The Virtue of an All‐​Volunteer Force

July 29, 2003 • Commentary
By Walter Y. Oi

Last January, as Congress and the public grappled with the possibility of U.S. military action in Iraq, Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) introduced the “The National Service Act of 2003” to reinstate compulsory national service. The congressman justified the bill by claiming the nation’s defense should not be “the sole responsibility of paid volunteers.”

“If our great nation becomes involved in an all‐​out war, the sacrifice must be equally shared,” Rangel said. “We must return to the tradition of the citizen soldier.”

He freely admitted that the legislation was intended in part to disrupt the push toward war. But, putting that aside, is the nation’s defense better provided through compulsory service or an all‐​volunteer force? And would compulsory service provide a preferable sharing of the burden of military preparedness?

For most of U.S. history, volunteers supplied the manpower for the nation’s defense. There have been only four departures from that tradition, and each of those occurred in times of significant perceived threat. The first U.S. draft bill was passed in March of 1863, nearly two years after the outbreak of the Civil War. It was met with riots in New York City and was temporarily suspended. The second draft bill passed Congress on May 18, 1917, six weeks after the United States formally entered the Great War. That draft was short lived; calls were stopped fully three months before the end of hostilities. The nation’s first peacetime draft was adopted Sept. 16, 1940, against the backdrop of war in Europe. It supplied more than 10 million of the 15 million American service members who served during World War II, and it remained in place after the war until March 31, 1947. Then, for 15 months, the nation returned to an all‐​volunteer force. But the military failed to meet recruitment goals and, with the Cold War emerging, Congress established the Selective Service System on July 1, 1948. Under that law, compulsory service would affect the lives of young American men for a quarter of a century.

Over that time, compulsory service met growing criticism and outright opposition. In 1969, President Richard Nixon established the President’s Commission on an All‐​Volunteer Armed Force to develop a plan to return to an all‐​volunteer military. According to the commission, if the entry‐​level pay of enlisted men were raised, the recruiting organization expanded, and the conditions of service life improved, the Armed Services could attract enough volunteers to staff the active‐​duty strength objectives.

Congress took the first step toward implementing the plan in 1972 when lawmakers raised the pay of first‐​term enlisted men by 61.2 percent. The lawmakers also refused to extend the draft authority, which expired on June 30, 1973. The nation’s defense was placed in the hands of an all‐​volunteer force.

Because labor became more expensive, the Pentagon shifted to a leaner, more capital‐​intensive force. Unlike the conscripts who served two‐​year tours of duty, soldiers in the all‐​volunteer force enrolled in extensive training courses to learn how to operate and maintain advanced weapons and manage a professional, well‐​staffed support tail.

This shift appears to have had a dramatically positive effect on U.S. military preparedness. A dozen years ago, the Gulf War was waged successfully with a total of 147 battlefield deaths. More recently, the American military experienced 74 deaths in Afghanistan and 137 deaths in Iraq. In comparison, during the Selective Service era, the U.S. military experienced 33,741 deaths in Korean and 47,414 in Vietnam.

But even if an all‐​volunteer force is more effective and fights with a dramatically lower loss of life, is it unacceptable because its demographics do not represent the U.S. population? According to Rep. Rangel, “We must be certain that the sacrifices we will be asking our armed forces to make are shared by the rest of us.”

But compulsory service did not produce an equal sharing of sacrifice. In 1964, for example, 35.6 percent of draft‐​eligible young men were exempted from military service for physical or mental reasons. Under the draft, women made up only four percent of the active duty forces, as compared to 15 percent in 2000. Today, college‐​educated African Americans comprise some 12 percent of the officer corps, yet only 7.6 percent of college graduates are Black. African American enlisted men in the all‐​volunteer Army are under‐​represented in the infantry and special forces, and over‐​represented in logistical support and administrative occupations — positions that they can serve in to retirement and that provide them skills valued in the civilian world. Would it be acceptable to use compulsory service to bring those numbers in line with national demographics?

The draft is a poor way to provide an effective common defense. It discourages the adoption of military technologies that can reduce the loss of life and improve effectiveness during military operations. It increases the full economic cost of producing defense capability. And it does not make the military more representative. In a free society, individuals who serve by choice and not by compulsion should meet the call to arms.

About the Author
Walter Y. Oi