Why The All-Volunteer Force Needs To End, Or, Why "I Support Our Troops" Isn't Good Enough


I preface this article by explaining that it is personally difficult for me to write. This is because, for me, the main argument of this article is fully one-hundred and eighty degrees from where I started. It represents a complete reversal of view for me, which is an action that I simply do not normally do. The argument, however, is compelling -- so much so, that I have been forced to admit that I now fully embrace the concept:


The United States of America needs to abandon the professional military system created by the termination of the Draft, and the introduction of the All-Volunteer Force (AVF) in 1973.

The termination of the system in its current form is necessary, not simply as a matter of policy, but because doing so is a vital necessity to the survival of the Republic.


“Without conscription, war is just an abstraction” - Robert Gates, former US Secretary of Defense


I was born in 1967. The Draft ended in 1973. As a result, I have never faced the possibility of reporting to a Draft Board. I am a product of the AVF, as are the vast majority of service members, be they active or retired, that I have personal contact with. As such, I was weened on the belief that the AVF concept was the only viable option for a nation with international commitments, and was the only way to reduce casualties when military action became necessary, through the mechanism of a long-service professional military force. Inherent to that concept, although rarely stated so baldly, was the concept's antithesis: that draftee - i.e., "conscript" - armies were essentially cannon fodder, to be shoved into the meat grinder of combat like fresh, sterile gauze staunching the hemorrhaging of blood in a catastrophic wound. Cue visions of Soviet hordes being forced forward into the teeth of Nazi machine guns before them, by the machine guns of the NKVD behind them, or of Asian human wave suicide attacks overrunning US positions like a horde of army ants.

I was wrong.

I need to point out, here, that I am not talking about simply opening the floodgates, and shoving millions of 20-somethings blindly into battle. That concept epitomizes the kind of system that I was raised to despise: drafting kids who didn't have the connections or the money to get them out of the Draft, who were shoved into combat against a determined enemy by a cynical political class, while the officers who were supposed to lead them stayed in command just long enough to "punch their ticket", before rotating out to a staff job, leaving their draftees to wallow down in the pig sty of bloody entrails.

That system is, in fact, what brought about the end of the Draft. However, nothing is ever quite that simple.

And, when lead articles at the Cato Institute, the Small Wars Journal and Salon Magazine more or less agree, you know it's time to pay attention.

What I am advocating is universal military training - there is still a definite need for a standing force, a result of ever-advancing technological velocity in communications, but there is a dire need for both the massive numbers required for modern warfare ("low intensity" or otherwise), but also to revive and maintain the connection between the armed services and the citizenry that they serve...and, not to put too fine a point on it, to give the political class pause before committing their constituents to military adventurism.

In fact, the United States military had ossified in the aftermath of WW2. As James F. Dunnigan would say, the US military caught a nasty case of "Victory Disease" after the war, believing that since it had triumphed in the fires of a multi-front war, it must be doing (almost) everything right. Yet, by the end of US involvement in Vietnam, it was clear that something fundamental had broken down. By 1973, Selective Service (the Draft's formal name) was heavily politicized by the results of a badly-handled, ill-explained conflict that the "American Street" neither understood, nor cared to understand...what mattered was dead college-age kids, and nightly news stories of similar kids burning native villages, apparently at random, mingled with confusing and unexplained camera footage of those kids shooting at targets the cameras could not see.

The end of the Draft and the advent of the AVF was heralded as a great, modern step forward for the US military - no longer would draftees be scraped up and shoved into combat. Going forward, all the troops would be thoroughly trained volunteers, available for four to six years of service. And, since the numbers were lower, the troop's pay and benefits could be increased. Inspiration in this was taken from the example of the British military, famous for its exceptionally well-trained and disciplined long-service professional troops. In large part, the transition to the AVF was exemplified by such things as the birth of the US Army's National Training Center (NTC), at Fort Irwin, CA, the US Navy's "Top Gun" program and the US Air Force's "Red Flag" exercise (brought about largely by the "Revolt Of The Majors").

However, in this idea lays the seeds of both the endemic, inconclusive wars of the last twenty-five years, and - hyperbole aside - the death of the Republic, itself.

The system of the United States, current beliefs in certain circles to the contrary, was based not on the model of Periclean Athens, but on the model of the early Roman Republic. The Founding Fathers were well-versed in Livy and Plutarch, and fully grasped the danger of maintaining too large of a standing military during peacetime. Aside from the inherent dangers of an armed body monopolizing the means of force within the state, the Founders all knew what a truly all-professional force, divorced from the public it served, implied.

Today, far fewer than 1% of the US population serves in the military, be that Active, Reserve or National Guard. As well, the bulk of the American population is utterly divorced from "things military", and beyond an almost 'de rigueur' - even if truly heartfelt - pronouncement that "I support our troops!" (and thank you, incidentally, if you are honest in that pronouncement), the average American simply doesn't see the need to delve too deeply into foreign affairs...unless, of course, a 9/11-type event happens.

Americans, to be blunt, are as disconnected from their military services as the average Roman citizen was disconnected from their post-Marian Reform professional Legions...And the result of that was Caesar, riding into Rome at the head of his professional - and personal - army, the singular act which brought the Roman Republic to its final end, and ushered in the age of the Roman Empire.

Let that sink in for a moment.

The chief arguments against reinstating the Draft - a proposal repeatedly submitted to every Congressional session since 2003 - have always been that draftees would somehow be less well-trained than volunteers (or at least, less effective in combat), and that too few potential draftees meet the physical, mental, legal and/or educational requirements of "modern warfare".

Both of these arguments are specious, on their face.

In reverse order, the current enlistment requirements are based on an idealized target range set by over forty years of no-threat-of-the-Draft recruiting targets. In fact, those requirements are specifically designed to weed out all but the very cream of the crop of potential recruits.

The first point, however, needs a more visceral stake driven into its heart.

Two of the "proofs" of the supposed superiority of long-service professional armies over conscript armies are the Falkland's War of 1982, and the "first" Persian Gulf War (for the US, at least) in 1990-1991. In both conflicts, mostly long-service professional forces did not simply defeat mostly-conscript armies, but destroyed those armies in detail, and did so with almost blinding speed. This is taken as an inarguable touchstone of the superiority of the long-service professional force over that of the conscript army.

However, as you can likely tell, the facts are rather different.

In the Gulf, in 1991, the Iraqi soldier did not lack for courage. Although  the forward units, those directly in front of the initial onslaught of Allied forces, surrendered in droves, there were plenty of Iraqi forces - conscripts, as well as elite Republican Guards - deeper inside Iraq and Kuwait who tried to fight. Indeed, reports of small arms fire - i.e., rifle fire - continually rattling off of the hulls of tanks is well-documented. As well, although US forces quickly counterattacked and destroyed them, the Republican Guard's 'Tawakalna' division fought well enough to force a localized withdrawal of US armored units.

Likewise, the mostly-conscript Argentinian forces in the Falklands performed far better than anyone expected, including staging the most violent, sustained and damaging air attacks on British forces since World War 2.

There is no halfway in this argument -- either these conscript forces did better than they had any right to, or the professional forces opposing them were not as professional as they tout themselves to be.

Looking back in the American experience, especially in relation to the above, the question should not be overly difficult to understand -- the question is one of quality training and dedicated, intelligent and resolute leadership, mated to competent equipment selection and procurement, as well as the provision of competent medical services and logistical supply. In both the Falklands and the Gulf, that "tail" was sorely lacking, at virtually all levels...and yet, the troops suffering from those deficiencies performed well.

In fact, the American experience with the Draft in World War 2 is a touchstone example of the power of a properly-conducted mass draft, married to an efficient training, leadership and logistical system. This is not hyperbole: more than 61% of the Americans in uniform in WW2 were draftees...draftees, incidentally, who went into combat in North Africa, Sicily, France and numerous Pacific islands, against professional, battle-hardened, veteran enemy forces, and consistently emerged victorious.

That is, certainly, and oversimplification. The actual chain of events was very uneven in details -- but the general trend held throughout the war.

Subsequently, however, as the professional US military system ossified from Victory Disease, combat performance deteriorated, beginning in Korea, and continuing through today. While there were a number of short, sharp conflicts that the US resolved successfully, confusion and muddled thinking about achievable, realistic military options among a political class with increasingly less experience with the real military, increasingly wasted US military power and political clout, even as US troops increasingly excelled at the tactical level of combat.

Now, as 2015 draws to a close, the civilian population of the United States and their professional military forces are as divorced from each other as ever, even as threats - both internal and external - increase in frequency and scope. Simultaneously, the political class increasingly uses the military and its budget as a political football in a disconnected and utterly remote game of one-upmanship.

Also increasingly, as more and more threats manifest themselves, the danger increases of the appearance of the proverbial "Man On A Horse": that some "savior", be they political or military, will "ride to the rescue", and "save the country"...but that salvation, as always, will come with a price, a price that Americans increasingly think that they are willing to pay.

Let that sink in, and ponder it.

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