A couple of facts are not in dispute. Recruiting is getting harder. The Army has been struggling to make numbers since 2018. While a Pew Research Center survey released in July 2019 shows the military remains among the most trusted public institutions, most of that respect comes from members of older generations, not the younger ones who would be called to serve. Over 70% of American youth are ineligible for military service. Adding these trends together makes some fret over the future of the all-volunteer force.
In addition, there are worries that these developments will impact the state of civil-military relations, fraying the bonds between the armed forces and the nation. These are real challenges. All of them are beyond the Army and the rest of the Pentagon’s capacity to drive meaningful change.
There are two related, but distinctively different, sets of issues here. It doesn’t help to conflate them. The challenge of an ever smaller percentage of the population serving in the armed forces is perhaps the easiest to deal with. The reality is, through most of American history, with the notable exception of World War II, a few serving many is the norm.
Having a significant percentage of American citizens with military service has never been central to the U.S. model of healthy civil-military relations. From the founding of the nation, the constitutional foundation of civil-military relations has focused on civilian supremacy of the military. The penultimate example is that citizens elected a president who serves as commander in chief. There was absolutely no requirement that the president have military experience. In practice, only over half of U.S. presidents served in the military.
Indeed, from its inception, the Constitution envisioned the military would be a limited institution, only big enough to serve national needs. In practice, that is what has happened. The size of the armed forces has expanded and contracted based on national security needs, not the need to provide military experience to U.S. citizens.
Further, the notion that military service is required to make better citizens, improves citizenship, strengthens national commitment to defense or foreign policy, or is necessary to give citizens a better appreciation of military service has never been part of the American tradition.
In particular, while the Constitution created a framework that allowed for conscription, it did not establish mandatory military service—with good reason. The only valid need for a military was to provide for the common defense. For most of American history, conscription or a draft has been the exception, not the rule. In both the Civil War and World War I, the U.S. instituted wartime drafts to ensure the U.S. had strong military capabilities. However, the drafts were ended when hostilities concluded. The first peacetime draft was initiated in 1940, but that was implemented because the U.S. thought it might have to fight a war.
The Selective Service System was created in 1948, but not to establish a permanent conscription system. Congress, in fact, specifically rejected universal military training after World War II. For much of the Cold War (until 1973), the U.S. did have a draft. That was not to strengthen civil-military relations; it was because the government thought it was cheaper. Further, during the early years of the Cold War, the Pentagon dabbled in teaching citizenship. It quickly abandoned the project as politically divisive and untenable.
Post-Vietnam, civil-military critics argued that part of the problem was a disconnect between the American people and the military. One argument was the overreliance on the draft, rather than calling up the National Guard for combat duty. This is nonsense. As was the notion that Gen. Creighton Abrams Jr. pressed for active-reserve component integration so a president could never take the nation to war without the engagement of the American people.
The historical record is pretty clear that Abrams pushed the expanded use of the National Guard for one reason— he needed more deployable divisions. He never envisioned an extraconstitutional mechanism to limit presidential decision-making. Further, there is no evidence this idea is even credible.
President George W. Bush, for example, deployed a total force to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq, and a massive anti-war movement, just like the one that opposed the Vietnam War, sprung up anyway.
Today, there are persistent calls for reinstituting the draft or mandatory national service. These are not credible. Nothing in U.S. history suggests this is necessary or efficacious. What sustains healthy civil-military relations in the future will rest, as it has in the past, not on the composition of the military, but on maintaining an appropriate understanding of proper civil-military relations between civilian and military leaders.
Seeking Qualified Recruits
The second issue of concern is a different challenge—recruiting a sufficient number of qualified individuals to fill out the ranks. Again, this is not a new problem, certainly not one that can be solved by the draft. World War II is a good example. Americans might have been “the greatest generation” when they ended the war, but they did not start that way. From the onset of mobilization, the services competed for the smartest and healthiest recruits.
The services also siphoned off some of the most promising soldiers into programs like the Army Specialized Training Program, where they would learn technical skills. Initially, the draft also allowed individuals to volunteer for specific services and specialties. Only a small percentage, about 5%, opted for the fighting arms like infantry.
Meanwhile, segregation policies limited Blacks to separate combat support units (like artillery) and service units (such as quartermaster). In the end, many of the troops, recruits or volunteers, sent to fill out front-line infantry divisions met only the lowest physical and intelligence standards for recruits. Troops were mustered in with physical and educational deficiencies that could not be erased with a few months of Army chow, hard marches and stern first sergeant lectures.
It is incredibly expensive, time consuming and inefficient to take unqualified, unwilling individuals and turn them into a world-class military. What the armed forces need is more young people showing both a propensity for military service and the qualifications to serve. Addressing these challenges is a problem that only Americans can solve.
Ordinary Americans can do much to reverse these trends. It starts with families and communities, doing everything to raise healthy, hardworking, educated children with strong moral values. In the end, that’s what makes a generation great.
In addition, we can take steps to make sure that every eligible young man and woman learns about the opportunities, benefits and value of serving in uniform. There are many steps Americans can take, from encouraging local high schools to establish a Junior ROTC program, to asking school officials and school board members to provide access to military recruiters, to promoting veterans as speakers at public events, to teaching better civics to our children.
The services, of course, can encourage communities to take these steps, but in the end, Americans will get the military they deserve by taking responsibility, not by outsourcing it to others.
This piece originally appeared in Army Magazine