The Future of the All-Volunteer Military

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Training instructors at Lackland Air Force Base saluted with a ceremonial fly-over

Training instructors at Lackland Air Force Base saluted with a ceremonial fly-over. [Linda H. Rasch / Flickr]

The U.S. military has 1.4 million troops on active duty and another 1. 26 million in the Reserves, including 456,000 in the National Guard. We have 47,000 American troops stationed in Japan, 37,500 in South Korea, and 116,400 on bases all across Europe.

These numbers confront us with a stunning paradox: America has the second largest standing army in the world, and yet, is desperate for more troops. As the President announced his plans to add 21,500 troops to the 152,000 already in combat in Iraq, it was not entirely clear where he planned to get them.

There hasn’t been conscripted military service in the U.S. since 1973, but as the military moves thousands upon thousands of human chess pieces around the global board to meet its various needs, some people argue that a “backdoor draft” is already underway. For example: the military is making use of the long-established but usually rare practice of stop-lossing to keep enlisted men and women beyond their contractually agreed-upon period of active service, and is calling up reservists who may have thought their military careers were over.

What do these changes tell us about the wider goals and priorities of the military, and its future as a whole? How is the military coping with its need for more troops, and how are members of the armed services responding to these tactics? Are the problems facing the military just about this war and this set of demands, or does the shortage of troops bely larger problems in the structure of the military as a whole? Is there a way to redesign the all-volunteer military without pushing individual soldiers, their families, combat units to a breaking point?

David Segal

Director, Center for Research on Military Organization, University of Maryland

Co-editor, The Postmodern Military

Ralph Peters

Retired U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel

Former Intelligence Officer

Author, Never Quit the Fight

Mark Zirkelbach

Deputy Adjutant General, Iowa Army National Guard

Extra Credit Reading

sixty-six, They say I will stay for an additional 4 months. And I say, “Roger.”, sixty-six.org, January 12, 2007: “Then I heard the news. Well, I read the news actually. I read it on yahoo. An email from someone I know State side confirmed it for me -my Brigade was to extend. Our guys started calling and emailing home only to find out their families had already been informed of the extension. Letters had been printed, signed, mailed, received and read before we had the faintest idea of what was going on. We were the last to find out.”

Suzanne, Tour Extension, Operation Norwegian Freedom, January 13, 2006: “About a week ago Marc and I were discussing a book I am reading – “Surviving Deployment”. The book mentions the phases and cycles of deployment including the phase I hoped not to experience – extension. Marc said I’d better read up on the chapter about tour extension.”

Fred Schoeneman, Cheese Dick, On Hiatus, June 2, 2004: “[When I was in the reserves,] I understood that Uncle Sugar owned me if it wanted me, and I knew what I was volunteering for. If he is charging that some of his men were lied to about this 8 year commitment, he should have them come forward.”

Andrew J. Bacevich, The Failure of an All Volunteer Military, The Boston Globe, January 21, 2006: “During the Vietnam War, thanks in no small part to the draft, the armed services had become estranged from American society. The all-volunteer force creation severed relations altogether.”

Gun-Toting Liberal, Pentagon: “New Rule” — Reservists and Guardsmen may be activated indefinitely, Gun Toting Liberal, January 12, 2007: “Why not just go ahead and sign up for active duty Army, Air Force, Marines, Navy, or Coast Guard if you are willing to ‘volunteer’ to serve on active duty for (‘UP TO’) twenty to thirty years consecutively? At least, THAT way, you would be able to enjoy the full medical and retirement benefits that go to those who are willing to give the rest of their productive lifespans to the military without playing the ‘gambling game.'”

Thom Shanker, Reserve System Needs Change, Military Experts Believe, The New York Times, July 4, 2004.

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