I Want You! The Evolution of the All-Volunteer Army
What Have We Done?
A Summary of Then and Now (1960–2006)
Lapses in discipline within elements of the Army have caused me serious concern. Some instances have been obvious, grave in nature, and well publicized. These, along with other[s]… dictate the need to give special attention to the subject throughout the chain of command.— General William C. Westmoreland Chief of Staff, U.S. Army1 — 1971
We have the finest military on Earth because we have the finest people on Earth, because we recruit and we retain the best that America has to offer.— William S. Cohen Secretary of Defense2 —2001
As this was being written, in spring 2006, 157,000 American service members were at war: 137,000 in Iraq and 20,000 in Afghanistan. All were volunteers. While some worry about the resiliency of the all-volunteer force during periods of prolonged stress and long-term commitment, and others decry the perceived lack of social representativeness of the all-volunteer force, no one can deny that it is the finest fighting force the United States has ever fielded.
Looking back, there are at least five reasons that the United States moved to an all-volunteer force in 1973. First, the norm throughout American history has been a volunteer military. Second, the size of the eligible population of young men reaching draft age each year in the 1960s was so large and the needs of the military so small in comparison that, in practice, the draft was no longer universal. By the late 1960s, the American system of conscription had lost legitimacy and support among the vast majority of the American people. It was viewed as unfair, the universality of the World War II draft having been replaced by a system encapsulated in the title of a landmark blue ribbon commission report, Who Serves When Not All Serve (Marshall, 19679.2 MB). The large population of military age also meant that obtaining enough volunteers was possible at budget levels that were seen as acceptable. Third, the Vietnam War was unpopular. As the war went on, draft calls increased and deferments were cancelled; more and more young Americans became subject to an institution they had been able, up to that point, to largely ignore. It was an institution that tied them to an unpopular war. Fourth, as one historian has written, there was a “rational, intellectual basis for the volunteer force” that told young men that they did not have a moral obligation to serve. Finally, the Army itself had lost confidence in the draft as discipline problems among draftees mounted in Vietnam. The Army was ready for a change. Moreover, there was a group of inspired leaders that pressed forward and would not be deterred. Notwithstanding all this, some argued against the end of conscription. Most students of military sociology argued in favor of reforming, not ending, the draft. Some liberals and some conservatives in Congress were fearful of an all-volunteer force, albeit for very different reasons.