Esli reminded me that today marks the 40th anniversary of the All Volunteer Force. To the best of my knowledge, there remain no more draftees on active duty.*
The initial efforts of the AVF were shaky at best. Hot on the heels of the unpopular Vietnam War, and with pay, benefits and infrastructure such as barracks and housing ill funded, finding quality recruits for the Army (and the other branches) was challenging, and standards slipped to levels the even the dark days of 2005 would call appalling. The vast majority of enlistees were decent, honorable folks trying to do their best, but there were enough miscreants in the force to badly damage the entire service. Drug use and alcohol abuse were rampant, discipline was sometimes less than we might hope for, and the lack of funds for training and maintenance led to a hollow force.
It wasn’t until the very end of the Carter Administration that pay for soldiers began to be increased to something approaching a living wage, and of course, the boom years of the Reagan buildup lead to the once reviled Armed Forces quickly becoming the most trusted institution in America.
The AVF has not been without its challenges and critics since then. For one thing, there’s a perception that it is disconnected from the American people, and that the political class have little worry that their sons and daughters will be the ones called to sally forth into battle.
For another thing, an AVF is expensive. The single largest cost for the armed services is personnel. Salary, housing, health care, care for family members, and retirement costs, and health care costs for retirees (and their families), the very things that make a career in the service attractive, also drive much of the costs of our Department of Defense.
There is simply no popular support for a draft, so that leaves three choices for manning the services.
1. Pay the cost. It’s expensive, but it also has provided a stunningly capable military.
2. Freeze the costs, which will make service much less attractive. To maintain anything approaching our current end strength, this would require lowering standards, a proposition virtually every military professional is loathe to consider.
3. Pay the cost, but to a much, much smaller force. Numerically, for the size of our population, we don’t have a historically large armed forces. But it is an incredibly capable one. A willingness to accept a certain level of strategic risk could mean acceptance of a significantly smaller armed forces. But the problem with strategic risk is, that risk or a similar one almost always comes to pass.
At any event, it is highly likely that for the foreseeable future, the force will continue to be all volunteer.
*Obviously, the term of their conscription ended long ago, but a surprising number of draftees made careers of the Army.