America’s All-Volunteer Force: The Right Choice, Despite Stress of Two Wars (Part 2 of 3)

The following article is Part Two in a series — which began earlier this week — of a three-part examination of the All-Volunteer Force in the United States, particularly the Army. The author, US Army Captain Crispin Burke, serves currently as an Observer/Controller at the Joint Multinational Readiness Center in Hohenfels, Germany. It is the author’s hope to spur debate among Americans, as well as Europeans who have also had recent experience with conscription.

The Draft: Switzerland, Denmark, and Israel.
Advocates for the draft can, rightly, point to democratic nations which implement the draft. A RAND Corporation study found that most European nations still practiced some form of conscription in the year 2000. However, we will limit ourselves to a handful of examples for the purposes of this monograph, primarily Denmark, Switzerland, and Israel. Each of these three nations has its own form of conscription, and are the product of unique geo-political phenomena, and have social issues which often differ vastly from those in the United States. These should be examined when arguing for or against the draft.

Denmark fields a remarkably professional fighting force which has earned high praise from NATO allies for its performance in Afghanistan (particularly with the performance of its Leopard 2 tanks), as well as in anti-piracy missions off the coast of Somalia (Commodore Christian Rune and the crew of the HDMS Absalon are well-respected in US Navy circles). Currently, Denmark has over 1,000 service members serving abroad in Afghanistan, Kosovo, and off the coast of Somalia, no small feat for a nation of only 5.5 million.

Denmark practices a limited form of conscription to supplement shortfalls in recruiting goals, with only a small number of able-bodied males actually drafted into the military. (Denmark’s economy has been hit so hard that it has met its recruiting quota this year without having to resort to a draft.)  However, a tour of duty for a Danish conscript can be as little as four months—scarcely long enough for basic training and a month or two of menial labor. As such, many Danish draftees serve in low-skill jobs which do not require a high degree of training. While this may offset recruiting shortfalls, at least in the short term, the benefits of conscription might be minimal. Similar experiences have been reported in other European nations. Nations seeking to field a technologically-advanced, 21st Century army find it more advantageous to do so with volunteers, honed by years of training.

Danish soldiers in Afghanistan.

Danish soldiers in Afghanistan.

Switzerland is often touted as an exemplar of universal conscription. Yet, it is worth noting that Switzerland differs greatly from America, socially, politically, and militarily. For starters, one could argue that the Swiss tend to have a much stronger sense of civic responsibility than Americans — after all, Switzerland is perhaps the only country in the world which practices direct democracy, in citizens directly vote on government referendums, instead of electing representatives to vote for them. Contrast this with the United States; the champion of democracy can scarcely get half of eligible voters to the polls during mid-term elections.

In a recent discussion I had with the administrator of this blog, I discovered that most Swiss citizens had positive feelings toward the draft. The draft in Switzerland is nearly universal, with exemptions granted for physical fitness and to conscientious objectors. Those found unfit for military service must pay additional taxes, and conscientious objectors may choose another form of civil service. Swiss soldiers serve in a reserve status for several years, and take part in regular training exercises. By doing so, Switzerland is able to build a well-trained and technologically advanced force.

However, unlike the United States, which has a strong interventionist military policy, and a large, forward-deployed force, Switzerland has a strong tradition of armed neutrality, maintaining this position for nearly two centuries. And unlike the America’s large standing army, the Swiss Army is also modeled in a militia style–with a reserve to active-duty ratio of approximately 13:1, much like the armies of Finland, Sweden, and Austria. It is worth noting that all four of these countries, at least until recently, have practiced conscription, fielded militia-style armies, and remained neutral during the Cold War. Thus, while the Swiss Army might be mobilized to meet an external threat, it is not kept on a permanent footing, as the US military is.

Based on its tradition of neutrality, the Swiss Army is often seen as a fair arbiter in international affairs; soldiers are occasionally sent abroad to monitor borders, such as the De-Militarized Zone between North and South Korea. Additionally, a contingent of Swiss troops (Swisscoy) is currently deployed abroad in Kosovo as peacekeeping forces, though it only numbers about one company. However, such deployments outside Swiss territory are on a strictly volunteer basis. Thus, while Switzerland does have a draft, there is still a significant volunteer aspect in its military.

Though Switzerland may not have the civil-military gap that the United States has, it is worth noting that the differences between the two nations, and indeed their armies, are vast. Though Switzerland does have a large pool of trained military manpower, it serves largely as a reserve force, organized for homeland defense, not a interventionist, standing army with force projection capabilities and significant global commitments. While the Swiss system works well for Switzerland, it would not necessarily be as feasible for the US.

Perhaps the greatest body of literature involves Israel and the draft. Israel is, of course, a product of a unique geopolitical environment. Unlike the United States, Israel sits surrounded by former enemies, many of whom do not formally recognize its legitimacy. During the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Israel was nearly overrun by invading armies. In addition to external threats, Israel also faces internal security threats from Palestine and Gaza. Israel must maintain a draft out of military necessity.

There is a popular belief that conscript armies would be egalitarian, with citizens from all social classes serving side by side. This certainly seemed to be the case in America during the Second World War, and during the 1950s, when conscription was nearly universal. In addition to Rock and Roll legend Elvis Presley, Yogi Berra of the New York Yankees served aboard a landing boat during the Normandy Invasion, while Red Sox star Ted Williams piloted an F4U Corsair in the Pacific Theater, and later, an F9F fighter jet in the Korean War. Hollywood star Clark Gable, famous for his performance as Rhett Butler in “Gone with the Wind“, served as a gunner aboard a B-17 Flying Fortress, participating in five missions over Germany, and earning an Air Medal and the Distinguished Flying Cross. John F. Kennedy and his brother Joseph P. Kennedy, of the influential Boston-based Kennedy family, were both in harm’s way during the War. Joseph Kennedy, the eldest of the two brothers, died in an airplane crash over the Atlantic, while John F. Kennedy’s patrol boat was sunk by a Japanese destroyer. In fact, John F. Kennedy, a sickly youth, actually used his father’s power and influence to not only convince the Navy that he was physically fit for duty, but also to place him in the patrol-torpedo boat section, one of the most dangerous jobs in the Navy.

Nevertheless, the Second World War was unique in that it demanded near-universal male conscription as a response to a very real, large, and identifiable threat to America and its interests. Likewise, Israel found itself in a similar predicament during the first few decades of its existence. Indeed, many Israelis who won battlefield renown during the first few decades of that nation’s history have used their success as a stepping stone for success in the political arena, though defense issues have traditionally played a large role in Israeli affairs. Most of Israel’s most well-known prime ministers are products the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), such as Yitzhak Rabin (former IDF Chief of Staff), Menachim Begin (former member of the Irgun, the Jewish resistance against British and Arab influence), Benjamin Netanyahu (served in an elite IDF unit, Sayaret Maktal), Ehud Barak (extensive military experience), and Ariel Sharon (Six-Day War and Yom Kippur War).

Yet, today’s Israeli society, lacking the large, existential threat of, say, the Yom Kippur War, has increasingly begun to separate its upper classes from front-line combat. That is the conclusion of Stuart A. Cohen, author of “Israel and its Army: From Cohesion to Confusion“, and Professor Yagil Levy, author of “Israel’s Materialist Militarism“. Both authors note that inequalities in Israeli civil society are reflected within the structure of the IDF. A number of socio-economic factors — including the information revolution and the unpopularity of policing actions in Palestine and Gaza — have led Israel’s wealthier citizens to seek military jobs more closely related to the technological fields, especially with the explosion 21st-century C4ISTAR-related jobs. On the other hand, “combat arms”-type jobs: infantry, armor, and the like, are now being filled by Israelis from lower social classes. Far from bridging gaps in civil-military culture, the IDF, according to Cohen and Levy, actually exacerbates these gaps.

In the United States, there has been concern that the US Army, in particular, had become too politically conservative. This was especially the case in the 1990s, when the junior officer cohort significantly identified with the Republican Party as opposed to the Democratic Party, although the trend has generally reversed itself in recent years, according to American Lieutenant Colonel Jason K. Dempsey, author of “Our Army“. This might serve as proof that a draft might be a favorable method of bridging the liberal-conservative gap in the United States, as well as balancing out the culture of the officer corps.

However, the mere presence of a draft does not ensure a heterogenous mixture of political ideologies and cultural viewpoints. As Stuart Cohen notes, the IDF, in recent years, has become increasingly more orthodox and conservative, especially in regards to its religious outlook. In Israeli society, conservative Jews look more favorably upon the occupation of the West Bank — viewing the occupation in a messianic light — while secular Jews are more uneasy about the occupation. Moreover, Israeli religious schools teach students that military service is a religious obligation. Indeed, a recent survey suggested that Israelis who attended national religious schools are twice as likely to voluntarily join the IDF, in relation to those who are selected from the conscription pool. It has also been noted that products of orthodox religious schools are more likely to become officer candidates, fighter pilots, and serve in fields conducive to further promotion. The trend has become especially marked in recent years, with four major generals wearing the kippah serugah, a traditional Jewish head covering.  Verily, Israel, even with a policy of near-universal conscription, still has considerable challenges in civil-military relations. The IDF is hardly egalitarian, as many believe a conscript US Army might be.

Fit to Fight?
Denmark, Israel, and the United States have also had to come to terms with the fact that not all potential draftees are qualified for military service on physical or moral grounds. In Denmark, nearly fifty percent of draftees are rejected on some grounds. Similarly, in the US, recent studies have indicated that a large portion of American military-aged youths would be unfit for service based on a number of factors, such as obesity, physical ailments, criminal records, and poor education. Recent surveys have claimed that anywhere from one-third to three-quarters of the draft pool is unfit for duty. As selective service tends to become less popular as it becomes less universal, it would be a difficult sell to the American public. In essence, the US Government would have to grant enlistment exceptions to the vast majority of Americans who eat too much, exercise too little, or have dropped out of high school. It would, thus, place an unfair burden on the segment of the population who has performed responsibly. Those who argue against the draft because of the monetary costs of an all-volunteer force must admit that such a system would reward the few outstanding citizens — arguably the cream of the crop — with far fewer benefits. A system deemed so selective that it could only choose from one-third of the eligible population would hardly last long.

Likewise, in Israel, Stuart Cohen has noted that IDF draft boards tend to place an unfair burden on those best suited for military service, simultaneously granting early dismissals to nearly forty percent of all draftees in 2007. Cohen notes that soldiers, and particularly officers, who have served in combat are frequently recalled to duty, while those who have proven themselves superfluous are excused from duty. This causes a great deal of resentment in the IDF, and lessens the incentive to work efficiently. With a lack of a clear, external threat, many potential IDF recruits are being dismissed prior to their initial term of service, or are simply not recruited at all.

Indeed, the experience in Denmark, Israel, and France’s Gulf War performance should give Americans pause when considering a universal draft. Such drafts might serve a manpower-intensive army, but when recruits need several months — even years — to become combat effective, the benefits of the draft seem to decrease.

The Draft in Perspective — Efficiency and Cost
US Army Lieutenant Colonel Paul Yinglin is correct to point out the costs of maintaining an all-volunteer force. As we have noted earlier, enlistment and re-enlistment bonuses, in 2008, cost American taxpayers over two billion dollars. Moreover, the Defense Department’s health care provider, TRICARE, currently provides medical coverage for over 9.6 million beneficiaries and costs the taxpayers over $50 billion USD. In order to make the military more appealing to service members with families, the US military also shells out, in addition to health care benefits, over $2.3 billion USD on elementary and high schools. The cost of benefits in an all-volunteer force has contributed to many European nations arguing for a retention of the draft system.

However, an argument of cost must be weighed against the issue of quality of recruits. As we have seen with Denmark, the typical four-month enlistment for draftees is barely long enough for basic training and a few months of menial labor. Other nations, particularly France, have switched to all-volunteer forces based on the poor performance of conscript armies. (Indeed, the nation which introduced the levee en masse has been quick to abolish it.) During the 1991 Gulf War, France’s Army had, on paper, 250,000 soldiers. However, poor conscript quality meant that France could only send around 15,000 soldiers to Saudi Arabia, with 5,000 being culled from other units, cobbled together in an ad-hoc division.

As post-Cold War armies not only downsize, but also transform into more high-tech organizations, sheer numbers of soldiers in uniform will matter far less than recruit quality. A high-tech army will find it difficult to operate with a system of draftees, serving only a few months to a year at a time. As seen with the IDF, nearly forty percent of draftees are dismissed prior to their initial term of service. Such a force would place an unfair burden on small unit commanders, who would deal with constant personnel turnover, “short-term-itis”, and a cohort of personnel who may be unfit for duty.

There is also the argument, made by Yingling, that the offering of massive cash bonuses makes the military a more attractive option to the poorer section of American society. Certainly, there is some benefit to the claim — recruiting tends to improve during times of economic difficulty. Both in Denmark and in the US, the economic slump has coincided with more recruits, and higher-quality ones at that. Yingling also points to a virtual absence of America’s upper class from the war. Though, as we will see, the claim is somewhat overstated.

Information regarding one’s family or personal income is not gathered during a recruit’s application process.  In US Army culture, a recruit’s family wealth and status are of little concern once he or she puts on the Army uniform. Dressed in identical uniforms, the only status that matters is one’s rank insignia. In the words of R. Lee Emery, the former Marine who portrayed the drill sergeant in “Full Metal Jacket“, upon arrival at Basic Training, privates, regardless of background, “are all equally worthless”. The same phenomenon which might exploit the poor and underprivileged has, actually, served to empower those who might have had no chance to succeed. For example, Colin Powell, the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and US Secretary of State, was the son of Jamaican immigrant parents and grew up in Harlem, a predominantly African-American section of New York City. Powell enrolled in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) at a time when African-Americans were not afforded many of the same rights as their Caucasian counterparts. Powell served with distinction in Vietnam, eventually rising to the highest position within the US military, a position he held during the 1991 Gulf War. While the military did offer Powell many opportunities, he would likely have not enjoyed elsewhere, it’s unfair to say that the Army exploited Powell’s service. A popular phrase in Army circles “the only skin color here is green”, circulated at a time when racial background was strongly linked with social class.

Nevertheless, a few American think-tanks have attempted to discern trends in recruit backgrounds.  While many claim that the current Army is not representative of America as a whole, recent studies, from both conservative and liberal think-tanks alike, indicate that the Army, while not a direct mirror-image of America, does come relatively close. For our purposes, we will concern ourselves with the claims that the US Army is overwhelmingly Southern, conservative, and lower-class.

A study by the conservative Heritage Foundation relied on the average income levels in new recruits’ ZIP codes. The study found that, contrary to claims that the Army appeals primarily to the poor, only eleven percent of new enlisted recruits came from the poorest neighborhoods, while nearly a quarter of new recruits came from the wealthiest twenty percent of communities. Similarly, a study from the progressive National Priorities Project found that, in 2009, recruits from poor neighborhoods were “under-represented”, middle-class recruits were over-represented, and that there even a slight upward trend in upper-class recruits. The latter of these studies also found that many of the dangerous trends, such as “moral waivers” and lowering educational standards, sharply reversed in 2009, though the study does not attribute this change to the faltering economy. 

Another common claim is that US Army personnel tend to come from disproportionately Southern backgrounds. While this is true, these claims are often blown out of proportion. According to Dempsey’s “Our Army”, soldiers from the Northeast make up approximately 14% of recruits (while the same region has 18% of the population), whereas the South account for 44% of recruits (while making up 38% of the population). Claims of political misrepresentation have somewhat more validity. For a variety of reasons, examined in detail by Dempsey, the US Army had been an overwhelmingly Republican institution for nearly 25 years. However, polls aimed at commissioned officers noted that officers commissioned after 9/11 show a reversal of this trend, revealing a nearly balanced proportion of self-proclaimed Republicans to Democrats. Thus, while the Army may not be an exact mirrors of the national population, its demographics do not seem to be too alarming.

There is also the claim that America’s “elites” are largely absent from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there are several notable exceptions. With little fanfare, Captain Joseph “Beau” Biden, son of US Vice President Joseph Biden, recently served in Iraq. Likewise, in Britain, which faces a civil-military crisis similar to that in the United States, real royalty — Prince Harry of Wales — has served in front-line combat in Afghanistan.

Thus, criticism of the backgrounds of US Army recruits (both in the officer and enlisted ranks) should be taken with a grain of salt. The US Army is a large organization, with the active-duty Army alone numbering over 570,000. American soldiers come from all sorts of backgrounds; some perform exceptionally, some poorly; some make the military a career, others don’t. Generalization of American service members is nearly impossible.

This series will conclude next week, with Part Three, in which we discuss the very real civil-military divide within American society, and some final thoughts on the feasibility of a draft in the United States.

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

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