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The Deep Unfairness of America’s All-Volunteer Force

Children of the elites fight in disproportionately small numbers. Does that lead to more war?

As far as we know, the phrase “all-recruited force” was coined by Karl Marlantes, author of Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War, a book that provides vivid insight into the U.S. Marines who fought in that conflict. Mr. Marlantes used the expression to describe what’s happened to today’s allegedly “volunteer” force, to say in effect that it is no such thing. Instead it is composed in large part of people recruited so powerfully and out of such receptive circumstances that it requires a new way of being described. We agree with Mr. Marlantes. So do others.

In The Economist back in 2015an article about the U.S. All-Volunteer Force (AVF) posed the question: “Who will fight the next war?” and went on to describe how the AVF is becoming more and more difficult to field as well as growing ever more distant from the people from whom it comes and for whom it fights. The piece painted a disturbing scene. That the scene was painted by a British magazine of such solid reputation in the field of economics is ironic in a sense but not inexplicable. After all, it is the fiscal aspect of the AVF that is most immediate and pressing. Recruiting and retaining the force has become far too costly and is ultimately unsustainable.

When the Gates Commission set up the rationale for the AVF in 1970, it did so at the behest of a president, Richard Nixon, who had come to see the conscript military as a political dagger aimed at his own heart. One could argue that the decision to abolish conscription was a foregone conclusion; the Commission simply provided a rationale for doing it and for volunteerism to replace it.

But whatever we might think of the Commission’s work and Nixon’s motivation, what has happened in the last 16 years—interminable war—was never on the Commission’s radar screen. Like most crises, as Colin Powell used to lament when he was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, this one was unexpected, not planned for, and begs denial as a first reaction.

That said, after 16 years of war it is plain to all but the most recalcitrant that the U.S. cannot afford the AVF—ethically, morally, or fiscally.

Fiscally, the AVF is going to break the bank. The land forces in particular are still having difficulties fielding adequate numbers—even with lowered standards, substituting women for men (from 1.6 percent of the AVF in 1973 to more than 16 percent today), recruitment and reenlistment bonuses totaling tens of millions of dollars, advertising campaigns costing billions, massive recruitment of non-citizens, use of psychotropic drugs to recycle unfit soldiers and Marines to combat zones, and overall pay and allowances that include free world-class health care and excellent retirement plans that are, for the first time in the military’s history, comparable to or even exceeding civilian rates and offerings.

A glaring case in point is the recent recruitment by the Army of 62,000 men and women, its target for fiscal year 2016. To arrive at that objective, the Army needed 9,000 recruiting staff (equivalent to three combat brigades) working full-time. If one does the math, that equates to each of these recruiters gaining one-point-something recruits every two months—an utterly astounding statistic. Additionally, the Army had to resort to taking a small percentage of recruits in Mental Category IV—the lowest category and one that, post-Vietnam, the Army made a silent promise never to resort to again.

Moreover, the recruiting and retention process and rich pay and allowances are consuming one half of the Army’s entire annual budget slice, precluding any sort of affordable increase in its end strength. This end strength constraint creates the need for more and more private contractors on the nation’s battlefields in order to compensate. The employment of private contractors is politically seductive and strategically dangerous. To those enemies we fight they are the enemy and to most reasonable people they are mercenaries. Mercenaries are motivated by profit not patriotism—despite their CEOs’ protestations to the contrary—and place America on the slippery slope towards compromising the right of sovereign nations to the monopoly of violence for state purposes. In short, Congress and the Pentagon make the Army bigger than the American people believe that it is and the American people allow themselves to be convinced; thus it is a shared delusion that comforts both parties.

A more serious challenge for the democracy that is America, however, is the ethical one. Today, more than 300 million Americans lay claim to rights, liberties, and security that not a single one of them is obligated to protect and defend. Apparently, only 1 percent of the population feels that obligation. That 1 percent is bleeding and dying for the other 99 percent.

Further, that 1 percent does not come primarily or even secondarily from the families of the Ivy Leagues, of Wall Street, of corporate leadership, from the Congress, or from affluent America; it comes from less well-to-do areas: West Virginia, Maine, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, and elsewhere. For example, the Army now gets more soldiers from the state of Alabama, population 4.8 million, than it gets from New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles combined, aggregate metropolitan population more than 25 million. Similarly, 40 percent of the Army comes from seven states of the Old South. As one of us has documented in his book, Skin in the Game: Poor Kids and Patriots, this is an ethically poisonous situation. And as the article in The Economist concludes, it’s dangerous as well.

The last 16 years have also generated, as wars tend to do, hundreds of thousands of veterans. The costs of taking care of these men and women are astronomical today and will only rise over the next decades, which is one reason our veterans are already being inadequately cared for. Without the political will to shift funds, there simply is not enough money to provide the necessary care. And given the awesome debt America now shoulders—approaching 20 trillion dollars and certain to increase—it is difficult to see this situation changing for the better.

In fact, when one calculates today’s U.S. national security budget—not simply the well-advertised Pentagon budget—the total expenditure of taxpayer dollars approaches $1.2 trillion annually, or more than twice what most Americans believe they are paying for national security. This total figure includes the costs of nuclear weapons (Energy Department), homeland security (Homeland Security Department), veteran care (Veterans Administration), intelligence needs (CIA and Defense Department), international relations (State Department), and the military and its operations (the Pentagon and its slush fund, the Overseas Contingency Operations account). The Pentagon budget alone is larger than that of the next 14 nations in the world combined. Only recently (September 2016), the Pentagon leadership confessed that as much as 50 percent of its slush fund (OCO) is not used for war operations—the fund’s statutory purpose—but for other expenses, including “military readiness.” We suspect this includes recruiting and associated costs.

There is still another dimension of the AVF that goes basically unmentioned and unreported. The AVF has compelled the nation to transition its reserve component forces from what they have been since colonial times—a strategic reserve—into being an operational reserve. That’s military-speak for our having used the reserve components to make up for deeply felt shortages in the active force. Nowhere is this more dramatically reflected than in the rate of deployment-to-overseas duty of the average reservist, now about once every 3.8 years.

Such an operational tempo causes extreme problems for both civilian employers and for National Guard and reserve units. What employer, for example, wants to hire a young man or woman who will be gone for a year every four years on average, when that employer can reach out and hire someone from the 99 percent who will likely not be absent? And how do the reserve units keep up recruiting numbers when faced with such a situation?

Moreover, when we look at the reserve component deployment statistics over a decade or so of what now seems like interminable war, we discover how badly skewed such deployments are. For example, as of 2011, North Dakota, Mississippi, and South Dakota had Guard/Reserve deployment rates of over 40 per 10,000, and Iowa had a rate of over 30 per 10,000. In contrast, the Guard/Reserve deployment burdens for New York, California, and Texas were all less than 15 per 10,000. Perhaps surprisingly, Massachusetts had a higher Guard/Reserve deployment burden per 10,000 than Texas did (these numbers cover the 9/30/01 – 12/31/10 timeframe).

A deeper look at the county levels within each state demonstrates that the Guard/Reserve deployment burden really is an urban/suburban vs. rural divide. New York is a case study. Niagara County (Niagara Falls and Lockport) had a deployment rate of over 30 per 10,000, while Jefferson County (Watertown) and Clinton County (Plattsburgh) had rates over 25 per 10,000. In contrast, New York State overall had a Guard/Reserve deployment rate a bit higher than 10 per 10,000, with Kings County (Brooklyn) and New York County (Manhattan) having rates well below 10 per 10,000.

Most Americans are completely ignorant of the facts outlined above, or understand only partial truths about them. In fact, the majority view the military in general and the way we man the force in particular through a lens of fear, apathy, ignorance, and guilt. The media is unhelpful in this regard because in the main journalists and TV personalities are as unknowing as the people. Few in the military leadership have the courage to speak up about these realities, or are themselves so brainwashed that they are incapable of doing so. But if the country does not wake up soon and demand action, we will be looking at another crisis and asking the question posed by The Economist: “Who will fight the next war?”

Worse, we might be asking the question that Skin in the Game poses: “What if we had a war and nobody came?”

When we put that question to a U.S. senator recently, he replied that “If the enemy were ‘on the shore,’ Americans would respond.”

“Would they?” we asked. “And tell us how you know that, please.”

“They just would, I know they would,” the senator replied.

There is yet another dimension to the AVF that is truly an “unmentionable.” As President Barack Obama said to one of us in the Roosevelt Room in November 2015—referring to Washington, D.C.—“There is a bias in this town toward war.”

What the president meant was quite clear: powerful forces such as the military-industrial complex, a less-than-courageous Congress that has abandoned its constitutional duty with respect to the war power, extreme ideologies, and a nation with no skin in the game, work together to persuade all presidents to consider war as the first instrument of national power rather than the last.

Is there anyone among us who would not believe that having an all-volunteer (or, more to the point, an all-recruited) military coming only from the 1 percent does not contribute to the facility with which presidents call upon that instrument? In a rational world, we would be declared insane to believe otherwise.

Said more explicitly, if the sons and daughters of members of Congress, of the corporate leadership, of the billionaire class, of the Ivy Leagues, of the elite in general, were exposed to the possibility of combat, would we have less war? From a socio-economic class perspective, the AVF is inherently unfair.

Major General (Ret) Dennis Laich served 35 years in the U.S. Army Reserve. Col. (Ret.) Lawrence Wilkerson is visiting professor of government and public policy at the College of William and Mary. He was chief of staff to secretary of state Colin Powell from 2002-05, special assistant to Powell when Powell was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (1989-93), and deputy director and director of the USMC War College (1993-97).