A Few (More) Good Men (and Women)

Read Time:
8m 34sec

The Evolution
of the All-Volunteer Force.

By Bernard Rostker. RAND. 800 pp. (with DVD). 68.50 cloth

After four years of waging war in Iraq, the U.S. Army is imploding. Its soldiers are exhausted, as are members of the Army Reserve and the National Guard. Last year, the Army met its goal of 80,000 new hires only by lowering physical and educational standards and issuing waivers for some criminal convictions. And its 490,000-member force is still about 200,000 soldiers shy of what it needs. Where will the necessary additional recruits come from? Can today’s volunteer system produce enough quality soldiers to marshal America’s future? Or must we return to the ­draft?

To address these questions, we need to review where we were when ­Vietnam-­era conscription ended, and how we navigated the next 34 years of the ­all-­volunteer force to reach the current mess. I Want You! is an invaluable aid in that project. It is a book that economists, bureaucrats, and ­think-­tank pogues (a venerable military term for anyone who’s farther from the fighting than you are) will love: 800 pages of dense pack. But with a little digging, general readers also will find the book ­rewarding.

Its author, Bernard Rost­ker, is currently a senior fellow at the RAND Corporation, and he has served as under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness, under secretary of the Army, and assistant secretary of the Navy for manpower and reserve affairs. If a Democrat takes the White House in 2008, Rostker will be, deservedly, on the short list for another high Pentagon position. An econ­omist by training, he has written a history of how economic reasoning and analysis helped move America away from conscription in the early 1970s, and contributed to the birth and development of the professional force that, after a rocky start, served America well for a quarter-­century.

The book is arranged chronologically, from the 1960s, when the Vietnam draft grew discredited and discussion of alternatives began, to the present. Narrative chapters alternate with ones that assess the analytic studies done in support of policy decisions and, on occa­sion, their use as models outside the military. For the most part, these studies deal with pay scales and compensation packages, effects of advertising, measurements of recruit quality, etc. (Many of the original studies and related correspondence between government officials are available on a fine accompanying DVD.) But let me dwell instead on a few aspects of our military’s history that Americans would prefer not to consider, but may not be able to avoid much ­longer.

The first is the official reasoning that led to the abolition of conscription in 1973. After World War II ended in 1945, the Army basically discharged itself. By 1948, however, it was clear that volun­tarism could not meet early Cold War needs, and the Truman administration reinstituted the draft. When the Korean War ended in 1953, the situation was the re­verse: a vast excess of bodies. Deferments and exemptions were passed out like Halloween candy, with a disproportionate number going to young men from relatively privileged families, to encourage them to engage in activities deemed socially desirable: attending college and graduate school, marrying, having kids, pursuing designated occupations, and having more kids. By the Vietnam War, the draft was a sig­nificant determinant of American economic life. However, not everyone valued its ­contributions.

Economist Milton Friedman provided the leitmotif. Conscription was a “tax in kind,” levied upon a small minority of the nation: ­draft-­age males. It was economically inequitable and, worse, inefficient. It hid the true costs of defense, misallocated resources, and forced young men to make economically and personally irrational choices in order to avoid service, such as getting Ph.D.’s in comparative literature when they’d rather be selling insurance, or getting married when they’d prefer to stay single. Shortly after his inauguration, Richard Nixon convened the President’s Commission on an ­All-­Volunteer Armed Force, more commonly known as the Gates Commission, to propose a plan for ending the draft. In its 1970 report, the commission focused on economic rationales for switching to an ­all-­volunteer ­force.

This economic emphasis provided a convenient exit strategy from the draft, but it did not require the nation to reflect on two aspects of conscription that invalidated it as a system for raising man­power: the curious notion that draftees could be sent on missions unrelated to protecting the homeland, and the inequities and corruptions built into selective service.

After World War II, nearly all democracies drafted (Britain ended its draft in 1962). But conscription was tied to clear legal and customary restraints on the uses to which draftees could be put. The draft was and is acceptable in Switzerland, for example, because its sole purpose is defensive; Switzerland isn’t about to invade anybody. West German draftees could not leave their country; neither could French conscripts after the Algerian War. Other NATO countries tied conscription to the need to deter a possible Soviet ­invasion.

Only the United States assumed that draftees could be sent anywhere to do anything. When that anything proved to be the unpopular and futile Vietnam War, the modicum of legitimacy not already destroyed by massive draft dodging and manipulation of the system vanished. As a result, the draft, like the war, simply faded away. There was no ­closure.

The ­all-­volunteer force formed in the wake of the draft did not fare particularly well at the start. Quality fell precipitously during the 1970s, as evidenced most spectacularly by the Pentagon’s infamous “misnorming” of the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery. The test said recruit quality was fine; the folks in the field knew better. Moreover, the cost of the force sailed past early predictions. Idiotic advertising campaigns with slogans such as “Today’s Army Wants to Join You” didn’t help, especially when the services were paying ­full ­freight for advertising and no longer relying on time and talent provided by agencies and media as a public ­service.

The result was predictable. Year after year, cohorts weak in intelligence, education, and motivation entered the system, and because the military cannot draw its middle management from outside its own ranks, the problems these recruits (including officers) caused were lasting. Still, all the analytic studies conducted by the Defense Department and various ­government-­contracted think tanks, including RAND, on everything from recruiting to compensation, may have resulted in policies that plugged some of the holes in the ­dike.

Then the Army discovered ­women.

“Arguably,” writes Rostker, “the single group most responsible for the success of the ­all-­volunteer force has been women.” No study done before 1972 had seriously entertained the expanded use of women. But as the ’70s wore on, the Army found that women, with their generally higher educational attainment, superior perfor­mance on intelligence tests, and lower incidence of disciplinary problems, could substitute for some of the ­high-­quality men who weren’t signing ­on.

At roughly the same time, however, organized feminism attacked the military as the last bastion of machismo, to be opened ­up—­or brought ­down—­by any means necessary. The new and growing dependence on women may have improved the statistical profile of the American soldier, but many male soldiers and their leaders resented their female comrades in arms, and the feminist assault didn’t help matters. The consequences were predictable and ugly: scandal, criminal harassment and assault, misguided “sensitivity training,” and micromanagement of behavior, including one regulation that defined eye contact of more than five seconds as sexual ­harassment.

From the start, the Army maintained that its female troops would not be sent into combat. But as time wore on, military leaders understood ever more clearly that women would have to fight. Despite law and stated policy, the Army kept moving women into combat units, saying that they were temporarily “attached,” not perma­nently “assigned.” The result is that today women are vital to the U.S. ­Army—­they constitute about 15 percent of the force. And they are assigned to patrols and small units that routinely go into combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. Neither the Army nor the nation has begun to come to terms with this ­reality.

Rostker’s historical account is exhaustive and meticulous. At the last, however, he falters, for he concludes that the ­all-­volunteer force can probably suffice for America’s future needs. True, the ­all-­volunteer force did well during the Reagan years. It did well during Desert Storm, as did the service reserves and the National Guard, its vital partners in the Total Force. But as President Bill Clinton reduced and underfunded the force while increasing its deployments and tempo of operations, a certain frazzle set in among both full- and ­part-­time ­volunteers.

Five years of war under President George W. Bush have demonstrated an ineluctable truth: People wear out. They wear out as soldiers who, whatever their devotion, can’t keep returning to war. And they wear out as human beings who want to spend time with their ­families.

Whatever happens in Iraq, this nation needs a much larger Army to deter or deal with future ­conflicts—­in Iran, North Korea, Africa. In the face of this reality, Rostker notes only that “increased incentives [i.e., bonuses] have always proven to stretch enlistments, but there is a limit.” Seasoned military leaders will do everything they can to ensure the ­all-­volunteer force’s continued success, he concludes, but “only time will tell.”

Indeed it will. Time will tell us that voluntarily putting oneself in harm’s way solely for pay is an activity fit for mercenaries, not Uncle Sam’s soldiers; that women must be admitted to full equality under arms; and that we cannot much longer avoid renewed consideration of how to raise the Army America ­needs—­whether through the ­old-­style direct federal draft, some form of national service, or an entirely new volunteer arrangement, such as a contract to fight only in the cause of homeland defense. If history is any indication, the coming debate will be acrimonious and ill informed. Those interested in bringing some reason to the table will do well to consult I Want You! We can’t know where we’re going unless we know where we’ve ­been.

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