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...