choice for individualistic nations, in terms of respecting individual rights of soldiers, this logic is flawed on multiple levels. On an individual level, the soldier is voluntarily opting into a hierarchical system that stifles their individuality; furthermore, they are more embedded within the system than ever. More are becoming career soldiers or living on military bases, meaning that they are in this rigid structure in an increasingly significant way. This cultural separation then exponentially grows by decreasing the ability to reintegrate into society, pushing them into further isolation. On a societal level, the division between the military and the civilian population leads to issues between their respective leadership. Though, possibly more significant, it leads to lack of public investment in military affairs.

Theoretically, reinstating conscription would alleviate these issues. However, in practice, it would most likely cause more issues than it is worth. Like many things, once a freedom is given, it is difficult to take away. Especially in a democratic nation with individual rights, like the United States, there would undoubtedly be protest and public backlash. Though the AVF has negative effects on soldiers, they are an increasingly small portion of the population. Thus, maintaining an AVF may be the better of two evils, in the case of a nation with the system already in place.


[1]Rostker, Bernard. “The Evolution of the All-Volunteer Force.” RAND. RAND Corporation, 2006. Web. 23 Nov. 2014.

[2]Kelty, Ryan, Meredith Kleykamp, and David R. Segal. “The Military and the Transition to Adulthood.” The Future of Children 20.1 (2010): 181-207. Future of Children. Future of Children, 2010. Web. 23 Nov. 2014.


[4]“Black or African American Populations.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 10 Feb. 2014. Web. 22 Nov. 2014.


[6]Segal, Mady W., and David R. Segal. “Latinos Claim Larger Share of U.S. Military Personnel.” PRB. Population Reference Buraeau, n.d. Web. 21 Nov. 2014.

[7]Patten, Eileen, and Kim Parker. “Women in the U.S. Military: Growing Share, Distinctive Profile.” Pew Research Centers Social Demographic Trends Project RSS. Pew Research Center, 22 Dec. 2011. Web. 21 Nov. 2014.


[9] Kleykamp, Meredith A. College, Jobs, or Military? Enlistment During a Time of War. Texas Higher Education Opportunity Project. Princeton University, 15 June 2005. Web. 21 Nov. 2014.

[10] Watkins, Shanea, and James Sherk. “Who Serves in the U.S. Military? The Demographics of Enlisted Troops and Officers.” The Heritage Foundation. The Heritage Foundation, 21 Aug. 2008. Web. 09 Dec. 2014.

[11] Francis, David. “Where Do You Fall in the American Economic Class System?” US News RSS. N.p., 13 Sept. 2012. Web. 12 Nov. 2015.

[12] Feeney, Nolan. “Pentagon: 7 in 10 Youths Would Fail to Qualify for Military Service.” Time. Time, 29 June 2014. Web. 10 Dec. 2014.

[13] “Quick Facts: Economic Impacts of Dropouts.” National Dropout Prevention Center/Network. Clemson University, n.d. Web. 10 Dec. 2014.

[14] “Relationship Between Poverty and Overweight or Obesity « Food Research & Action Center.” FRAC. Food Research and Action Center, 2010. Web. 10 Dec. 2014.

[15] Schacherer, Rachael A. “The Conditions Effecting Military Enlistment.” The Public Purpose 3 (2005): 76-82. School of Public Affairs. American University. Web. 22 Nov. 2014.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Wong, Leonard. Why They Fight: Combat Motivation in the Iraq War. Carlisle Barracks, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, 2003. Strategic Studies Institute. Web. 22 Nov. 2014.

[18] Thomson, Mark. “An Army Apart: The Widening Military-Civilian Gap.” TIME. TIME Inc., 10 Nov. 2011. Web. 08 Nov. 2014.

[19] Killburn, M. R., and Jacob A. Klerman. “What Affects Decisions to Enlist in the Military?” What Affects Decisions to Enlist in the Military? RAND Corporation, 2001. Web. 23 Nov. 2014.

[20] Kleykamp

[21] Kelty

[22] Thomson, Mark. “An Army Apart: The Widening Military-Civilian Gap.” TIME. TIME Inc., 10 Nov. 2011. Web. 08 Nov. 2014.

[23]“United States Marine Corps.” N.p., n.d. Web. 22 Nov. 2014.

[24]“America’s Navy.” Navy. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Nov. 2014.

[25]“Army.” Go Army. Army, n.d. Web. 23 Nov. 2014.

[26] Mackey, Robert. “Is a Culture War Between American Soldiers and Civilians Inevitable?” The Lede. The New York Times, 23 June 2010. Web. 08 Nov. 2014.

[27]“Public Esteem for Military Still High.” Pew Research Centers Religion Public Life Project RSS. Pew Research Center, 11 July 2013. Web. 23 Nov. 2014.

[28]Hofstede, Geert. “The United States.” The Hofstede Centre. The Hofstede Centre, n.d. Web. 21 Nov. 2014.

[29] Singelis, T. M., H. C. Triandis, D. P. S. Bhawuk, and M. J. Gelfand. “Horizontal and Vertical Dimensions of Individualism and Collectivism: A Theoretical and Measurement Refinement.” Cross-Cultural Research 29.3 (1995): 240-75. CCR Sage Pub. Web. 4 Nov. 2014.

[30]Florida, Richard. “The Military’s Deepening Geographic Divide.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 05 Oct. 2010. Web. 10 Dec. 2014.

[31] Association for Psychological Science. “Are People More Likely To Become Friends Based on Proximity Or Shared Values and Interests?.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 4 June 2008.

[32]“POV: Where Soldiers Come From.” PBS. PBS, 2011. Web. 10 Dec. 2014.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Hastings, Michael. “The Runaway General.” Rolling Stone. Rolling Stone, 22 June 2010. Web. 06 Nov. 2014.


[36]Mackey, Robert. “Is a Culture War Between American Soldiers and Civilians Inevitable?” The Lede. The New York Times, 23 June 2010. Web. 08 Nov. 2014.

[37] Mackey, Robert. “Is a Culture War Between American Soldiers and Civilians Inevitable?” The Lede. The New York Times, 23 June 2010. Web. 08 Nov. 2014.

[38] Bowman, Tom. “Gap Grows Between Military, Civilians On War.” NPR. NPR, 11 Oct. 2011. Web. 08 Nov. 2014.

[39]Bowman, Tom. “Gap Grows Between Military, Civilians On War.” NPR. NPR, 11 Oct. 2011. Web. 08 Nov. 2014.

[40] “Awareness of Iraq War Fatalities Plummets.” Pew Research Center for the People and the Press RSS. Pew Research Center, 12 Mar. 2008. Web. 23 Nov. 2014.

[41] “Iraq and Public Opinion: The Troops Come Home.” Pew Research Center RSS. Pew Research Center, 14 Dec. 2012. Web. 23 Nov. 2014.

[42]“Does Your Country Need You?” The Economist. The Economist Newspaper, 04 July 2011. Web. 10 Dec. 2014.

[43]Hughes, Richard. “On the Culture of the Australian Army.” Australian Army Journal10.3 (n.d.): 226-33. Australian Army. Australian Army, Winter 2013. Web. 5 Dec. 2014.

[44]Walker David Ian. “Narrating Identity: Career Soldiers Anticipating Exit from the British Army.” Durham theses. Durham University, 2010. Web. 5 Dec. 2014.




[48]“Does Your Country Need You?” The Economist.

[49]Smith, David G. “The World from Berlin: ‘End of an Era’ as Germany Suspends Conscription.” SPIEGEL Online. SPIEGEL, 4 Jan. 2011. Web. 11 Dec. 2014.

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