The All-Volunteer Military in Our Modern World
Coming up on 17 years in Afghanistan, we're seeing some of the effects of so few feeling the burden of service.
In a couple of months, the United States military will begin its 17th year of operations in Afghanistan. The conflict, the longest in the Republic’s 241-year history, shows no signs of abatement and, for most citizens, the pace of operations in that war-torn country or the casualties that occur are nothing but background noise in the course of their daily lives.
Well, the main reason most Americans don’t think about operations in the Middle East today is because the fighting is being conducted by less than 1% of the population. The All-Volunteer Force (AVF), a concept created and implemented in the waning days of the Vietnam War and a reaction to the problems associated with a Selective Service (draftee) military, has been a successful experiment. However, with that benefit has come a substantial detriment. The resulting chasm that now exists between those who wear the uniform and the American people could undermine future operations.
Over the last 40 years, the American populace has been divorced from the realities of what it means to serve in the military. Today, their only interaction with the military is oftentimes limited to seeing veterans in the annual Independence Day parade or reading a news clip about the latest training accident.
This widening gap between veterans and the population is also reflected in the composition of Congress. According to the nonpartisan group Veterans Campaign, there are less than 100 members of Congress with military experience, the lowest number in 70 years.
But more worrisome than the statistics is how the AVF is sometimes utilized by the occupant of the White House. Now, more than any other time in American history, the decision to send men and women into harm’s way is often treated as an afterthought by the press — or at most a political football to chew up some of the 24/7 news churn.
Consider the scant amount of coverage given to President Donald Trump’s decision to grant Secretary of Defense James Mattis the authority to determine future troop levels in Afghanistan. This momentous decision by Trump, which will likely cost billions of dollars and involve thousands of troops deploying to the region, is indicative of the world that we live in today.
Rather than having a full-fledged debate about the merits of being involved in proposed operations, the power brokers in Washington, DC, both Republican and Democrat, feel empowered to use the AVF in whatever manner they choose. This dynamic is not only dysfunctional but it cuts at the core of a central tenet of our republic, the citizen-soldier.
While there are numerous tenets associated with republicanism, one of the most fundamental is the right to defend. It has been defined as “the right to defend one’s self, family, faith, and beliefs at a moment’s notice.” This principle of self-defense has been articulated in many of our nation’s documents and addressed by many of the Founding Fathers. However, with the advent of the AVF, this expectation has waned significantly. The end result is that many Americans just expect others to do the fighting for them and those in power treat the Armed Forces like a commodity. As one former decorated military officer wrote, “The army becomes Washington’s army, not our army. And Washington has demonstrated a penchant for using the army recklessly.”
The time is ripe for a vibrant national dialogue and review of the All-Volunteer Force concept. It’s a program that has served the nation well in many areas but there are several fundamental questions that need to be examined about the costs to the country. Specifically, does the existence of the AVF allow our citizens and politicians to avoid difficult discussions about the use of military force in the pursuit of national objectives?
The answer to this question is critical, especially considering the crescive threats emanating around the globe. Now is the time to ask the hard questions about the way ahead. Anything less is a disservice to not only the citizens of the country but to those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for our great nation.
Editor’s note: The author is a 22-year veteran of military service, with tours in Afghanistan and Iraq.