The all-volunteer force turns 50 — and faces its worst crisis yet

Max Boot Washington Post February 13th 2023

Fifty years ago, in early 1973, with U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War coming to a close, the Nixon administration announced the end of draft call-ups. The armed forces, which had been dependent on conscripts since 1940, had to become an all-volunteer force (AVF) overnight.

America gained — and lost — a great deal in that wrenching transition: We gained a more effective military but opened up a new divide between service personnel and civilians.

Admittedly, it was hard to predict either consequence when the draft ended. By 1973, conscription had caused enormous discontent in U.S. society because so many of the well-off had been able to escape the Vietnam War with occupational or student deferments or bogus medical excuses.

Military leaders feared that few high-quality recruits would join voluntarily — and initially they were right. As recounted by James Kitfield in his book “Prodigal Soldiers: How the Generation of Officers Born of Vietnam Revolutionized the American Style of War,” “On standard military aptitude tests between 1977 and 1980, close to half of all the Army’s male recruits scored in the lowest mental category the service allowed. Thirty-eight percent were high school dropouts.” Drug abuse and racial tensions were rife. The all-volunteer force, combined with defense budget cuts, was producing a “hollow Army,” the Army chief of staff warned in 1980.

That changed in the 1980s when patriotism surged and popular culture began to depict the military in a more positive light — we went from “The Deer Hunter” (1978) to “Top Gun” (1986). Congress raised pay and benefits, and the services figured out how to attract recruits with slogans such as “Be All You Can Be.” By 1990, 97 percent of Army recruits were high school graduates and, thanks to mandatory drug testing, the number using illicit drugs plummeted.

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FThe AVF went on to win the 1991 Gulf War and perform capably in a long series of conflicts that followed. The United States often did not achieve its political objectives (as in Afghanistan), but it wasn’t the fault of those doing the fighting. They turned the military into the most admired institution in U.S. society.

Now, however, one retired general told me, “The AVF is facing its most serious crisis since Nixon created it.” All of the services are struggling with recruiting. The crisis has been especially acute in the Army. Last year, it missed its recruiting goals by 15,000 soldiers — an entire division’s worth. That is a particularly ominous development given the growing threats from China, Russia, Iran and North Korea.

Military analysts point to numerous factors to account for the recruiting shortfall, the biggest being that the unemployment rate is at its lowest level since 1969. There is also widespread obesity and drug use among young people. Only 23 percent of young Americans are eligible to serve, and even fewer are interested in serving. More than two decades after Sept. 11, 2001, and nearly two years after the U.S. defeat in Afghanistan, war weariness has set in.

Perceived politicization is another issue: While many right-wingers view the armed forces as too “woke,” many progressive Gen Zers view them as too conservative. The Ronald Reagan Institute found that the number of people expressing a great deal of trust and confidence in the military declined from 70 percent in 2017 to 48 percent in 2022.

Those poll numbers reflect a concern among many in the military that the AVF has created a dangerous chasm between the few who serve and the vast majority who don’t. The number of veterans in the population declined from 18 percent in 1980 to about 7 percent in 2018 — and it keeps falling, as the older generation of draftees dies off.

“The AVF has led us to become the best trained, equipped and organized fighting force in global history,” retired Adm. James Stavridis, a former NATO commander, told me. “But we have drifted away from the citizen-soldier model that was such a part of our nation’s history. The AVF has helped to create an essentially professional cadre of warriors. We need to work to ensure that our military remains fully connected to the civilian world, and to educate civilians about the military.”

The easiest way to bridge the civil-military divide would be to reinstate the draft, but there is no support for such a radical step in either the military or the country at large. David S.C. Chu, a former undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, points out that relying on draftees “creates morale and discipline problems” and is “increasingly inconsistent with a highly technological approach to warfare.” In most countries, conscripts serve only a year or two at most — barely long enough to master complex weapons systems. That’s why most nations, including Russia and China, have been relying more on professional soldiers, as the United States does.

Yet, while we gained a more capable military with the advent of the AVF, we have to recognize that we also lost something important when the draft ended. Mass mobilization during World War II broke down religious, regional and ethnic barriers and paved the way for postwar progress on civil rights and an expansion of the federal government to address problems such as poverty. In the post-draft era, America has become increasingly polarized between “red” and “blue” communities.

That has led to renewed interest in expanding national service programs such as AmeriCorps; President Biden, for example, recently proposed creating a new Civilian Climate Corps. Congress should support such initiatives, but we shouldn’t have extravagant expectations for what they can accomplish. The young people who sign up for voluntary service are so civic-minded already that they are the ones in least need of what these programs teach.

To make a real difference, national service would have to be obligatory. Retired Gen. Charles C. Krulak, a former Marine commandant, told me he favors requiring every high school graduate to put in two years of community service out of state while living on current or former military bases.

He is undoubtedly right that such a program would produce young adults “better prepared to become useful citizens.” But there is no national emergency that would justify such a mobilization and no agreement on how we could usefully employ 12 million people (the number of Americans aged 18 to 20). Public employee unions would be sure to object, the cost would be prohibitive, and many would try to evade the service requirement. Obligatory national service is no more likely, in today’s climate, than a renewal of military conscription.

The likelihood is that the AVF can overcome its current problems with some tweaks such as a new Army program for pre-basic training to condition out-of-shape recruits. Presumably, once the unemployment rate rises, the military’s recruitment woes will ease. Bridging the fissures that divide our society will be much harder to achieve. I wish a national-service mandate were practical and possible, but it’s not. We will have to look elsewhere — for example, to expanded civics education — for solutions.