Society and Culture

The Great (Civil-Military) Divide: Gates on the All-volunteer Force

I haven’t always had the nicest things to say about Secretary of Defense Robert Gates—especially when it comes to managing the defense budget (see my article “The Big Squeeze”). That said, yesterday at Duke University, Secretary Gates gave an extraordinary speech in which he talked about “the state of America’s all-volunteer force, reflecting on its achievements” but also raising a number of troubling issues.

First things first, Gates was not calling for a return to conscription. As he noted, the all-volunteer force has given the country “the best educated, the most capable force this country has ever sent into battle.” And, indeed, it is hard to imagine, he notes, that the country would have been able to undertake the “complex, protracted missions” it has in Iraq and Afghanistan “without the dedication of seasoned professionals who chose to serve—and keep on serving … Going back to compulsory service, in addition to being politically impossible, is highly impracticable given the kinds of technical skills, experience, and attributes needed to be successful on the battlefield in the 21st century.”

Yet, as with any organizational choice, there will be associated costs. In the case of the all-volunteer force, there are costs that are obvious and some that are not. Gates speaks to both.

In the first instance, there is the tremendous stress repeated deployments have put on the families of the men and women of the military. Part of the implied “contract” the country has with the members of the all-volunteer force is that in exchange for serving one’s country and, if necessary, putting one’s life on the line, we will provide them with some “semblance of a normal life.” But given the limited size of America’s ground forces (a point Gates does not raise) and the character of the conflicts we’ve been engaged in and will likely remain engaged in for some years to come, that semblance of normality has largely gone by the wayside. As Gates notes, the consequences “include more anxiety and disruption inflicted on children, increased domestic strife, and a corresponding rising divorce rate, which in the case of the Army enlisted has nearly doubled since the wars began.” In addition, as the force grows older and the nation seeks to keep reenlistment rates high, the all-volunteer force grows increasingly costly. Over the past decade, “the amount of money the military spends on personnel and benefits has nearly doubled.” No one of course would begrudge the benefits service men and women receive but, the reality is, a first-rate all-volunteer force is not cheap.

If Secretary Gates had ended with just those points the speech would have been interesting but not especially noteworthy. What was noteworthy was his willingness to dive into the more subtle, but no less important issue of “the relationship between those in uniform and the wider society they have sworn to protect.” To start, Gates suggests that “for most Americans the wars remain an abstraction.” The fact is, today, less than 1 percent of Americans serve either in the active duty forces or the reserves. Moreover, as he also remarks, fewer and fewer Americans have ties to those who have served in the military. “In 1988 about 40 percent of 18-year-olds had a veteran parent. By 2000 the share had dropped to 18 percent, and is projected to fall below 10 percent in the future.” The familial ties that bind the military to the country are simply growing weaker.

So too the geographical and social ties. As Gates notes, the services focus their recruiting efforts where they are most likely to have success and that, in turn, means fishing in the waters where young men and women are familiar with the military. In turn, that typically means recruiting in areas where there are existing military bases, that is, where someone is likely to have a friend, a former classmate, a father or mother, who is serving or has served in the military. But precisely because of the last two decades worth of base consolidation, this has meant a smaller and smaller footprint from which the military is drawing recruits. For the Army in particular, Gates remarks, this has resulted in its bases largely concentrated in the states of Georgia, Kentucky, Texas, Washington, and North Carolina, leaving large swaths of the country “void,” in Gates words, “of relationships and understanding of the armed forces.”

Similarly, the “national” character of the ROTC program—the principal source for the recruitment of military officers—has also shrunk. In touching on this issue, Gates picks up many of the themes that I and my AEI colleague Cheryl Miller recently wrote about in a Wall Street Journal op-ed (“The Military Should Mirror the Nation”). Not only have elite colleges and universities kept ROTC programs off their campuses—ignoring their own pre-Vietnam War tradition of providing the military with class after class of military officers—so too has the military virtually dropped out of many major metropolitan areas to the detriment of its ability to recruit from a diverse and talented segment of America’s youth.  As Gates points out, “the state of Alabama, with a population of less than 5 million, has 10 Army ROTC host programs … the Chicago metro area, population 9 million, has 3.” Left unstated, but certainly true, is that this is the military’s self-inflicted wound. If not addressed, over time, this is bound to have a less than salutary impact on the relationship of the military with the larger American society.

If I have any bone to pick with Gates it’s that he could have been more forward-leaning in saying what he might do to fix the problems. He is the Secretary of Defense, after all. It is well within his power to fix the ROTC’s geographic problem, to argue for an increase in America’s ground forces to relieve the pressures of rotation on service men and women and their families, and to use his good reputation to increase public pressure on the faculties and administrations of the nation’s elite schools to let ROTC back on campus. Gates has raised a number of serious issues; what we need now are serious efforts to address them.

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