The All-volunteer Military: Too Much From Too Few

The United States had a long tradition of military success from the Revolutionary War through World War II. American military art/science (strategy, operations, and tactics) is now a modern example of an institution in decline. The slide may have begun with the Korean War where that outcome might be described as ambiguous. The Vietnam War was a decade-long controversy at home and abroad. Iraq was conquered in days, and lost in years of occupation followed by abandonment. All those small wars in the Muslim world so far can only be described as serial failures. Modern American history is characterized by intervention and regime change and at the same time littered with the debris of military fiasco.

Losing now seems to be chronic for Team America. Some brilliant operational or tactical episodes might be cited, but taken collectively, nothing midst the Muslim small wars of the past five decades suggests strategic success. Indeed, words like war, to say nothing of “victory,” are seldom used today by politicians or generals.

Withal, the world is not a safer place today,  either. Freedom and democracy are not ascendant. Winning on the battlefield seems to be permanently off the military table.

What happened?

US Armed Forces are some of the best trained, disciplined, and equipped fighting units in the world. Tactical excellence still occasionally pays dividends at the operational level. Strategic competence, however, is a void.

Since the end of the Cold War, American politicians and generals seem to be lost in a strategic fog. Absent an existential threat like the Soviet Bloc, American military assets, treasure, and young lives have been squandered on a series of small wars where the conflicts are ephemeral and undeclared whilst objectives, or measures of effectiveness, are unclear. Iraq, Afghanistan, Yugoslavia, Libya, and Yemen are just a few examples where military interventions made matters worse.

Small wars today seem to have little or nothing to do with any national goals and everything to do with domestic politics, political expediency, or the transient crisis of the moment. Force commitment is reactive and ephemeral, not strategic. There is no over-arching vision or objective like “Containment,” to say nothing of reasonable expectations like victory. Stated objectives and missions are trivialized with meaningless euphemisms like humanitarian concerns, training, “nation building,” or “stability.”

The worst of neologisms might be the so-called “war on terror,” a pleonasm that misfires on three counts.

America has been agnostic since 1948 when the subject is war or Islam. War and jihad is the Muslim perspective, not the American view. Indeed, official US rhetoric relegates Muslim attacks, and terror to common criminal activity, not acts of war. And the rhetorical war on “terror,” the tactic, makes as much sense as declaring “war” on perennial social problems like ignorance, drugs, or crime. War today at the Pentagon, National Security Council, and the State Department is more likely to be an attack on language not Muslim sponsors. Real combat is regularly obscured by the inoffensive burka of polite political euphemism.

The word “terror” is actually most useful as budget Viagra. No matter the state or federal agency, if you can work words like “terror,” “radical,” or “extremist” into your mission statement, funding stimulus is assured. Using a word like “Islamist,” on the other hand, to describe the actual threat, is a non-starter at any level. 

Treating 50 years of terror, anti-democratic barbarity, and a host of small wars as isolated criminal acts with local motives may explain why America and Europe are losing the global conflict with irredentist Islamism.

The slow slide into what can only be described as strategic miasma probably began with the end of universal conscription in America and the advent of the “all-volunteer” force. Tipping points are always speculative, if not anecdotal, but the cost and consequences of “professionalizing” the American military is now a study in social pathology.

Creating a volunteer force was never about the draft. Conscription in its various incarnations over the years was always controversial, yet effective if military results are a measure of merit. From the Revolutionary War, through the Civil War, and up to WWI0, American military expeditions were usually victorious. Conscription was never popular but it worked when it was needed. The Vietnam War changed all that.

The end of “universal” conscription precipitated a storm of cultural, social, and strategic blowback. In fact, the Nixon/Kissinger initiative didn’t just end the draft, it ended military service as we knew it. The civic virtues of shared sacrifice and national obligation went out with the bathwater of political expediency.

If the truth be told, eliminating the draft in 1973 had little to do with national security either and everything to do with domestic politics. The military draft was a political bone thrown by the American Right to the American anti-war Left.

The domestic peace gambit worked. With the end of the draft, the anti-war movement collapsed. Ironically, scions of the 1970s anti-war counterculture (John Kerry is an example) now lead today’s charge into indecisive small wars, regime change schemes, and an assortment of ill-advised interventions justified as counter terrorism.

Alas, a permanent professional standing army was, and still is, at odds with American tradition, just war theory, and everyday common sense.

The founding fathers were justifiably skeptical about standing armies and thus gave Congress the power of the purse, limiting Army funding to two years.  And philosophers frequently argue that ease of misuse is a sign that (any) theory is flawed and ought to be scrapped. “Ease of misuse” is surely a hallmark of American counter-terror theory and tactics since 1973.

The real fly in the ointment of military art as practiced by the Oval Office and the Pentagon today is the lack of common sense or pragmatism. In all of this, Congress and both major political parties have been cheerleaders at worst or spectators at best. If the subject is war, Congressional restraint has been AWOL since the Nixon era.

[Personalizing military pathology is a risky business. Nonetheless, the Armed Forces, like any other human institution is the sum of personal integrity – or its absence. Here we might be remiss not to mention several human resource symptoms like Admiral Jeremy Boorda, General David Patraeus, General Michael Hayden, General James Clapper, Major Malik Hasan, Sergeant Robert Bales, Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, and Private Chelsea (nee Bradley) Manning. The last is about to be transferred to a more congenial prison where he/she can undergo sex change therapy at taxpayer expense.]   

Disastrous or failed strategic military outcomes of the last 50 years speak for themselves.

The tragic social, or pragmatic consequences of military malpractice in the all-volunteer era, however, fly under the radar. Chronic “misuse” pathologies now produce record levels of disabled, alcoholics, drug abusers, PTSD victims, suicides, homelessness, welfare dependencies, retention/recruitment problems, and Veterans Administration malpractice.  Many of these social costs could be attributed to repeat deployments, a phenomenon unprecedented in American military history. No one at the strategic tier seems to ever ask if we are asking too few to do too much for too few good reasons.

If every citizen benefits from national security, shouldn’t all beneficiaries have some skin in the game?        

The all-volunteer army has created a chasm between the combat veteran and the population served. That chasm gets broader with every reckless military intervention or deployment. If national defense is a subset of national security, then every citizen, every family, and every institution that enjoys the benefits of safety and democracy should share the risks and costs.

Truth is, in America, if not all republics, there are more votes to be had from grifters, deadbeats, and reluctant conscripts than there will ever be had among earnest military volunteers. Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates put it best: “Without conscription, war is just an abstraction.” The all-volunteer force makes it too easy for politicians to rationalize deployments without fear of consequence at the ballot box.

The great virtue of universal conscription was that risk and sacrifice was shared and personal; in short, a prudent restraint on use abuse. Without universal personal risk, feckless politicians and venal generals get a free hand to play fast and loose with lives - and national reputation.

When was the last time you saw a flag officer or a politician in a body bag or a wheel chair -- or waiting in line for a pill at a VA hospital? Paradoxically, there is less tolerance for casualties with volunteers than there was with draftees. The solution, according to some thoughtful analysts, is social justice.

“Bring back a draft that starts conscription at the top of the social ladder. Or establish recruiting appeals that will garner some share of privileged youth. Otherwise the all-volunteer force will be an ineffective instrument in any time of war or even in peacekeeping, unless the instance is virtually casualty-free.”

American military deployments today are hardly casualty-free, nor are they effective, just, or justified, if results and outcomes matter. For the moment, the draft and conscription is settled law.  Alas, the ship of state may have to hit an iceberg before any new conversation about service, sacrifice, and American military success begins.

G. Murphy Donovan writes about the politics of national security.

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