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Selling the Army

Selling the Army

In light of the U.S. military’s recruitment crisis, it’s worth revisiting exactly what has made the all-volunteer force so exceptional.

Rebecca Burgess

On June 30, 1973, a young California pipe fitter named Dwight Elliot Stone reluctantly answered his summons to serve his country and was inducted into the United States Army as “the last man”—Uncle Sam’s last draftee. The next day, July 1, 1973, the United States officially did away with conscription by initiating the all-volunteer force (AVF).

Ending the draft had been a 1968 presidential campaign promise of Richard Nixon’s, as part of both his political strategy to win the presidency and the broader need to quell the Vietnam War protests that were rocking society by the late Sixties. But Nixon’s proposal had also been encouraged by a prominent group of free-market economists, including most notably Milton Friedman and Alan Greenspan, who argued that only the labor market logic of supply and demand could procure the better-quality soldiers needed for the complexities of modern warfare.

Fifty years later, it’s worth reconsidering those economic swaddling bands, as it were, of the AVF. While the free-market approach has arguably helped shape one of the most professional and skilled military corps on the planet, the massive, two-years-long recruiting crisis enveloping the U.S. Armed Forces necessitates a reexamination of the foundations of the AVF—in particular at a time of heightened geopolitical complexity.

Every branch of the U.S. military is struggling to meet its recruitment targets. The U.S. Army, for instance, has fallen 25 percent short of its target. Service branches are variously offering signing bonuses of up to $75,000 (the Navy) and reenlistment bonuses of up to $100,000 (the Air Force). But any hordes of takers have yet to materialize.

In other words, the recruitment crisis seems to reflect a flawed assumption of the Nixon crowd—that volunteer recruits would make a decision to serve based solely on the pay scale. That assumption has proven to come at the expense of understanding the civic values at the heart of military service—values that have undeniably nourished the AVF for many years. On this fiftieth birthday of the AVF then, one part of the celebration entails a re-embracing of those civic values.

The free-market economists, many of whom became members of the President’s Commission on an All-Volunteer Armed Force (more commonly known as the Gates Commission) in 1969, also argued that conscription had proven too dangerous for democracy because, in the words of Barry Goldwater, it undermined “respect for government by forcing an individual to serve when and in the manner the government decides, regardless of his own values and talents.”

Nonetheless, when the Gates Commission published its unanimous endorsement of the move to an all-volunteer force in 1970 and Nixon announced it would be a fait accompli in 1973, much caution, concern, and even opposition to it still existed, especially in the Army—the branch that would be most impacted by the redesign. Would a volunteer military really be able to man a force adequate to its obligations and needs? Would volunteers be of high enough quality? Would the costs associated with the requisite pay increases and added benefits be prohibitive? Would a volunteer military truly be more fair and more representative of the nation in socioeconomic terms than a conscription model one? Finally, what might the ramifications be for the broad understanding of the duties and obligations of citizenship, and not just the rights of citizenship?

The fears were not unwarranted, and some of the challenges initially identified—such as high costs and recruiting difficulties—remain. But on the whole, fifty years later most consider the AVF to be one of America’s great success stories. Now a professional military, the U.S. Armed Forces are routinely celebrated as being the most professional, educated, and capable in history.

The move to the AVF had some unintended consequences, for those keeping track of such things: For one, the emphasis on ensuring fairness with previously underrepresented groups, including minorities and women, resulted in policymakers placing much more emphasis on increasing the number of women in military service (admittedly in part to offset the loss of draftees), as William Taylor has written about in Military Service and American Democracy (2016).

Second, the conditions of military life improved—marketing requirements alone showed the necessity of improving living conditions. This was done by way of removing “irritants” (or “Mickey Mouse Rules,” as they were often called) like morning reveille formations, relaxing grooming standards, allowing beer in the barracks, and providing more comfortable furniture.

Image courtesy N.W. Ayer Advertising Agency Records, Archive Center, National Museum of American History, Behring Center, Smithsonian Institution

Third, increasing pay and benefits to a “living wage” standard meant that the young men and women joining the military felt that they could afford to have a spouse and even children while in the service. Whereas the military had been heavily composed of “singles,” we now regularly talk about “total force families.”

Fourth, the military had to fully embrace the concept of large-scale paid commercial advertising, moving from public service announcement-style radio ads preceding the 5:30 a.m. farm reports to mass-market TV campaigns, as Beth Bailey details in “The Army in the Marketplace: Recruiting an All-Volunteer Force.” Recruits suddenly became the “market” and the Army the “product” that required significant financial outlays to “sell.”

Fifth, that “product” did improve—after a rough first decade, which had then-Army Brig. Gen. Colin Powell likening the military to a “tumbledown shack with a BMW in the driveway.” The AVF adapted and overcame difficulties in cooperation between the service branches in its first test, the 1983 invasion of Grenada, a joint operation. And it performed brilliantly in the Persian Gulf War, displaying “in one hundred hours the amazing effectiveness of highly trained, high quality soldiers operating with high tech equipment under highly competent leadership,” in the words of one U.S, Army War College professor. By the time the nation was embarking on its second decade of the post-9/11 “forever wars,” individual American men and women were still volunteering to join and serve their country, despite the very real risks to life and limb.

Much more can and ought to be said about the strength and health of the AVF as it embarks on its next half century, and the worrisome challenges that it is facing both at home and from abroad. But we can surely celebrate the enormous improvement of the AVF since the 1970s. We must celebrate it for doing more with less—for having defended America for the past fifty years throughout an uptick in the pace of missions with fewer and fewer servicepeople. And we can and must further celebrate the families of the nation that have given their sons and daughters to this task.

When Dwight Elliott Stone reluctantly answered his draft summons in 1973, he was not really interested in serving the nation. But once out of the service and established in a civilian career, he was thankful for that service and for the training and characteristics he had learned through it. His eldest son even volunteered to serve before going off to college. Stone’s story proves that serving in the AVF is not simply an economic choice, but remains a choice of citizenship as well, one that must be explained and cultivated with every succeeding generation.

Rebecca Burgess is senior editor at American Purpose, a visiting fellow at Independent Women’s Forum, a consultant for the George W. Bush Presidential Institute’s Veterans and Military Families program, and a 2021 FDD National Security Fellow.

Image: Soldiers assigned to the 3d U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard), participate in the National Memorial Day Parade in Washington D.C., May 29, 2023. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Josue Patricio)

EconomicsUnited StatesU.S. Foreign PolicyPolitical Philosophy