Who's Bearing the Burden?

Iraq & the Demise of the All-Volunteer Army

The All-Volunteer Force (AVF), arguably the most successful and widely hailed federal program of the past thirty years, is failing. The conditions that enabled the AVF to thrive through the 1980s and 1990s no longer pertain. The erosion of those conditions, greatly accelerated by the Iraq War, is exposing as false the great unspoken assumption undergirding U.S. policy since the end of the cold war, namely, that the United States can enjoy the prerogatives of being the world’s sole superpower on the cheap.

Americans will soon confront a fundamental choice: they can continue to pursue a policy of militarized hegemony—currently styled as spreading freedom and democracy across the Islamic world—or they can preserve the practice, adopted after Vietnam, of insulating themselves from the costs that hegemony entails. But they cannot do both.

Until Vietnam, Americans had traditionally viewed military service, at least in principle, as an obligation inherent in citizenship. Never comfortable with what the Founders had called a “standing army,” they had seen the citizen-soldier as the mainstay of U.S. military policy. In times of emergency, Americans rallied to the colors; once the emergency passed, they just as quickly headed home.

The coming of the twentieth century saw efforts to rationalize this process. During two world wars and through the first two decades of the cold war, Americans had conceded to the federal government the authority to determine which citizens would actually serve and in what capacity. For a time, conscription seemed the best way to blend efficacy with fairness.

In retaliation for the government’s mendacity and recklessness in Vietnam, though, Americans revoked that grant of authority. Through widespread protest, resistance, and subversion, they brought the then-existing system of Selective Service to a halt. When Richard Nixon formally ended the draft in 1973, he was ratifying what had already become self-evident: as a practical matter, government could no longer command citizens to serve. But, in instituting the All-Volunteer Force, Nixon went a step further; he effectively severed the relationship between citizenship and military service. Serving in uniform became strictly a matter of personal choice.

Initially, persuading young Americans to make that choice proved to be a tough sell. In the 1970s, love of country had come to be seen as a retrograde sentiment; playing on patriotic themes did not inspire the nation’s eighteen-year-olds to march down to their nearest Army recruiter. With the post-1960s cultural mood skeptical of authority and celebrating immediate self-gratification, the prospect of subordination to what was then called “the green machine” exercised limited appeal.

In the face of these obstacles, the armed services consciously set out to rebrand themselves. They promoted military service as a career opportunity and a path to self-actualization. At a time when high-wage blue-collar jobs were becoming increasingly scarce, enlisting in the military offered some of the best blue-collar opportunities in America. The pay was good, benefits generous, the environment family-friendly. Best of all were the assurances that the company wasn’t going to go belly-up or get bought out by the Japanese. In the words of the famous jingle, the military became a place where you could “Be All That You Can Be.”

The young people who seized on that opportunity tended to be those for whom opportunities otherwise appeared limited. To be all they could be, the affluent didn’t need to spend a hitch in the Army or the Navy: they had daddy or, better still, a trust fund. Members of the predominantly white middle class, focused on attendance at a four-year college as the key to continued upward mobility, likewise saw little reason to enlist. Members of the working class and people of color—above all, African Americans—picked up the slack. To oversimplify only slightly, the AVF of the 1980s and 1990s succeeded for one very large reason: when moneyed America opted out of military service, black America joined up in disproportionate numbers.

This was the dirty little secret of the All-Volunteer Force: its ranks were not even remotely representative of the nation as a whole. At the end of the twentieth century, for example, fully 42 percent of U.S. Army enlisted soldiers were minorities. Although African Americans constitute 12 percent of the nation’s overall population, in 2000 they accounted for fully a quarter of the Army’s enlisted soldiers and a larger percentage still of the noncommissioned officer corps. For those Americans whose understanding of democracy centered on unencumbered individual autonomy, hiring out the function of national defense qualified as perfectly compatible with contemporary civic ideals. For the minority who clung to the view that democracy ought to entail something more than asserting privileges, the AVF seemed less benign. They saw it as a mechanism for offloading onto a few the responsibilities that rightly belonged to the community as a whole.

Granted, as long as this arrangement worked—that is, as long as the AVF satisfied the nation’s immediate military needs—no one much cared about such theoretical matters. And the AVF did work, as long as the model of military service as career opportunity retained its plausibility.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, this remained the case. For as long as the cold war defined national security policy, military life had a pronounced rhythm and predictability: surprises were few; the likelihood of getting killed or maimed appeared remote. Once the cold war ended, however, the United States went on an interventionist binge that sent U.S. troops to Panama, the Persian Gulf, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, and elsewhere, though these episodes tended to be either brief or, if protracted, relatively small-scale and low-risk. Until September 11, 2001, military service remained salable as an attractive occupation. As a consequence, throughout the abbreviated post-cold-war era, recruiting stayed fairly strong. Indeed, by the end of the century, most Americans viewed the All-Volunteer Force as permanently self-sustaining.

All of that changed after 9/11. Four years into what the Bush administration describes as an open-ended war, evidence that the AVF has begun to unravel is now incontrovertible. The pipeline of new recruits is drying up. For four of the past five months, the Army—the service bearing the brunt of the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan—has missed its recruiting goal. For May 2005, for example, the Army reduced its announced target from 8,050 to 6,700 recruits—and still fell 25 percent short. Figures for the Army Reserve and National Guard are equally dismal. For the Marine Corps, also heavily engaged in Iraq, the situation is only marginally better: through the first five months of 2005, Marine recruiters managed to meet their quota only once. Notably, these numbers are down although the Pentagon is easing enlistment standards, throwing more money into advertising, offering signing bonuses of up to $20,000, and pushing more recruiters into the field.

In one sense, the cause of the problem is self-evident: the ongoing insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Navy and the Air Force, services with a far smaller commitment to the active war zones, continue to meet their recruiting goals. For young people looking for a decent job and a leg up, becoming a sailor or an airman remains an attractive option.

Viewing service in the U.S. Army or U. S. Marine Corps in such terms no longer makes sense. To be sure, combat veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan continue to reenlist in large numbers, suggesting that those already in uniform find there challenge, camaraderie, and a sense of worth derived from being part of something much larger than self. But kids back on the block (and their parents) are taking a different view. Increasingly, they see military service not as a route to self-improvement but as a ticket to a war zone and a risk not worth taking.

African Americans, the backbone of the AVF in its heyday, are in the vanguard of those now revising their view. The numbers are telling: whereas in fiscal year 2000, 23.5 percent of all Army recruits were black, in the current fiscal year, the comparable figure is 14 percent. Young African Americans are voting with their feet against President Bush’s war.

To the extent that Americans, whatever their class or color, are paying any attention to the current recruiting crisis, that attention stems from the fear that lurking just beyond is the prospect of renewed conscription. The White House, the Pentagon, and most politicians adamantly insist that there will be no draft. A few members of Congress, notably Charles Rangel, an African-American veteran of Korea, call for its revival. Either way, such talk misses the larger problem.

Even if restoring the draft were politically feasible (and in the current climate, it’s not) doing so would amount to treating symptoms while leaving the disease untouched. The prospective demise of the AVF matters, not because it increases pressure to conscript but because it casts in sharp relief the larger contradictions besetting U.S. policy. The crisis of the All-Volunteer Force opens a window through which the real issue comes into view.

The contradictions are two in number. The first deals with the way basic U.S. national security policy is formulated. In a nation that prides itself on being the world’s preeminent democracy and proclaims its commitment to spreading democracy around the world, the policy process is profoundly undemocratic. Put simply, important decisions related to war and peace are not openly and honestly debated. Rather, they are announced from on high with the expectation that the Congress will accede and the people assent—or that if objections are voiced, they can be ignored. Moreover, the handful of people in the executive branch (mostly unelected and therefore unaccountable) who actually decide—their actions shielded from public scrutiny—are least likely to incur the costs entailed by their decisions.

The people who actually bear the burdens of service, meanwhile, have little say in the making of policy. One of the unremarked-on aspects of the notorious Downing Street Memo of July 23, 2002, is that it shows clearly that members of the British cabinet knew far more about the Bush administration’s actual intentions regarding Iraq than did either the U.S. Congress or the American people, who were at the very least kept in the dark if not deceived outright.

The second contradiction deals with the gaping disparity between the reputed importance of the so-called global war on terror and the mobilization of resources to fight that war. Much as history summoned earlier generations to face up to the evils of fascism and communism, so too, President Bush has told us, the present generation is called upon to address the evil of terrorism. This challenge is ostensibly the nation’s paramount priority.

In fact, though, the Bush administration has made no effort to put the nation on a war footing. The war on terror is being fought by approximately 0.5 percent of the population—an active duty force of less than 1.5 million out of a total population of approximately 290 million. Meanwhile, the other 99.5 percent shop, gripe about the price of gas, and tune into Desperate Housewives. The problem of the moment is that those among the 99.5 percent to whom the Pentagon has looked to replenish the 0.5 percent are increasingly declining the opportunity to do so.

Commentators have sought to describe this in political terms. After all, most minorities and the working poor have no particular affinity for Bush or his party. A conservative Republican proclaiming himself the champion of freedom for all humankind might evoke from African Americans a certain skepticism. The administration’s insistence that oil had nothing to do with a Texas oilman’s decision to invade Iraq might strike those stuck on the lower rungs of the economic ladder as less than credible.

But this insistence on seeing things in partisan terms overlooks a more obvious explanation rooted in concerns about fairness and equity. Maybe when it comes to serving the country, minorities and working-class Americans have simply grown weary of carrying more than their fair share of the load. Could it be that the Iraq War bears at least some of the earmarks of being a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight, conceived by well-heeled Washington insiders but fought by those least likely to reap the promised benefits of the American way of life?

President Bush has repeatedly portrayed the present conflict as a sequel to the momentous struggles of the past century. Indeed, in his address to the nation on June 28, the president essentially endorsed Osama bin Laden’s description of the current struggle as tantamount to a third world war. But if the war on terror—or, if you prefer, the campaign to democratize the Islamic world—is indeed of such vital importance, then the burden of fulfilling that mission ought to fall across the full spectrum of American society.

Today that is manifestly not the case. During World War II, for example, movie stars, professional athletes, and the offspring of the famous and the well-to-do—even FDR’s sons—found themselves in uniform. By comparison, today’s boldface names—with professional football player Pat Tillman as the sole and remarkable exception—remain safely in the cosseted cocoon of privilege. Neither of Bush’s military-age daughters, for example, has shown any inclination to participate in her father’s war. More and more parents are concluding that the Bush family has it right. Issuing the odd throwaway line from the bully pulpit—as when Bush told the assembled troops at Fort Bragg on June 28 that “there is no higher calling than service in our Armed Forces”—is unlikely to change that.

The problems besetting the AVF suggest that the days of undemocratically conceived and undemocratically implemented national-security policies may be numbered. If he continues on his present course, Bush will run out of soldiers long before he runs out of wars.

Given that prospect, one of two things must happen. Either more Americans, especially the affluent and the middle class, need to ante up their sons and daughters to sustain Bush’s war, making the enterprise democratic in substance as well as in its proclaimed purpose. Or, failing that, Americans ought to reassert control of U.S. policy, scaling the nation’s purposes to our collective willingness to sacrifice. Either way, the crisis of the All-Volunteer Force may yet prove to be salutary.

Published in the 2005-07-15 issue: 

Andrew Bacevichs how-we-got-Trump book is due out in the fall.

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