The year 2023, marks a major milestone for the United States: the 50th anniversary of the establishment of an all-volunteer force (AVF). 2023 also marks the 75th anniversary of Executive Order 9981, President Harry Truman’s decision to end the Jim Crow era in the armed forces, as well as the 75th anniversary of the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act, the law that allowed women to serve in the regular armed forces and not merely in the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Services (WAVES) and Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAACs), made famous during World War II.
The 50th anniversary of the All-Volunteer Force has coincided with the most acute recruiting crisis in decades. Each of the services has struggled to meet recruiting goals, but none more so than the Army, which failed to meet its target by 15,000 soldiers, or 25 percent, during fiscal year 2022. The recruiting crisis has combined with politicization of all things related to the military to raise doubts about the long-term viability of the AVF.
There is little that can be done about the primary drivers of the recruitment crisis: the comparative health of the civilian economy and the comparative unhealth of youth of recruiting age. By contrast, there is much more that can and should be done about one secondary driver of the crisis: the politicization of the AVF. Addressing the politicization challenge will help on the margins and, just as importantly, shore up best practices in civil-military relations to help this institution weather political storms. It will require, however, that all relevant actors – civilian elites, military elites, and the general public – take the problem seriously and commit to modest remedial steps.
Civilian elites will need to recognize that their actions are a major part of the politicization problem and adjust their behavior accordingly. Military elites will need to recommit to the professional duty to be custodians of professional ethics in this area and be vigilant to patrol their own behavior. And the general public should move from “high regard at high remove” and spend some effort learning more about this institution that is protecting the U.S. Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic. Trying to repair the AVF in this manner is better than replacing it with a draft, which is a cure worse than the disease.
Recruitment Woes Are Bad Weather, Politicization of the AVF is Bad Behavior
Most experts agree that the two biggest drivers of contemporary recruiting challenges are in the labor market and public health. First and foremost, a tight civilian labor market makes competition for the pool of workers intense. For instance, according to one recent Department of Defense study, the percentage of youth (aged 16-21) who report that it is “not at all” or only “somewhat difficult for someone your age to get a full-time job in your community” has been at all-time highs for the past several years. When jobs are easy to come by, recruiters have a tougher time making the case for military service.
At the same time, the pool of youth who meet the eligibility criteria (e.g., for medical, physical, conduct, etc.) for joining the military without receiving a waiver is at an all-time low (as low as 23 percent in 2020). Recruiters face a shrinking pool of young people from which to recruit. Add in the lingering effects of the pandemic and a recruiting crisis is probably over-determined. The military can muddle through in the short run by lowering recruiting standards, but that is not a long term solution. If the shortfalls persist even after the labor market cycles back to an environment more favorable for recruiters, then the calls for drastic measures will intensify.
Yet the AVF may be suffering from yet another pernicious problem, one that has a political root rather than an economic or public health origin. One of the most underappreciated threats to the long-term continuance of the AVF is the harmful effects partisan polarization has on the military and its relationship with society and civilian leaders today. Politicization has permeated virtually every institution in American life, and the national security enterprise is not immune. That includes the U.S. military, which has long enjoyed high public confidence from Americans on both sides of the aisle. However, as the American public has become more polarized, the AVF—which must draw from all corners of the country to remain viable—is in danger of being corrupted.
The community of civil-military scholars has been sounding the alarm on the dangers related to politicization of the military for some time now. On the general danger to civil-military relations, there has been widespread agreement. A linkage between politicization and recruiting challenges also seems intuitive but harder to pin down. As yet, there is very little reliable evidence that many potential recruits are declining to serve because they believe the military has become too closely aligned with one party or another. There is, however, evidence that such concerns have taken root among the most partisan members of the public, and it seems likely that such concerns would reduce their propensity to recommend service. People with lower confidence in the military are less likely to recommend to others that they join.
The politicization of the military is thus likely exacerbating recruiting problems while also undermining the readiness of the military. Practical solutions to the problem of politicization, however, are harder to identify. Drastic fixes that demand politicians refrain from responding to political incentives are not feasible, and expecting the military to take a stronger role in thwarting politicization could backfire by drawing them further into partisan politics, making matters worse. If not cures, are there at least practical palliative steps that are likely to yield results?
Earlier this year the America in the World Consortium and Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies held a conference with leading scholars and practitioners and we joined a final panel alongside retired Lt. Gen. David Barno, Michèle Flournoy, and Kori Schake. Collectively the panel created a list of action items, a selective sample of which we explain below. While the political divisions in the country often seem intractable today, these recommendations are feasible steps that can help sustain the all-volunteer force for another 50 years.
Civilian Leaders Should Stop Shirking Their Role in Civilian Control and Civil-Military Relations
Too often, civilian leaders in the executive and legislative branches, whether elected or appointed, give in to the temptation of committing civil-military sins of omission or commission – either failing to take steps to prevent the politicization of the armed forces or actively accelerating that politicization. These five recommendations encourage more responsible civilian leadership.
First, civilians need to better understand their own role. Members of the military benefit from years of professional military education throughout their careers. However, there are few such educational opportunities for civilians in the key roles that assist the president, secretary of defense, and members of Congress in exercising civilian control of the military. Civilian staffers on congressional committees, in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the service secretariats, and on the National Security Council need tailored education and on-going training on what civilian control truly entails and how key civil-military norms apply in their distinctive work assignments. The need is probably greatest among political appointees, who may have very little experience in military settings. Yet even “civilian” staffers who have extensive prior military experience – and thus have undergone some of the civil-military training given to military officers – will likely only have experienced it from a military point of view and would benefit from opportunities to reflect on the issues while in their new civilian roles. Senior civilians, both political appointees and career, would also benefit from equivalent courses to Capstone, Pinnacle, and the related workshops run by the services. These provide refreshers and opportunities to reflect on how best practices might apply to new levels of seniority as the officers advance in their careers. The relative dearth of such training for civilians, especially for political appointees, is an easy-to-fix source of friction in the civil-military relationship.
Second, civilians could exercise their oversight and confirmation responsibilities to reinforce best practices in civil-military relations. During confirmation hearings, senators could use the open letter signed by eight former Secretaries of Defense and five former Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on best practices of civil-military relations to guide their questioning of political appointees and senior general and flag officers. Senators should consider making this a standard advanced policy question (APQ): “Do you agree with the statement of principles and best practices outlined in the Open Letter? If you disagree with any element, outline the nature of your disagreement.” In this way, the open letter can come to serve as a grading rubric for civilian and military leaders alike to assess their commitment to, and understanding of, the principle of civilian control by civilian and military nominees. Of course, the senators will pursue many other lines of inquiry and have the discretion to ask about whatever they wish. Yet this modest step could help elevate the public discussion of best practices in civil-military relations and set a baseline standard of expectations – just as Congress regularly reminds the military about their duty to advise Congress with the Senate Armed Services Committee’s standard requirement that military nominees promise to provide their personal opinion, if asked, even if it diverges from Administration policy.
Third, politicians running for office and elected leaders — especially those with prior military experience — should avoid using uniformed members of the military as political props during photo ops, speeches, and at political conventions. During presidential elections, campaigns on both sides of the aisle should resist the temptation to seek out endorsements by retired general and flag officers. Consulting with retired military experts on policy is a legitimate and beneficial way for campaigns to leverage retired officers’ combined expertise to improve national security policymaking. However, asking retired senior military officers to spend their hard-earned public prestige on partisan endorsements has the effect of politicizing the military and makes it harder for the active force to be seen as the non-partisan servant of the state, ready to obey whomever the electorate votes into power. This concern applies with special force to veterans serving in senior civilian leadership positions, especially elected office. They have a special responsibility to set the right example for their non-veteran colleagues and sensitize them to the norms of the military profession. While veterans may no longer be beholden to the rules and norms that governed their behavior when they served in the military, they also should not use their veteran status for partisan advantage. They should be sensitive to the manner in which they invoke their military service during campaigns for office.
Fourth, Congress should actively promote the professional development of a more capable civilian workforce within the Department of Defense. One admittedly controversial way to do this would be to eliminate veterans’ hiring preferences for positions within the Office of the Secretary of Defense. The veterans’ preference advantage has the effect of making military experience a de facto requirement for hiring – thus weakening the development of a strong cadre of civilian national security experts. While veterans’ preference for all other positions in the federal government should be preserved, it could be rescinded for positions within the Office of the Secretary of Defense, which accounts for less than 0.5 percent of the 950,000 federal civilian workforce. Programs like the John S. McCain Strategic Defense Fellows Program represent a good effort at growing future civilian leaders in the DOD and should be expanded. This modest reform would not prevent exceptionally qualified veterans from serving in a second career in national security policymaking but it would open up opportunities for civilians, who presently are all but excluded at the entry levels by this particular affirmative action policy.
Lastly, civilian elected and appointed leaders should agree to treat the military as “noncombatants” in the ongoing culture wars. Attacking uniformed leaders, or worse, individual rank-and-file service members, as “woke” crosses the line of civil-military propriety. It likely degrades public confidence in the military and further politicizes how the public views the military. Repeated attacks will likely also cause those in uniform to lose respect for civilian leaders. Of course, it is appropriate for members of Congress to exercise oversight over all DOD activities, to include diversity, equity, and inclusion programs. That said, the way to exercise such oversight without undermining civil-military relations is to put any challenges or critiques directly to the political appointees responsible for setting policy, not to those in uniform. Civilian secretaries and their civilian staffs must be on the frontlines in these debates and must resist the temptation to hide behind the uniforms. For such a truce to hold, however, the military must stay a noncombatant and should avoid needlessly entering the partisan fray. Yes, military leaders should stand up for and defend their institutional values. But they should be careful to do so without using partisan coded language that has the effect of exacerbating rather than mitigating cultural animosities.
Military Leaders Should Reinvigorate Their Commitment to Professional Norms
While civilian leaders and politicians must do the lion’s share of the work to sustain the AVF and insulate it from the harmful effects of politicization, senior military leaders also have work to do. Indeed, this is how it is with any profession: it is the members of the profession, not the customers, who have primary responsibility for enforcing the norms. There are at least three steps that would go some distance to doing just that.
First, the military must recognize that combatting politicization requires greater understanding of civil-military norms, especially the nonpartisan ethic, across all ranks. This will entail careful teaching in both professional military education settings and in guided leader development sessions. While the military’s nonpartisan identity remains relatively strong, it has been under acute strain in recent years, and the degree to which the services formally emphasize these principles across the ranks has been uneven and episodic. Deliberate efforts to reinvigorate these norms across the force will serve as a bulwark against further politicization. Rank-appropriate training should extend all the way to the senior-most military officials—service chiefs and vice chiefs, combatant commanders, and the Chairman and Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The Open Letter signed by the former Chairmen and Secretaries of Defense is a start, but applying those principles to the specific contexts facing each of the most senior leaders will require both greater consensus on the norms and bespoke training sessions suitable to the individuals.
Second, senior retired officers have their own work to do to counteract the baleful practice of partisan campaign endorsements by retired general and flag officers during each presidential election cycle. Prominent retired four-stars, the individuals with the greatest reach across retired ranks and the greatest ability to speak to public audiences, should reinvigorate their efforts to strengthen a professional norm against such endorsements. This can be accomplished through vigorous discussion among private forums, but it may also require continued public explanations to the electorate why they, and the vast majority of retired general and flag officers, choose to make no partisan endorsements. While the number of endorsements each year has not abated, recent lists of endorsers have drawn attention for their relative obscurity, with many having been retired from the U.S. military for decades. The obvious contrast with the more lustrous list of non-endorsers could, if made public during the 2024 election, neutralize the impact of the minority faction of actively partisan retired officers.
Third, the time has come for a symbolic act of self-denial: military organizations should turn off the television in wardrooms, command suites, training rooms, and offices. Televisions habitually tuned to partisan news on cable television in military workplaces not only lay the groundwork for politicization within the ranks but also create perceptions of partisan alignment both in and out of the military.
The American Public Should Understand the Defenders of Their Constitution
While the public takes its cues from civilian and military elites, the AVF cannot be sustained without the support of the American public and its sensitization to civil-military norms. Unfortunately, while the public still holds the military in high regard, it does not know that much about the military. This problem, which was warned about at the time the AVF was established, has become acute. The American public needs to understand the difference between those currently in the military and veterans. Veterans, including retirees, do not speak for the military institution, and are no longer subject to the rules and norms that govern those on active duty. Many Americans, unfortunately, are imperfect judges of civil-military norms and draw no distinctions between veterans and those on active duty. Some attach too much importance to the views of a small number of politically vocal retirees and veterans. A better understanding of civil-military norms, including the difference between active duty and veterans, could neutralize efforts to politicize the military.
For many Americans today, most of what they know about military culture and civil-military relations comes from pop culture and Hollywood. The military can do more to address this gap with active campaigns reaching out to the public beyond the settings of major sports events and holiday observances. There is clearly a need to reinvigorate civics education across the United States as well. Even if civics education could somehow be refreshed and strengthened, however, Hollywood and pop culture will likely continue to shape how the public thinks about the military. It is important for the armed forces and for thought leaders to work with these influencers to minimize the wild skews and inaccuracies that all-too-often characterize the depiction of the military in popular entertainment.
These Fixes are Better Than Returning to the Draft, a Cure That is Worse Than the Disease
Current recruitment challenges have prompted more than one observer to look longingly at a return to the draft as a potential solution. Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, retired Admiral Mike Mullen surprised many when he argued that it has become too easy to go to war, and that reducing the size of the Army by 100,000 troops—which, in turn, would necessitate a draft in future conflicts—would force more difficult conversations around dinner tables in the United States.
While it is a legitimate concern that, under an all-volunteer force, the American public has grown accustomed to the idea that someone else will always be willing to volunteer and fight the United States’ wars, make no mistake: a return to the draft would be a cure worse than the disease. Conscripting Americans into service against their will is fundamentally illiberal and something that the country has tolerated only briefly during periods of intense national security threats. Moreover, the argument that the draft would bring about positive developments, such as greater unity in the country, more equitable burden-sharing, and a country more circumspect about the use of force, does not hold up to close scrutiny. The United States had a draft at the outset of both the Korean and Vietnam wars. During the Korean War, draftees believed they were forgotten by the American public every bit as much as volunteers fighting the Global War on Terror – indeed Korea was dubbed “the Forgotten War” as early as October 1951. During the Vietnam War, President Lyndon Johnson believed relying on draftees rather than calling up the reserves would help ensure that the conflict would not distract from his domestic priorities. Certainly, the American public should care more about its military and the wars it fights, but a draft will not bring that about on its own.
Abandoning the AVF and returning to reliance on the draft would create a military that is less ready, less professional, and less capable of meeting the twin challenges of high-intensity combat and irregular warfare – and less inclined to abide by the laws of armed conflict while doing so. If we had the luxury of living during a time of general geopolitical stability and peace, then perhaps the United States could afford the risk of having less-capable armed forces; we do not enjoy that luxury and we must not act as if we do.
The AVF has proven to be a resilient bulwark for national security, but its future success is not guaranteed. To paraphrase Ben Franklin: we have a viable AVF, if we can keep it. And to keep it, all of the stakeholders – the military, civilian political leaders, and the American public – have a lot of work to do.
The authors are grateful to Lieutenant General (retired) David Barno, Michèle Flournoy, Kori Schake, and all of the panelists and keynote speakers at the “All-Volunteer Force at 50” conference for their insights and recommendations.