A Very Short History of the Volunteer Army

One of many intricately-related propositions about the capacity of American government that is being tested in Iraq these days has to do with the staying power of its all-volunteer army.

Occupation duty is harder than charging north to capture Baghdad, after all — especially occupation duty under sporadic guerrilla fire. Complaints to news reporters may bring official retribution. But then soldiers are always complaining. Is it any different if they have freely chosen to join up?

Maybe. Without being in the field, it is hard to tell — it’s hard enough to tell when there. But there’s no doubt whatsoever that the situation is complicated when Congressional leaders in war-time Washington are hurling taunts across the conference table and calling in the Capitol Police.

It was an extraordinary confrontation that boiled over Friday morning between members of the House of Representatives after Republican Scott McInnis, 50, muttered “shut up” to 71-year-old Democrat Pete Stark, who had remained behind when his fellow Democrats took a meeting among themselves in a dispute about the Republicans tactics in substituting at the last minute a new version of a pension bill.

Replied Stark, “Oh, you think you are big enough to make me, you little wimp? Come on. Come over here and make me. I dare you. You little fruitcake. You little fruitcake. I said you are a fruitcake.” McInnis later said that he had feared “bodily injury.” At some point his boss, Ways and Means chairman Rep. Bill Thomas, called the cops — apparently hoping to attempt to force the Democrats across the hall to return to his meeting.

Beleaguered troops, legislators at loggerheads — are the two related? Of course they are. The bitter partisanship of the House will resound loudly among the troops in Baghdad.

Yet of all the many differences of opinion between Stark and McInnis, the most profound at that moment may have been as simple as this: Stark is a former Air force lieutenant while McInnis performed no military service. Across this gap, at least in certain situations, the contempt can be very nearly limitless.

Think back to the circumstances in which the US abandoned the draft with which it had fought its wars in Vietnam and Korea and World War II. (Ten million of the fifteen million American soldiers who served in WWII were drafted.) How many people can identify the father of the all-volunteer army? Ask around and the sophisticated answer heard most frequently is Milton Friedman.

In fact, it was largely the doing of his friend, W. Allen Wallis, who died in 1998.

Wallis was president of the University of Rochester. It was November 1968. He had been asked to speak to the local chapter of the American Legion, a veteran’s organization, on the fiftieth anniversary of the Armistice that ended World War I — November 11. The title of his speech: “Abolish the Draft.”

The backdrop was, of course, the escalating opposition to the Vietnam War. Lyndon Johnson had announced a lottery in hopes of reducing resentment of America’s burgeoning commitment. Candidate Richard Nixon responded, “It is not so much the way they are selected that is wrong, it is the fact of selection.”

Now Nixon had been elected and Wallis’ significance lay in who he was — a graduate school classmate of Friedman and George Stigler at the University of Chicago in the early 1930s. During World War II, Wallis had, at the age of 30, organized the Statistical Research Group at Columbia University for his teacher Harold Hotelling, under contract to the war Department. Its stellar cast included Friedman, Frederick Mosteller, Abraham Wald and Jack Wolfowitz (father of Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, a chief architect of the present-day war in Iraq.)

After the War, Wallis returned with Friedman to Chicago. As dean of its business school, he recruited Stigler to Chicago before moving to Rochester in 1962. Friedman and Stigler (and Friedrich Hayek, Ronald Coase and, elsewhere, James Buchanan) then proceeded to overturn much of the view of government that had undergirt Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and the long-lasting political consensus that followed in its wake. (If nothing else, this story suggests the silliness of explaining the attitudes of the present Bush administration on the basis of the previously-unsuspected influence of University of Chicago philosopher Leo Strauss.)

In his Armistice Day speech in 1968, Wallis put his objections to conscription this way: “First, it is immutably immoral in principle and inevitably inequitable in practice. Second, it is ineffective, inefficient and detrimental to national security.”

A month later, Wallis saw Arthur Burns, who was head of Nixon’s transition team. Burns told him that if it could be shown that a volunteer force could be instituted for less than $1 billion in its first year, he would put the matter before the president. Wallis quickly assembled research team of Rochester scholars including Martin J. Bailey, Harry Gilman and  Walter Oi (from whose account these details are drawn).

A blueprint was created, a bipartisan presidential commission established (including John Kenneth Galbraith), enlisted pay quietly was raised to market levels (the crucial step!) and in 1973 the volunteer army became a reality. The last draftee was discharged in September 1975.

By most accounts, the volunteer force has been success, though recently it has been showing signs of strain. (One third of those entering fail to complete their enlistments, compared with one out of ten among draftees.) The retention of highly-skilled personnel certainly requires periodic adjustments. African-Americans compose around a third of Army enlisted ranks, but less than 10 percent of its combat arms, so the service represents far more of an opportunity to get ahead than, as had been feared, a chance to serve as cannon fodder.

And if the first Gulf War in 1991 showed the American military to be very good at what it does, then the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have shown it to be even better.

But now that war aims in Iraq have been less than fully achieved, a two-fold question has arisen. If the volunteers in the field find themselves under duress, will they in effect learn to put up their price? And if everyone here is a specialist, even the soldiers, what happens to the idea of the common good?

In Vietnam, the army explicitly contracted with its troops beforehand for a one-year tour of duty. Grunts who made it that far, whether on the line or in the rear, and usually some of each, could go home — no ifs, ands or buts about it. But Iraq has been happening on the fly, and now many troops who began their training a year ago have been told that they won’t go home before September.

Now the Pentagon is planning to call up two 5,000-soldier National Guard brigades to begin 13- to 16-month deployments next year in relief of soldiers and Marines. When the Wall Street Journal’s Greg Jaffe asked one veteran when the Army previously has been stretched as thin, the reply was, “Not in my 31 years.”

Also in Vietnam, a little-noticed concomitant of the draft was never in doubt. It was understood that the military was a planned society. Like the family, the university and the church, it was almost entirely free of market logic. Its organization was communitarian, almost communist (“from each according to his ability, to each according to his need”). Its ethic was one of absolute ends. Its motto was, Whatever It Takes.

As a result, those who became involved in military service learned to attach a great deal of importance to respect for the opinions of others — even if it were grudging respect. True, orders were given, often unpopular orders, but it was recognized that commands would lose their effectiveness if troops were unwilling to obey. Combat effectiveness was measured not in competence or loyalty, but by sheer willingness to fight, or at least remain in place. There was an abiding sense among those in uniform that all, soldiers and civilians alike, were somehow in it together.

We can look forward to a top-to-bottom audit of the effectiveness of the All Volunteer Force in the coming years, in the context of its current global peace-keeping mission. In gauging the success of the army’s experiment with market ways, it’s important to keep in mind not just its performance as a fighting unit, but the role of the military in fashioning the basic values of society at large.

Most of the leadership of the generation born after 1955 lacks any military experience. Is it possible the rise of the all-volunteer army is connected to the decline of civility among our leaders in Washington? To me, it seems a nearly sure thing.