America’s All-Volunteer Force: The Right Choice, Despite Stress of Two Wars (Part 1 of 3)

“Starbuck” is the online moniker of US Army Captain Crispin Burke, who currently serves as an Observer/Controller at the Joint Multinational Readiness Center in Hohenfels, Germany. Captain Burke is qualified in the UH-60 and LUH-72 helicopters, and has served with the 82nd Airborne Division in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, with Joint Task Force-Bravo in Honduras, and with the 10th Mountain Division in Iraq. He is a regular contributor to Small Wars Journal, and runs his own blog, Wings Over Iraq. Though a long-time reader, this is his first post at

The following is the first of a three-part examination of the All-Volunteer Force in the United States, particularly the Army. It is the author’s hope to spur debate among Americans, as well as Europeans who have also had recent experience with conscription.

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For nearly a decade, the US Army has undergone the unprecedented task of fighting two major, manpower-intensive wars without relying on conscription. Less than one percent of the US population currently serves in the military—the lowest percentage during any major American conflict.

To its credit, the US military has performed admirably. However, as the wars drag on and service members are called upon for multiple deployments, the signs of stress are evident. Rates of divorce, drug abuse, criminal activity and suicides have skyrocketed in recent years. Moreover, to field a force large enough to fight two manpower-intensive wars, the Army has given out over a billion dollars in cash bonuses, hired more contractors than troops, and instituted a number of controversial personnel policies.

US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates noted, in a recent speech at Duke University, that too much has been asked of too few for too long. Secretary Gates acknowledged that a decade of war has exacerbated a growing civil-military divide, as the small all-volunteer force grows increasingly isolated from American society, sequestered on massive bases in America’s southeast and southwest.

Such developments have caused some to call for the US to reconsider conscription: among them, one of the US Army’s most brilliant officers, US Army Lieutenant Colonel Paul Yingling. Proponents of the draft point to the conscript force America fielded during the 1950s and 60s, as well as the policies of democratic nations such as Switzerland, Israel, Denmark and others. Yet, for America, the draft is completely unfeasible for both the military and the nation it serves. Successful drafts, such as that in Switzerland, or as seen in the US during the Second World War and the early Cold War period, are the product of of distinct social, political, and strategic phenomena which do not exist in America today.

Volunteers and Draftees at War
For the first time since the American Revolution, the US Army has fought a long, persistent conflict—two of them, actually—with an all-volunteer force. Previous military campaigns had been waged with a smaller, professional army (during the 19th Century in particular), or with a large, levee en masse-style force, such as that which was brought to bear during the World Wars.

America’s “peacetime” army, just prior to the Second World War, was the seventeenth-largest army in the world. By the end of the war, however, military technology had advanced to such a degree that civil and military leaders decided that the United States needed to maintain a large, standing military for its national security commitments—both domestically, as well as in Europe. Thus, the US filled its ranks with professional soldiers as well as draftees.

Then-Private Elvis Presley. The King of Rock and Roll would become a sergeant by the end of his tour in service.

Then-Private Elvis Presley. The King of Rock and Roll would become a sergeant by the end of his tour in service.

During the 1950s and 60s, service members from very diverse backgrounds served with distinction. Even wealthy and famous Americans served brief tours of service honorably, before returning to civilian life. Perhaps the most famous citizen-soldier of this period was Elvis Presley, the King of Rock and Roll, who served for a few years in Germany during the late 1950s.

Elvis refused duty in a special recruiting detachment, electing to serve as a regular soldier. According to fellow soldiers, Elvis wanted nothing more to be treated like a regular G.I. In fact, many claim that Elvis would often go above and beyond the call of duty to dispel any misconceptions of special treatment.

Yet, the turmoil of the Vietnam War (1965-1975) led to the demise of the draft in America. A study by the RAND Corporation in 2000 sheds some illumination on the unpopularity of the Vietnam-Era draft.  Between 1954 and 1956 nearly 75% of military-aged males eligible for service on moral and physical grounds served in the US military. However, with the “baby boom” of the 1950s came an explosion in the youth population, which came of age during the Vietnam War. Thus, while the size of the US Army remained relatively consistent, draft boards selected a smaller percentage of youths. The RAND Corporation, studying conscription not only in the US, but in other European nations, noted that as drafts become more selective, they are perceived as being less fair, and thus, become more unpopular. The unpopularity of the draft was only exacerbated by the nation’s aversion to the Vietnam War, and the fact that over 50,000 Americans were sent home in body bags.  Thus, this painful experience led to the abolition of the draft in 1975, and the creation of the “All-Volunteer Force”. (However, at least in theory, the United States is still capable of large-scale conscription, and requires all males to register with Selective Service upon their 18th birthday.)

While most senior military leaders feel that the all-volunteer force (AVF) is preferable to the draft, such a force does come with some drawbacks. As we will see, there are inherent difficulties in fielding a fully-manned, well-trained, force, fit to fight for several years’ worth of seemingly-endless conflict.

Manning the Force: The US Army’s Personnel Policies in a Time of War
To fight two large insurgencies—inherently manpower-intensive operations—with post-Cold War troop levels, the US military, and in particular, the US Army, has had to make tough decisions with regards to personnel. In FY 2008 and 2009, the US military had a total of approximately 188,000 service members serving in combat zones in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is in addition to sizable commitments (in 2006) in former Yugoslavia (1800), Djibouti (1200), Kuwait (25,000), South Korea (30,000), Japan (53,000), Germany (66,000), and others. In 2006, the United States had twice as many service members serving outside of its own borders than the rest of the world combined.

During the “Surge” of 2007-2008, the height of the Iraq War, the United States fielded, at most, 157,000 service members in Iraq. However, this number belies the true size of the American force. As of this writing, contractors equal the number of uniformed service members in Iraq, and outnumber service members in Afghanistan by a ratio of 1.43 to 1. All told, contractors in combat zones outnumber American service members by 19%. Compared with alternatives such as mobilizing the entire US military for war (thus reducing America’s ability to respond elsewhere, or re-instituting a draft, contractors are a far more politically attractive option. Contractor deaths do not have the same impact on public opinion as the deaths of US service members—the remains of contractors are not draped in American flags and offloaded on a C-17 in Dover, Delaware. While American newspapers maintain a running tally of service members killed in Iraq and Afghanistan—5,700 as of 3 October 2010–scant attention is paid to the nearly 1,700 contractors killed in Iraq and Afghanistan as of July 2010. Between 1 January 2010 and September 21, 2010, more contractors than service members were killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Contractor behavior has also been a source of considerable controversy, particularly agencies receiving “no-bid” contracts, such as Blackwater (now known as “Xe Services”), Halliburton, and its subsidiary, KBR. First, contractor performance has been decidedly mixed throughout the course of the war. Retired US Marine Corps Colonel T.X. Hammes, in a recent monograph, noted the inability of local contractors to provide essential civil services to local Iraqis, despite sufficient funding. In counterinsurgency, where governments must compete with insurgent groups for legitimacy—with the provision of services being a key function—this sort of inefficiency can have disastrous consequences. Contractors in Iraq were also criticized for relying almost exclusively on workers from Southeast Asia, instead of hiring local Iraqis to perform work. During the first few years of the Iraq War, high unemployment rates among Sunnis played a role in the festering Sunni insurgency.

But by far the most controversial practice has been the use of armed contractors. The US military has struggled with issues of accountability over and control of armed contractors. In particular, employees of Blackwater and its subsidiaries recklessly endangered the lives of bystanders in a shootout in Baghdad in 2007, and have been accused of massive drug use, as well as soliciting strippers and prostitutes using taxpayer money. In early 2010, a Senate Armed Services Committee investigation revealed that Blackwater employees absconded with over 500 AK-47 assault rifles intended for Afghan police, with one Blackwater employee signing for the weapons from a US military armory under the name “Eric Cartman“. Suffice to say such actions work against US efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is only compounded by the fact that armed contractors who commit war crimes have proven to be notoriously difficult to prosecute.

The rise of “contractor culture” isn’t the only cause for alarm for the all-volunteer force. The US Army’s difficulty in recruiting and retaining sufficient numbers of talented individuals has led to questionable practices as well, trends which seem to have slightly subsided now that the global economy is still reeling from the worst stock market crash since the Great Depression.

From 2003 through 2008, recruiters, faced with a booming economy and two unpopular wars, seem to have lowered standards, thus trumpeting that the US military was meeting its recruiting goals. For instance, the number of recruits granted waivers for felonies or serious misdemeanors increased dramatically since 2003, when the Iraq War began.  A 2007 article in the New York Times estimated that 125,000 recruits who joined the military between 2003 and 2007 had criminal records, and the Army Times stated, in 2008, that nearly one in eight recruits required a “moral waiver“. Additionally, journalist Fred Kaplan, writing in 2006, noted that the US Army was also recruiting far more high-school dropouts and applicants with lower academic aptitude scoresCongressman Martin Meehan (D-MA) of the House Armed Services Committee was also been quoted as saying “the data is crystal clear; our armed forces are under incredible strain, and the only way that they can fill their recruiting quotas is by lowering their standards”.

Additionally, to offset shortfalls in recruiting, the US military has given away billions of dollars in cash bonuses for enlistment re-enlistment. A 2010 study by the RAND Corporation found that, between 2000 and 2008, annual budgets for initial enlistment bonuses increased from $266 million to $625 million, while the budget for re-enlistment bonuses increased from $891 million to $1.4 billion. Moreover, the US Army also instituted a hefty bonus for captains, offering up to $35,000 to officers in certain fields for an additional three years of service.

However, according the RAND Corporation, enlistment and re-enlistment bonuses are a cost-effective method of attracting and retaining service members. This is all the more critical when one considers that Army captains, already experiencing atrocious attrition rates prior to 9-11, left the service in droves during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. By 2007, nearly three-fifths of the US Military Academy Class of 2002 had left the active duty Army.

Nevertheless, bonuses can only persuade so many service members to remain in the military. Thus, the Army, in particular, kept the exodus in check through a number of controversial personnel policies. Promotion rates for captains to major—once between 70 and 80 percent—were raised to 98 percent by 2007. In a 2007 article in the Washington Monthly, one retired colonel was said to have muttered “if you breathe, you make lieutenant colonel these days”. Even more shocking was the fact that, in 2005, the separation authority—the power normally given to battalion commanders to remove unfit enlisted soldiers from the service—was revoked and given to the special court-martial convening authority, generally one or two levels of command higher than a battalion. According to the  Army’s ALARACT Message 110/2005, battalion commanders no longer had the authority to separate first-term enlisted soldiers for entry-level performance and conduct, unsatisfactory performance (including physical fitness test failure), or a failure to meet body fat standars. As such, the number of enlisted soldiers chaptered for obesity, physical fitness test failures, and poor performance decreased precipitously since the implementation of ALARACT Message 110/2005, which was published on 27 May 2005. In fact, more enlisted soldiers were chaptered, between FY 2007 and FY 2009, for homosexual conduct than for both obesity and physical fitness test failures combined. Though the ALACRACT message was set to expire in 2006, it did include provisions for extension beyond that date. Whether the ALACRACT message is still in effect, and when it became ineffective, is unclear.

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Note: Figures are compiled for fiscal years, which end in October of the calendar year. Thus, 27 May 2005 — the date ALARACT Message 100/2005 was published — would occur approximately four months before the end of FY2005. Figures apply only to active-duty enlisted soldiers. All data comes from a media inquiry to the US Army. Army sources cite Dr. Betty Maxfield, Chief of Army Demographics, as the compiler for this data. Raw figures can be accessed here.

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Perhaps most infamously, the US military invoked a little-known clause in Title 10 of the United States Code (Section 12305-a), popularly known as “stop-loss“. In essence, this law stipulates that, for national security purposes, the President of the United States may suspend any law related to a service member’s separation from the service. In practice, service members whose ETS (End of Time in Service) date fell during an upcoming deployment or immediately prior to a deployment were not allowed to leave the service until their deployment was complete. This policy was cause for considerable outrage, with Senator John Kerry, during the presidential election of 2004, referring to the policy as a “backdoor draft“. The policy proved to be so unpopular that one of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ first acts, upon taking over for Donald Rumsfeld, was to order commanders to “take a good look” at “stop-loss”, finally rescinding the “stop-loss” order in 2009. Recently, the US military has begun to retroactively pay veterans affected by this policy an extra $500 USD per month for each month, or portion of one month, served past their ETS date.

Even with these measures in place, top minds in the American defense establishment have described the US military as “stretched thin“, with a small number of alarmists claiming that the US military is at a “breaking point“.  The strains on the force are evident, with high rates of suicide being among the most alarming. More troubling still are indications of a marked increase in drug abuse; the number of enlisted soldiers receiving chapters for drug abuse has hit levels not seen since 1990 — when the US Army was far larger. In fact, the number of soldiers receiving chapters for drug abuse has more than tripled since FY 2000. And though Army leaders have decried a “failure of leadership in garrison”, it is a safe assumption that recruiting soldiers with moral waivers, and restricting commanders from eliminating poor performers has only exacerbated the Army’s discipline woes.

In light of these disturbing trends, some, such as US Army Lieutenant Colonel Paul Yingling, and former Army captain-turned-writer Matthew Gallagher, have argued for a return to the draft. In an article appearing in Armed Forces Journal in February of 2010, Yingling argues for the draft based personnel costs of draftees, the quality of draftees, and a growing civil-military divide in American society. In the next entry, we will evaluate these first two arguments by examining the draft in other countries; primarily in Denmark, Switzerland, and Israel.

This entry was posted in Armed Forces, Crispin Burke, English.

7 Responses to America’s All-Volunteer Force: The Right Choice, Despite Stress of Two Wars (Part 1 of 3)

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