Americans like asking some questions about war; others, not so much.
Why we fight has been much interrogated, from Frank Capra to Christopher Hedges. How we fight will always be a subject of interest, from inquisitive toddlers with too many toys to old men in armchairs, blessed with a surfeit of films and books about combat. Where we fight is receiving belated attention from the semi-chastened foreign-policy establishment and an electorate that was at least partially inoculated against jingoism by the disastrous post-9/11 wars.
But the question of who fights, perhaps the most important one of all in a democracy, elicits only occasional comment. Indeed, for being such a warlike nation, Americans are curiously incurious about who fights their battles. Twenty years of ongoing wars across the Middle East and Central Asia have done little to change this. The purportedly “all-volunteer” military—in which service members sign up of their own free will—provides an easy excuse to stop asking questions.
Some Americans still like to think of themselves as a nation in arms, a country of minutemen and citizen-soldiers. But from the 1792 mustering of the Legion of the United States to the present, America has usually entrusted its defense to a standing professional army. Its modern incarnation is the “AVF”: the All-Volunteer Force, established after the end of the draft in 1973. The name is inspiring but misleading: America’s camo-clad legionnaires are not Rough Riders or minutemen, stepping forward in a crisis with the details to be figured out later. The AVF is really an all-recruited force, each soldier in the ranks the product of a substantial expenditure of money and sweat. The Army alone has more than ten thousand soldiers and civilians, the equivalent of more than two combat arms brigades, assigned to its Recruiting Command.
When Richard Nixon, with the ur-libertarian Milton Friedman at his elbow, ended mandatory conscription in 1973, the AVF was rolled out as its replacement. The experiment endured a rough first decade: endemic race and drug problems in the ranks, officers often afraid to stroll into the barracks without a wingman or a sidearm within reach. But the incorrigible and the incompetent were eventually weeded out, and the AVF became a high-quality, deployable force. Its vindication came in 1991 in the deserts of Iraq and Kuwait, the year it turned, fittingly, eighteen.
The AVF will be fifty next year. It endured the Cold War’s twilight years and then the savage wars of peace, culminating in the long defeats of Iraq and Afghanistan. But to its proponents, the AVF remains above reproach. America’s military is the Spartans reincarnate, or perhaps the Romans. As defeat in both Iraq and Afghanistan unspooled over the past decade, American politicians and senior civil servants collectively adopted a common incantation when extolling the frustrated service members: “The finest fighting force the world has ever known.” This force, however fine it may be, now faces its most serious foe yet: the inclinations and inadequacies of its future recruits.
Today, most young Americans can’t serve, and even fewer want to. The Pentagon estimated in 2017 that 71 percent of Americans between ages seventeen and 24 are ineligible to serve in the U.S. military, most for reasons of health, physical fitness, education or past criminality. The propensity to serve for young American men in 2020 was just 14 percent, a decline from 24 percent in 1984. Women, increasingly relied upon to fill billets across the military, had just a 7 percent propensity to serve. Though the military is a diverse force, the propensity of both black and Hispanic youth to serve has also fallen dramatically since 1984. Millennials have shown even less interest in military service than their generational predecessors. Major General Malcolm Frost, commander of the Army’s Initial Military Training Command, put it bluntly: “I would argue that the next existential threat we have … is the inability to man our military.”
When service became optional, it soon became regional and then familial. The South and the Rust Belt are disproportionately represented in the U.S. military’s ranks. A military caste is also solidifying. In 2019, the New York Times reported, 79 percent of Army recruits reported having a family member who had served. For almost 30 percent, it was a parent. The U.S. military is now one of the last family trades left in a deindustrializing country. The AVF arithmetic—manning an active-duty force of over one million—now rests on a shockingly narrow slice of America. This thin reed has already begun to wobble.
During the height of the Global War on Terror, the AVF proved unable to provide even a limited surge of forces for a medium-sized war without drastically lowering standards. Recruiting became ever more difficult as the wars ground on. In fiscal year 2008, the services (primarily the Army) had to give moral waivers for drugs or past criminal convictions to 21.7 percent of all enlistees—more than double the percentage from just four years before. Felony waivers more than doubled from 2003 to 2006. About 185,000 soldiers were stop-lossed, their enlistments extended as a last resort to maintain force levels in Iraq.
Throwing money at the problem has failed to yield an enduring solution. Personnel costs in the AVF have skyrocketed since 2001, rising more than 50 percent in real terms. The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments has reported that if personnel costs continue to grow at that rate and the overall defense budget remains flat, “military personnel costs will consume the entire defense budget by 2039.” An average of $41,000 is spent recruiting a single infantryman today. Given America’s aging population, rising health-care costs and massive unfunded pension liabilities, it is unlikely that the defense budget has much room to grow once this fiscal reality sets in.
Meanwhile, the effects of lost wars are being felt, and popular support for the military is in decline. Gallup’s 2021 survey of confidence in American institutions found that trust in the U.S. military has been dropping, with those saying they had “a great deal of confidence” in the military at 37 percent, the lowest it’s been since 2004. That the military and its veterans have long stood atop a high pedestal, in part due to guilt about Vietnam and then Iraq and Afghanistan, only makes the fall that much greater.
Compounding these problems is the increasing politicization of the military. The U.S. military is, by both statute and culture, devoutly apolitical. Its senior officers might play budget politics on the Hill and win public office after hanging up their uniforms for the last time, but the military as a whole was once insulated from the increasingly apocalyptic daily tone of American political life. Those days are over: politicization—a cancer that seems to afflict nearly every institution in American life—is growing within the armed forces. Identity politics, a politicized pandemic and the Fredo Corleone coup attempt of 2020 have forced officers and even the occasional sergeant into domestic political battles. Disgraced generals and unvaccinated special operators dot the airwaves, each doing their bit to drag the U.S. military into the mire.
Between cost, politicization, a sinking reputation and a shrinking pool of the willing and able, the sustainability of the All-Volunteer Force—and thus post-Cold War American foreign policy—is in doubt. That 1960s peacenik bumper-sticker slogan “What if they gave a war and nobody came?” (cousin to “What if the Pentagon had to hold a bake sale to buy a B-2 bomber?”) may yet be realized.
Is there another way? Plenty of other nations seem to think so. Mandatory military service is enjoying a modest comeback in Europe. Sweden, nonaligned but well-armed throughout the Cold War, suspended conscription in 2010. By 2018 the draft was back, a result of both Russian predations and an inability to keep enough men and women in uniform in a generous welfare state. Estonia, Lithuania, Georgia and Ukraine—every one a former or current victim of Russian aggression—maintain conscription systems.
In many places, the draft never left. Finland and South Korea, which have powerful, historically hostile neighbors on their borders, have put all young men in uniform for their entire history as nations. Israel enlists all of its Jewish citizens for one of the longest periods on earth: 32 months for men and 24 for women. Eritrea offers an autocratic version of the same script.
The Russian Armed Forces, battered but still in combat in Ukraine at the time of this writing, are about one-third conscript. This is a matter of both economy and ethos: a Russian conscript earns just two thousand rubles (less than thirty dollars) a month, making the competitive salaries and bonuses for the kontraktniki (professional soldiers) more fiscally palatable.
Equally important is the societal impact of conscription. Russia’s generals have fought to maintain a partial conscription system, believing it binds society to the military. Though only about 5 percent of eligible young Russian men have to serve, there has been a crackdown on both deferments and outright evasion of military service. The Russian military is now broadly embraced by Russian society to an extent unprecedented in the past half-century; it is now one of the country’s most trusted institutions (though the war in Ukraine could change this).
Conscription advocates believe in the psychological impact of mandatory service even more than the physical benefits. Finland, which embraces a layered societal concept of “total defense,” boasts by far the highest “will to fight” in Europe. In 2015, 74 percent of Finns told Gallup pollsters that they would take up arms to defend their country. In Western Europe, where virtually all nations have consigned conscription to the history books, fewer than a third of citizens say they would fight for their country. In the United States, nearing fifty years since the end of conscription, the will to fight is under 50 percent.
There is an additional argument for conscription, beyond the twin pillars of cost and national cohesion. The AVF was undefeated on the battlefield in the Global War on Terror. Not so much as a platoon was ever overrun in any theater of the sprawling worldwide campaign against Islamic extremism. But tactical competence has not translated to strategic success. Over five decades and a handful of wars, the volunteer U.S. military’s lone unalloyed victory was the hundred-hour Desert Storm campaign in 1991.
The generals and politicians are apt to point fingers at each other for this multigenerational failure of American arms and statecraft. Hubris, unattainable aims and pervasive institutional dishonesty have all been rightly cited in the wake of the disasters in Iraq and Afghanistan. Perhaps professionalism is part of the problem. A friend of mine, a British Army veteran who never wore more than a corporal’s stripes but now guides the generals of a host of nations in war games and staff rides, put his finger on it. Now an Israeli citizen, he told me one of the key military advantages his adopted country holds: “I think you can only sell bullshit to professional soldiers.” To an American military that relentlessly chases (and produces) intellectual fads like “neoclassical counterinsurgency,” then discovers their failings through bloodshed, bullshit inoculation is more vital than any weapon or doctrine.
National service is a popular idea in America, routinely invoked by the great and the good. The Peace Corps was followed by AmeriCorps and then George W. Bush’s USA Freedom Corps. Senators and op-ed columnists regularly call for dramatically expanding these programs, providing more young Americans an opportunity to serve their country. But national service is not conscription. Even cleaning bedpans doesn’t equate to being asked to charge a machine-gun nest. A state that cannot command the last full measure of its people is necessarily a more circumscribed one. Its citizens, robbed of this most terrible duty, are correspondingly less full members of a body politic.
In the Nordic nations, selective conscription is competitive and popular, a way to demonstrate leadership ability and civic participation. In the United States, memories of a different draft are alive and well. Widespread avoidance and evasion of service in Vietnam by the privileged was the norm, be it via law school, stateside reserve service or spurious bone spur. America has repeatedly denied Vietnam veterans the presidency, instead deigning to install conspicuous draft dodgers from both parties in the Oval Office. Regardless of nebulous enthusiasm for national service, Americans are likely to assume that any future military draft would be rife with cheating and inequity. Universal sacrifice is suspect in what historian Walter McDougall has termed “a republic of hustlers.” Legislative attempts to bring back a draft, primarily former Representative Charles Rangel’s repeated bill in Congress, have been wholly symbolic.
There are also more practical problems. To train a conscript reasonably well and get even a few months of meaningful active-duty utilization out of him in a twelve- or eighteen-month period of service, he needs to begin basic training with a solid physical and mental foundation. It is notable that about half of the countries ranked in the top ten for educational performance by the Program for International Student Assessment have mandatory military service. As one officer at a Finnish mechanized brigade told me in 2020, “Nothing we do here would be possible without our educational system.”
In the United States, 80 percent of enlisted service members have a high school degree or some college, compared to barely 60 percent of the American population at large. (The officer ranks are, if anything, over-credentialed, with superfluous master’s degrees abounding and certificates collected with philatelic zeal.) But in an America now lacking even broad agreement on what to teach its children, recruits in basic training may increasingly struggle with the basics.
Absent a true crisis, be it major war, climate catastrophe or internal dissolution, it is hard to see America ditching its All-Volunteer Force—though demographic and fiscal realities may intrude.
Partisan tribalism has also, perhaps counterintuitively, led to new calls for mandatory national service in America. The warm glow of the Greatest Generation and its avatar in arms, the fractious but ultimately united multiethnic (though not multiracial) platoon, hold out service as the solution to division. This seems to have it exactly backwards. The sixteen million American men and women who served in World War II were united as Americans, yes, but it was the task that necessitated their service and bound them together. Absent a threat justifying conscription, enlisting the young en masse is far more likely to promote cynicism than civic spirit.
Advocates of conscription argue that, done properly, mandatory service instills selflessness and patriotism. But perhaps it merely reveals it.
While researching Sweden’s restored conscription system on the eve of the pandemic in December 2019, I spoke to a small circle of conscript junior officers at an infantry battalion not far from Stockholm. Sweden, which currently only conscripts about 10 percent of a year group, includes a questionnaire in its screening of eligible eighteen-year-olds. One thin, blond teen lieutenant confessed that he had circled one (out of five) on “How much do you want to serve in the military?” I was surprised—I had been repeatedly assured that nobody truly unwilling to serve need be drafted in Sweden’s selective conscription system. “How are you here?!” I asked. He smiled. “The next question is about whether you are able to serve. I circled five. I don’t want to be here, but I should be here.”
This essay is part of our new issue 27 symposium, “What is the military for?” Click here to see the rest of the symposium.
Art credit: Francis Hollenkamp. 10,000; installation at LIU Humanities Gallery, Brooklyn; 2011. Courtesy of the artist.