The All Volunteer Force is an American Tradition

I submited this column to the Military Times back in early August.  Apparently it didn’t make the cut, so I’m posting it here

Some people have recently suggested we need a military draft.  I disagree.  The suggestion is out of sync with the historic use of the draft, current national restrictions on military end-strengths, and basic common sense.

 

During the first 168 years of our nation, the draft was used for less than ten.  The United States has mostly been defended by volunteers, with World War II being an anomaly.  Over ten million men, two-thirds of all that served during World War II were draftees.  In 1948, the draft was reinstituted in order to extract manpower from a war-weary population, to keep the expansionist Soviet Union in check during the Cold War.

 

In 1969, President Nixon established a commission to develop a plan to return to the traditional all-volunteer military.  Two years later, an all-volunteer baseline was established as pay was raised for all ranks.  The entry-level recruit’s pay went up to $307 for October 1972 from a stark $130 a month the year prior.  After adjusting for inflation, the new recruit enjoyed over 221% of his previous buying power.  An E-4, with over 4 years in service, got a 21% increase, while most other ranks enjoyed nearly a 10% increase in their buying power.  Officially ending in 1973, the longest draft in American history had lasted almost 25 years.  It has been over 34 years since the all-volunteer force has been standard operating procedures.

 

The all-volunteer force attracts the modern equivalent of the people that fought and won our independence.  They are the best and the brightest our nation has to offer.  In contrast, many people can still remember how the financially elite did the nation a service by obtaining draft deferments for their children as they attended ivy-league colleges during the Vietnam War.  Unfortunately, as the draft pulled many non-volunteers who could manage to pass the mental and physical requirements of the services, the military culture degraded, becoming less attractive to those who were truly called to defend our nation.  Possibly, the only good thing the draft did for our nation was to encourage some of our lesser citizens to flee, seeking refuge beyond our borders in hopes they would not be asked to serve anything beyond their own personal lusts.

 

It defies common logic to suggest a draft is needed when tens of thousand of qualified airmen and sailors are being required to leave service against their personal desires.  Congress establishes each service’s end strength.  When a service exceeds its authorization, they are required to reduce their numbers.  For example, in 2003 the Air Force and Navy forced thousands of “overage” people to leave.  Our military is the size it is today because our elected officials have so ordered.

 

It is true that the all-volunteer force has had cyclical problems with retention.  However, those problems were the result of a failure to maintain the 1972 base-line pay scales.  Decision makers used the power of inflation and lagging pay adjustments to shave funds off of personnel costs.  By the end of 1980, all service members had lost 17% of their buying power.  The Air Force was short thousands of pilots and the Navy was parking ships because they didn’t have enough petty officers to float them.  The nation reacted to the mass exodus and brought military compensation to where in 1993, it actually exceeded the 1972 base-line only for a short while. 

 

After the Soviet Union dissolved, the Cold War was over, and then the startling quick victory during the Gulf War, Congress reduced the end-strengths by nearly 40%, which made some sense at the time.  What didn’t make sense was a deliberate effort to deviate from the 1972 all-volunteer baseline.  History had already shown that an all-volunteer force needed a certain amount of compensation and quality of life.  Dropping below that amount jeopardizes retention and recruitment.  When 9/11 hit, the military was almost down to the pay scale equivalents of 1980.  However, retention had been manipulated during the down-sizing through the use of targeted bonuses in order to retain key career fields, while the overall base pay’s buying power continued to wither.

 

The terrorist attacks on our nation reinvigorated our best and brightest to serve, recruitment went up, separations and retirements were put on hold.  And for a while, quality of life issues took a back seat as a new generation of heroes answered the call to arms.  Our enemy’s strongholds in distant mountains and harsh deserts were rolled into a ball and buried.  With the toppling of two national governments behind us, a protracted war of dealing with a network of organized terrorists, mostly intent on undoing what we’ve started, wearies us as the nation rests safely behind our all-volunteer force.

 

As our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines deploy over and over and over to remote regions of the earth to fight, build, defend, and occasionally witness their comrades make the ultimate sacrifice, some folks look at falling retention and strained recruitment and say we need a draft.  In reality, we just need to correct back to the 1972 all-volunteer base-line.  Even after the latest targeted pay raises, the 2007 recruit’s $1,203.90 has less than 78% of the buying power of the 1972 recruit’s $307.  An E-4’s $1978.50 has a little over 87% of the buying power of his 1972 counterpart’s $445.50.  For a Major, with over 14 years of service, to equal the buying power of his 1972 counterpart’s pay, he would need a base pay increase of nearly $465 a month.  A draft is not going to fix that problem.

 

The 2007 all-volunteer force should live at least as well as the all-volunteer force of 1972.  The richest nation in the history of mankind has a mere 0.7% of their population defending the rest of them.  Certainly we can afford to provide those that serve with an American quality of life.

 

It is one thing to ask young people to offer the prime of their learning and earning years for the defense of the common good.  It is another to expect them to make a career of it, while their families’ quality of life is less than their historic counterparts.  We need to stop experimenting with trying to see how little we can compensate personnel for their military service and just accept the 1972 baseline as a fixed expense for the price of an all-volunteer military.

 

The best recruiting tool will always be satisfied career NCOs and officers.  Those who are able to, will want to be like them.  The real strength in an all-volunteer force rests in its ability to retain the volunteers who have answered the call. 

 

It just makes sense.

 

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