The Dilemma of the All-Volunteer Force

By Daisy Ni (PO ’21)

The United States’ military, the strongest military in the world, has depended upon an all-volunteer force (AVF) since 1973. Since then, our military conflicts have been disproportionately burdened by less than one percentage of our population. Although our military efficacy remains as stable as ever, the AVF model contains moral concerns, with opponents doubting its sustainability moving forward.

The composition of the AVF raises questions regarding fairness and sociopolitical considerations. The military attracts groups who have relatively poor civilian opportunities aiming to use service as a gateway for social mobility. The benefits available through the GI bill, for example, are more appealing as an incentive for those who may struggle with receiving an education otherwise. Because of this, lower class and minority individuals are disproportionately overrepresented in the armed services, while middle and upper class populations are relatively free from the burden service.

This disproportionate composition of the military contributes to the broadening of the civilian-military divide. In particular, it has led to the emergence of a “warrior caste” system, fed by generations of family whose progeny follow their parents’ footsteps into service. For example, as of 2011, 60 percent of veterans under the age of 40 report that they have an immediate family member who served in the military, compared to the 39 percent of all adults younger than 40. This discrepancy, compared to statistics of older generations, is only increasing over time, blocking off entire communities and families from civilian society. The Department of Defense has in fact acknowledged the divide, and has stated that the gap is “ultimately… a threat to the viability and sustainability of the all-volunteer force.” Civil society is barred from developing a personal understanding and connection to military operations, leading to a shrinkage of the military enlistment pool. Left to continue, this trend would damper diversity within the armed services, allowing the continuation of the discriminatory feeding into enrollment to force cycles of the disenfranchised to shoulder the burnt of force.

In addition, the civilian-military divide has implications on the decision-making processes of our government concerning war. The average citizen is less likely to have friends and family who have served, and are thus less likely to have true stakes in the threat of war—they are effectively shielded from the consequences of the use of force. This isolation, as a result, reduces the threshold upon which they base their support to enter combat. As such, the nation becomes less conscientious and selective about deploying military forces, increasing the likelihood of embroiling our country into armed conflicts. Indeed, this phenomenon showcases the irony of American attitude toward service. Military service is a qualification that we expect highly from our public officials—President Trump’s draft dodging experiences were widely critiqued by people all across the political spectrum. However, it is not an experience that we are willing to take on for ourselves. The public is very open to sending people to war, but only so if service is borne by others.

Conscription stands as one alternative to the AVF that could potentially solve the inequalities it raises. A return to a non-discriminating draft would theoretically help distribute the burden of national defense more equitably among all social classes. It would furthermore increase the average voter’s personal connections to the armed services, making the public think twice about their opinions regarding foreign military involvements should their relatives be the ones doing the fighting. Additionally, increasing the number of middle and upper class individuals in the services would also provide the military with people of higher education levels and allow the military to benefit from their talents. Conscription could also have economic and social benefits. Start-Up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle, Dan Senor and Saul Singer trace Israel’s economic boom to its conscription model. They find that national service grants Israelis problem-solving and interpersonal skills and an invaluable network. These human, social, and cultural capital prove helpful especially in the area of technological innovation and business, and furthermore give citizens a greater insight and knowledge regarding their nation’s foreign policies and relations.

Universal military training, as is the model in many European countries, would be the most attractive draft plan in regards to equality. Conscription, however, faces strict public opposition from Americans, who see involuntary servitude as a violation of liberty. After all, one advantage that the AVF does have is that it would exclude the unwilling and inexperienced draftees who may be prone to discipline problems and would prove detrimental to military efficacy and motivation. While perhaps equitable in theory, the draft also bears worrying memories of the Vietnam War, where the rich and influential gamed the system—in that case, a draft would only serve to reinforce racial and class divides. The expansion of our military would also signify other social and political implications, such as what it would mean for America’s global presence and power. It would furthermore necessitate a drastic increase of military resources, such as training personnel and facilities, that our country may currently be unequipped to accommodate. A conscription lottery, on the other hand, would solve the issue of size while retaining representation, but would be inequitable in other aspects—the very fact that some individuals are forced to serve while others are not can be considered unfair.

Ultimately, the AVF, despite its issues, may be the only workable model for our country when compared to its alternative. Political discourse should as such turn to efforts on improving our current system, including initiatives to modify the current incentives and rhetoric of recruitment strategies to diversify our armed forces. Should the AVF continue as is, we choose to live in a system targeting the already poor and disenfranchised, leaving the marginalized to fight the wars of the elites. The cost of war is unbearably high, in lives, values, and morality.

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