In his address to the nation last month on the end of the American military presence in Afghanistan, President Biden acknowledged the sacrifices of American servicemembers over the last 20 years. However, he failed to connect the failures of his and previous administrations to the volunteer nature of American military service.
The United States has operated with an All-Volunteer Force (AVF) structure to provide for the common defense since 1973. While touted as the cornerstone of American military prowess, the truth is that the failures of the past 20 years of the global war on terror stem, at least in part, from the AVF’s pernicious effects.
Specifically, the AVF has led to an overly narrow recruitment base for the American military as recruits are increasingly geographically and culturally separate from the American population. The unintended consequence is that the American people have no real stake in America’s protracted wars. Policymakers face little to no consequences for failing to constrain the costs of war while senior military leaders are similarly given a pass for failing to achieve any meaningful results in their prosecution of those wars. Therefore, the United States should return to some form of obligatory military service for its population, so the American public has a vested interest in the success or failure of future conflicts.
Since the end of the draft, the American military has become less and less representative of American society: 79 percent of Army recruits in 2019 have or had at least one family member who also served in the military, 30 percent of whom was or is a parent. Former Secretary of Defense Ash Carter expressed related concerns for the geographical disposition of servicemembers, noting that six states account for almost 40 percent of military recruits. Retired Major General Dennis Laich in his book Skin in the Game: Poor Kids and Patriots, also notes the marked disparity in the socioeconomic status between those who choose to serve and those who do not with a disproportionate percentage of recruits coming from poor and middle-class backgrounds.
These disparities might be forgiven if the AVF led to better outcomes in wartime. Defense of the AVF model is an axiomatic truth for most senior defense officials; former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey in 2015 called the AVF “the right force for this nation.” However, the astonishingly quick collapse of Kabul and the chaotic rout that followed after 20 years of American military involvement there should at least give pause to that notion. Secretary of State Antony Blinken defended any comparisons between this disaster and the fall of Saigon at the end of the Vietnam war. In fairness, he is right. It was far, far worse. South Vietnam survived for over two years after the last American soldier departed. The Afghan government disintegrated before American forces had even finished their drawdown.
But we need not limit ourselves to Afghanistan. The implosion of the American-trained Iraqi military in 2014 before ISIS coupled with the Iraqi parliament voting to expel American forces in January 2020 demonstrates the impotence of American policy in that country. The estimated costs of the post-9/11 wars through 2019 by Brown University sit at $5.9 trillion with nearly 7,000 American service members killed in action over the past two decades. American military and civilian policymakers have precious little to offer for all of that spent blood and treasure.
To be clear, winning wars is difficult, and mandatory military service would by no means provide a panacea for 20 years of mismanagement in Afghanistan or Iraq. However, because of the AVF, coupled with extreme budget deficits that obfuscate the fiscal costs of war, the American electorate has no incentive to provide accountability to senior political leaders. In turn, policymakers and military leaders face no repercussions for failing to win those wars. The American people can, and have, collectively shrugged their shoulders at 20 years of conflict without achieving any sort of demonstrable result while simultaneously assuaging any lingering guilt they might have by being sure to thank military members for their service.
To mend these issues, the United States must abandon its AVF structure and return to obligatory military service. This directive would not replace the entire force with a conscription army but would augment the current force with a lottery-based system. This system would expose a greater portion of the American population to the military, make the military more representative of society and cast service as a necessary piece of civic duty. It would change the nature of the relationship America has for the military from fair-weather fans to vested shareholders committed to the success of the organization because they and their children now bear the costs of failure. Most important, a form of conscription would force political leaders to continually reassess and justify foreign military conflicts to the public. America does not require more professional warriors. It needs more citizen soldiers.
Mark H. Van Benschoten is a Minnesota native and graduate of the U.S. Military Academy who served seven years on active duty. He deployed to Afghanistan in 2016 and is currently an MBA candidate at the Carlson School of Management, University of Minnesota.
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