How Representative Is the All-Volunteer U.S. Military?

President Barack Obama speaks at a commencement ceremony at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

The U.S. military’s all-volunteer force has drawn on a shrinking pool of Americans, raising questions about the model’s viability.

April 25, 2018

President Barack Obama speaks at a commencement ceremony at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
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The U.S. military has relied on an all-volunteer force for nearly four decades. This model, largely successful, has drawn from a population of informed, qualified, and service-oriented men and women. Yet it is under stress. The combination of a shrinking pool of qualified youth, a military in which some important segments of society are underrepresented and others are overrepresented, and a growing civilian-military divide is renewing debate about public service and the viability of the all-volunteer model. To counter these trends, advocates have proposed steps such as bringing back the draft and establishing national service programs. They also urge conversations about the costs of war, the unfairness of the all-volunteer force, and concerns about the rise of a warrior caste. Although these suggestions have merits, the best place to start could be a better understanding of who is serving, to ensure that the all-volunteer model remains viable.

As the accompanying feature, “Demographics of the U.S. Military,” attests, those few who are serving—0.4 percent of the U.S. population is on active duty—are overwhelmingly high-quality recruits: they have high school degrees and scored above the fiftieth percentile on the Armed Forces Qualification Test. Most come from middle-class families and have options beyond joining the military. The cohort is young and diverse, and it includes more women than in previous years. Yet the number of young Americans qualified to serve is small—just 17 percent [PDF]—because of factors including medical conditions, physical fitness, drug use, poor conduct, dependents, and aptitude.

Moreover, some groups are increasingly underrepresented, such as northeasterners and, in the officer ranks, African American men. Recruits increasingly come from military families. This is at a time when the number of young Americans who personally know someone in the military is decreasing. These trends not only jeopardize the quality and diversity of the all-volunteer force, but also widen the civilian-military divide in the country.

Maintaining a superior military and closing the civilian-military divide require an understanding of the military’s makeup and cognizance of social trends that could affect the all-volunteer force. If adolescents, parents, teachers, and other citizens believe military service is just for a select few, or if young Americans do not see others like themselves in its ranks, then the U.S. military’s future capabilities will be at risk. The United States’ diversity has always been a great strength. The armed forces are no different, but with an all-volunteer force, the military needs to continue appealing to all Americans, not just a shrinking pool of the eligible few. This starts with understanding who is serving in the military.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

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