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Non-Draft Military Means More Military Influence -- and More Americans out of Touch with Military Decisions

These professional tough guys make it easier for Washington to go to war. You don’t need a special congressional action or the threat of a draft to send in the troops.

This is the first of a three-part look at the evolution of the American military.

Americans observe two anniversaries this year, neither one of them wanted. March marked eight years of combat in Iraq, and October, 10 years of fighting in Afghanistan. These are America’s “long wars,” a seemingly endless grind of combat.

These long wars invite comparison, and some recall the eight years of U.S. war in Vietnam, but there is a more compelling distinction. It was a conscript Army that flew its Hueys over the jungles of the Mekong Delta; it is an all-volunteer force that drives its Humvees along the Tigris and in the shattered urban landscape of Kabul.

For nearly 40 years, these volunteers have defended the United States’ national interests, and over time they have changed the nation’s approach to warfare, foreign policy, domestic politics and even national character. Most often, these affects appear to be subtle, like the growing distance between the military and the civilian population, or the percentage of Americans who have relatives in the services. Still, the consequences have been profound, making it easier for the U.S. to go to war with little public scrutiny.

The plans for this standing military were drawn up in 1969. The Big Think work was done by the President’s Commission on an All-Volunteer Force, which came to be known as the Gates Commission after its chairman, Thomas S. Gates, Jr., an investment banker and former defense secretary. Nixon received the commission’s report ( PDF here) in February 1970. And little more than three years later, in June 1973, the last man drafted into the U.S. military reported for training.

The volunteers followed. While it’s true that many young men and women have chosen to enlist for the four years of training, educational incentives and an $8,000 bonus, America has never had so large a standing military. At the dawn of World War II, the U.S. Army and National Guard was 400,000 strong, plus another 125,000 in the Navy; the Gates Commission 30 years later planned for a force “somewhere between 2,000,000 and 3,000,000 men.” The volunteer force conceived in the 1970s to fight the Cold War has grown into a military geared to fighting what Army Chief of Staff George W. Casey, Jr. calls an era of “persistent conflict.” And that has turned a force of amateurs into professionals.

The distinction between volunteer and professional is crucial, because it best “… captures the significance of the changes that we’ve undergone in our approach to military policy since Vietnam,” says historian and Boston University professor Andrew Bacevich, a retired career Army colonel.

“The military is far more professional and capable than ever before,” says Col. Lance Betros, the head of the history department at the United States Military Academy at West Point. “There’s a big difference between what we have now and anything we’ve had before.”

Most important, the soldiers agree. They see themselves as professionals, as the recent documentary film “Restrepo” makes clear. Preparing for a deadly showdown with the Taliban in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley, the soldiers psych for battle, telling themselves they are “professional tough guys.”

These professional tough guys have had a direct and perhaps shocking effect on foreign policy, says Thomas Keaney, director of the Philip Merrill Center for Strategic Studies at Johns Hopkins University. “They make it easier for Washington to go to war. You don’t need a special congressional action or the threat of a draft to send in the troops.”

The professional military also makes it possible to sustain wars. Long wars become possible because the boots-on-the-ground can be deployed and redeployed. In the past, to fight wars like the ones in Afghanistan and Iraq, “you would have had to institute a draft in order to sustain the action that’s been going on,” Keaney says. “And that would have been a brake on any administration.”

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