1982 U.S. Army commercial: “There’s just one place where you can go from high school to flight school: the Army.”
1980 U.S. Army commercial: No experience, no job. But who would give me the chance? Army! Navy! Air Force! Marines!
1947 U.S. Army Air Corps commercial: “Adventurous and patriotic young men with the will to smack the enemy where it hurts the most.”
2023 U.S. Army commercial: “Because America calls for nothing less, so you can be all you can be.”
Be all you can be.
Be all you can be.
Be all you can be.
Be all you can be.
Be all you can be.
Be all you can be.
The slogans may have changed through the years, but one thing has remained constant, the military wants you to join, but they can’t force you to. And that’s because for five decades now, the United States military has operated with an All Volunteer Force. Whether in the army, coast guard, air force, or navy - those who serve do so of their own volition.
In some ways that policy has worked out well. After all, the U.S. military is the most powerful on Earth. It encompasses over a million active personnel at more than 5,000 bases at home and around the world.
But for years now, recruitment has been falling. And that’s a problem. Some experts say that in a world of rising geopolitical threats, the United States simply can’t risk a shortfall in manpower. Others warn of a widening gap in American society in which military burdens are shouldered by a small subset of the population.
I’m Gabrielle Sierra and this is Why It Matters. Today we look at the past and present of the All Volunteer Force, and whether it can continue to fill its ranks.
Col. Timothy J. MACDONALD: Recently, all of the services had more challenges in recruiting, none more so than the Army.
This is Colonel Tim MacDonald. He’s the Army fellow here at the Council, and has served nearly 25 years. Initially starting as an artilleryman and then a military police officer, Tim has commanded at the battalion and brigade level with deployments to Bosnia, Iraq, Afghanistan, and most recently, Africa.
MACDONALD: We came up about 15,000 short last year of our targeted number. And there's a few reasons for that. One, it's a strong economy, right? Jobs are available, and when there's more jobs available in the civilian job market, it makes our job tougher in recruiting. And that's to be expected, and it's quite cyclical. We're no longer in Iraq or Afghanistan, so those that had the desire to deploy and serve in a combat zone for their country, that's not there really anymore. COVID really had an impact on recruiting. We couldn't get into the schools as well as we could in the past. People stayed at home. It was more difficult to make that connection with prospective recruits. Eligibility is an issue. So right now, the numbers that we've been able to gather is 23% of our 18 to 24-year-olds are actually eligible. 23%. But here's the other piece. 9% of that 23% actually want to serve. So now it's down to 9% and all the services are competing for that 9%.
Max BOOT: All the services are actually struggling with recruiting problems for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that the unemployment rate is at the lowest level it's been since 1969.
This is Max Boot. He’s the Senior Fellow in National Security Studies here at the Council, and a columnist for the Washington Post.
BOOT: So young people coming out of high school have a lot of job options beyond the military. But it's also the case that only about a quarter of the population is even eligible for service because there are so many young people who could not meet the military's physical fitness requirements. There's so much obesity. There's also drug use. There are a lot of problems why a lot of young people are not eligible for service. And of the ones who are, a lot of them are not interested in service. And so that's one of the reasons why I think there is growing concern in the military between civil society and the military, and a sense that civilians aren't looking to serve in the military, civilians don't necessarily understand the military, and that this is actually causing military readiness problems.
Over the past half-century, the number of active duty military has dropped significantly, from 3.5 million in 1968, during the military draft era, to about 1.4 million. This means that today, less than 1 percent of the American population is part of the all-volunteer force.
Along with competition from the private job market, and challenges with physical fitness, some experts point to another reason the military is having trouble attracting enough recruits.
Amy BUSHATZ: I think experts will tell you that the first step to solving any problem is to know that there is one, and the recruitment numbers tell a story of falling recruitment and military leaders are definitely taking note.
This is Amy Bushatz. The Executive Editor of military.com. In addition to covering the military as a journalist for the last 15 years, she also comes from a military family.
BUSHATZ: In my almost 15 years covering defense, we've seen a major shift in what works with military recruiting, but not really a major shift in how recruiting is done. Recruiters have relied on what's been characterized as traditional marketing techniques. So that would be what you think of when you think of marketing, commercials and that kind of thing. But we're dealing with an audience that's really saturated with marketing and the complacency with that saturation and then paired with a lack of marketing expertise among the military leaders who have been tagged to lead these efforts is resulting in some pretty poor recruitment numbers.
Gabrielle SIERRA: Do you think it's just that they're not on the right social media platforms or keeping up with the marketing times? I mean, what else is there to it?
BUSHATZ: Yeah, it would be super fun if we actually knew the answer to that. So the experts point to this idea of complacency among the potential recruits. But also, there's little to no data helping the military, and of course reporters truly understand why people enlist or what drives recruits in the target age groups for most personnel, and that would be that 18 to 24 year old age group. One clue might be a statistic around what we call ‘national confidence’ in the military. So this is how confident people feel about the military, how much they trust them. And we know from the Pew Research Center that the number of Americans who say they have a "great deal of confidence in the military to act in the public's interest" fell 14 points from 39% in November 2020 to 25% in the survey conducted in late 2021. So that confidence level has decreased, and you can imagine that that overall feeling is coloring the willingness of individuals to be recruited and to join the military.
And as the AVF approaches its 50th anniversary, this shortage may have serious implications for the United State's ability to defend itself, and meet global challenges.
SIERRA: The decline in recruitment seems significant. But trying to put this into perspective, why should we be concerned? Because a lot of Americans feel our military is already way too large. How would this affect an average citizen of the U.S.?
BOOT: Yeah. Well, the world is becoming a more dangerous place. I mean, you saw that with the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The possibility of a Chinese attack on Taiwan is growing. And so we're entering this era of great power competition. This is not the immediate post 9/11 era when we are really focused on these low intensity conflicts in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. Right now, we're at much higher risk than we have been in decades of a great power conflict, another World War. That's a scary prospect. But if we're going to deter that conflict, or if the worst happens, if we're going to fight it, you're going to need a substantial force.
Max isn’t alone in seeing the recruitment shortfall as a national security threat. Here’s how Secretary of the Army, Christine Wormuth, put it:
CNBC Events: We can develop all of the most high-tech new weapons systems, like we are working on right now. But if we don’t have the kinds of talented, motivated individuals to use those weapons systems, we won’t be able to do what we need to do.
It’s worth noting that in 2022, Congress approved $877 billion dollars in military spending. For reference, that's more than the combined budgets of the next 10 most powerful militaries. It also means that the U.S. is spending almost half of its discretionary budget on its armed forces, nearly as much as all other categories - like energy, transportation, agriculture, and science - combined. Without sufficient recruits, those investments could be imperiled.
BOOT: And the military is large in one way and not that large in another. But remember, when we fought World War II, for example, we had 12 million people on active duty, and that was out of a population that was two-thirds smaller than the one we have today. So we need a pretty substantial military, because we have commitments all over the world. East Asia, Europe, the Middle East and elsewhere. And so there's an awful lot for the military to do. Most countries have the luxury of focusing on only one threat, whereas we have to focus on multiple threats. We have to think about China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, and various other contingencies as well.
Listeners to this show don’t need to be told that it’s a dangerous world out there. But before we dive further into the present, let’s take a step back and explore how the United States came to rely on volunteers in the first place.
BOOT: The all-volunteer force is what the military evolved into in early 1973. Between 1940 and 1973, pretty continuously, the military was dependent upon draftees. And in 1940, in fact, we had our first peacetime draft, because even though World War II had broken out, the United States was not yet in the war. In the years between 1940 and 1973, the military depended on conscripts to varying levels. I mean, it was always a combination of volunteers and draftees. The officer corps was pretty much always volunteers, but many of the draftees were conscripts. And draft call-ups would vary depending on the needs of the military.
Mandatory conscription has been around in some form in the U.S. since the Revolutionary War, but it wasn’t until the 20th century that the formal national draft system was created. In 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Selective Training and Service Act into law, creating the first peacetime draft. This required all men - yes just men - between the ages of 21 and 45 to register for a draft. It also established national lotteries to determine who would be selected.
BOOT: In the late 1940s, after the end of World War II, draft call-ups went way down. Then 1950, the Korean War breaks out, draft call-ups go up. Then after the Korean War essentially ends in 1953, draft calls again, go down, and then they rise again during the Vietnam War, really beginning in 1965. And that led to tremendous dissension and unhappiness in the United States, because the Vietnam War eventually became unpopular. So a lot of young men did not want to be called up to fight there.
FilmArchivesNYC: Seven young and earnest protesters burned draft cards on the steps of a Boston courthouse.
GBH: I am not afraid of jail, I am afraid of killing people and being killed. And I’m afraid of this whole planet going up in smoke!
Freedom Forum: Purple Heart, Army Commendation Medal, eight air medals, National Defense and the rest of this garbage. It doesn’t mean a thing!
BOOT: And there was also a sense that the draft was unfair, because young men from higher income groups were able to essentially evade the draft. I mean, some actually went to Canada or did other things, but a lot of them got occupational or student deferments, or bogus medical excuses. And so there was a sense that it was only the poor and the underprivileged, especially minorities, who were actually being sent to fight in Vietnam, and that the privileged class was getting away from it. So for a variety of reasons, the draft became very unpopular. And then in early 1973, the Nixon administration ended the US involvement in the Vietnam War with the signing of the Paris Peace Accords. And that in turn enabled the administration to say no more draft call-ups. Now, ever since then, we have still had the selective service system. And if you are a young man in the United States who turns age 18, you're supposed to register with the selective service system. There was even an attempt in Congress not long ago to extend that to women as well, which narrowly failed, but which I would expect would happen at some point in the future. So the apparatus of the draft continues to exist. There is still a selective service administration, which keeps track of all of the eligible draftees should there be a national emergency, but there has not been an actual draft call-up for 50 years. And so as a result of that, the military has had to learn to rely entirely on volunteers, and hence the AVF or the all-volunteer force.
SIERRA: So there's no more draft, but we're set up to have one if we needed one.
The United States could still technically resort to a draft in a military emergency, but most experts see that as unlikely.
And that means that the military relies on desire to serve, rather than obligation. Some join for economic opportunity, some because they feel they have no other option. But one of the most commonly observed patterns has to do with family.
MACDONALD: I think one of the very few drawbacks to an all volunteer force is the Army and the other services have become a family business. Where we've pulled from has reduced over time. Those numbers, the percentage of eligible has reduced over time, year by year. 83% of those that serve in the Army have a family nexus, meaning someone has served in their family or is currently serving in their family. And so what that creates is somewhat of a nepotistic organization, and it also creates a divide between those that have served and those that have not. There's, I think, a lack of understanding, there's a lack of knowledge of military service in a large majority of our country. And so you lose the ability to recruit from that pool because they don't really know what the military is about. And when that happens, it's much easier, I think, for our civilian leadership to utilize the military in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. And the majority of Americans aren't really sure what's going on, they don't really know. They don't have a connection to it. And so their skin in the game is less than it used to be. And there's some danger there because as we look at how our military is employed around the world, the American people need to know about that. And, in my opinion, they should have some say in how our military is utilized.
SIERRA: Do you think that my generation's experience with forever wars has sort of contributed to this rift between the American public and those who serve - conflicts like Iraq and Afghanistan that so many people felt no connection to, but continued to drag on?
MACDONALD: I think the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, they lasted a very long time. And what your generation saw was us going to places where, in my mind, there wasn't that clear connection to what our national interest was. At least that was explainable really to the American public. How do we explain to your generation why Iraq and Afghanistan matter? And so I think we have to be better about doing that. Explain to the American public, this is why we're using military force.
BOOT: I think the forever wars have finally taken a toll on military recruiting. It wasn't obvious at first, because when the wars were going on, there were actually quite a few people volunteering, because they were motivated to fight. But now the wars have kind of petered out. We lost the war in Afghanistan. It's not as bad a defeat as Vietnam, but it's still a defeat. And certainly, recruiting became very difficult after Vietnam. I think it's become difficult after Afghanistan, because there are a lot of veterans who are wondering, "What was our service for? What did we achieve?" And so that trickles out to the greater population, because I'm sure that there are young people who are saying, "I don't want to go off and fight in another losing war. Why should I volunteer?" So yeah, I think it certainly has had a corrosive impact. And now it's a question of trying to rebuild morale and rebuild enthusiasm for the military and society at large. And that's going to be a task for years to come.
According to Pew, while 91 percent of Americans felt pride for service members in the post-9/11 era, only 48 percent said they would advise a young person to pursue a career in the military.
All of these issues bring up another question: if so many Americans don’t have a connection to the military, how well does the military reflect the demography of the country as a whole? The answer is complicated.
SIERRA: So have the demographics of the all volunteer force changed since it started?
BUSHATZ: So if anything, the demographics of military members have become increasingly more diverse over time. For example, in 1970, the percentage of women in the military was just 1%. And that has been steadily clicking up. And it's become more racially diverse, even within a shorter time span. That diversity, they note, tends to vanish as you reach the higher ranks of the military. But if you think about the way diversity has changed over time and the age of those people, it tracks that we should start to see that change. For example, someone who is a general in the military today, so very high ranking, where the vast majority of those currently serving are white males, they're not part of that crop of people who has increased the diversity between 2004 and 2017. To be a general today, you would've had to join well before 2004. So the group that has joined from 2004 to 2017 is not a general yet.
As is true in other sectors, the question of diversity in the military is nuanced. From some perspectives, it has been moving in a positive direction for decades now. But when it comes to geographical diversity, things have been quite stagnant. The majority of recruits tend to come from the same states and regions, year after year.
BUSHATZ: We know that Florida, Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, Virginia, Alaska, and Hawaii are all overrepresented when it comes to recruits. But, four of those states also have some of the highest per capita veteran populations in the US, which lends some additional weight to this idea that service might be about raising awareness of service in a given community.
SIERRA: Do you think that there's a civil disconnect between American citizens and the armed service?
BOOT: Absolutely. There's a large disconnect, because at any one time, fewer than 1% of the country serves in the military. And the number of veterans in the population has also been steadily declining, because we're just not enlisting that many people. I mean, it's certainly the case folks in the military feel like they're very far removed from civilian society, that we're really relying on this professional caste of warriors to defend us.
The civilian-military divide is perhaps the most complex problem facing the future of recruitment. A disconnected public, a declining veteran population, and increasing political polarization all contribute.
But there are other hurdles facing recruiters as well.
MACDONALD: Part of the reason that we're having struggles, is harmful behaviors. And as a military police officer, I deal with harmful behaviors probably more so than others do.
SIERRA: Meaning what?
MACDONALD: Harmful behaviors such as sexual assault, suicide among service members and quite frankly, among veterans. Each service has dealt with those harmful behaviors and has had situations that have garnered public attention. For example, the tragic events at Fort Hood, Texas with Vanessa Guillen, the murder of Vanessa Guillen. And then the further uncovering of other issues at Fort Hood. We have to face those harmful behaviors head on and we need to show what we're doing about it to prevent those harmful behaviors from occurring. We need to talk about what we're doing for suicide prevention. We need to evolve and refine how we're looking at suicide prevention, sexual assault, sexual harassment. We need to create climates and set the conditions for those things to not occur. And it's very important that the American public know that we're doing those things. There are families out there that look at military service and when their daughter comes home and she says, "I want to join the Army," there's an initial reaction that they don't want her to serve because they're worried about harmful behaviors. And I think it's very important that we address that.
SIERRA: Should we be changing the requirements to enter the force and sort of tampering with that system?
BOOT: Well, they are tampering with the requirements, because that's unfortunately one of the consequences of having a recruiting shortfall. The easiest way to meet your numbers is to drop your standards. And so they don't put it that way, but there is some tweaking at the margins that's going on. There's other things, for example, the Marine Corps has placed an emphasis on retention. So if you retain more Marines in the force, you don't have to recruit as many. But the Army also has some innovative programs to do pre-basic training, because a lot of the people it might recruit cannot meet the physical challenges of actual basic training. And so now the Army is trying these pre-basic training programs to get recruits up to snuff so that they can meet the physical training requirements in basic training. But the concern that I hear from a lot of retired generals is that they're very worried that the military's going to take the easy way out and drop standards in order to meet their numbers. And they're very concerned that's going to adversely impact the quality, which has been very high, of the all-volunteer force. There's no easy answers. I tend to think that the answer to the recruiting problems is ultimately going to come when the economy weakens. And at some point, the unemployment rate will go up and recruiting will become a lot easier. And that's the way it's historically worked. But it's not going to meet the longer term challenge of, how do you bridge the civil-military divide? Which is very hard to do, unless you're going to institute another draft and call up millions of people into the military for which there is no support in the military or society at large. We don't need a force of 10 million people. So that's not going to happen. So then you have to look at other ways to address the problem. One of which might be more national service programs, trying to expand opportunities for AmeriCorps, and Peace Corps, and other things, which are also programs that, like the military, tend to break down social divisions and teach young people to work for some objective greater than themselves. But ultimately, I think we're going to have to look to other areas, including improving civics education so that people coming out of school understand what the military is about, understand how our government works, understand that the military defends the constitution, really understands the basics of the United States government, which surveys show that most people do not.
For resources used in this episode and more information, visit CFR.org/whyitmatters and take a look at the show notes. If you ever have any questions or suggestions or just want to chat with us, email at [email protected] or you can hit us up on Twitter at @CFR_org.
Why It Matters is a production of the Council on Foreign Relations. The opinions expressed on the show are solely that of the guests, not of CFR, which takes no institutional positions on matters of policy.
The show is produced by Asher Ross and me, Gabrielle Sierra. Our sound designer is Markus Zakaria. Our associate podcast producer is Molly McAnany. Our interns this semester are Emily Pace and Rebecca Rottenberg.
Robert McMahon is our Managing Editor, and Doug Halsey is our Chief Digital Officer. Extra help for this episode was provided by Noah Berman, Kali Robinson, and Jon Masters.
Our theme music is composed by Ceiri Torjussen. We’d also like to thank Richard Haass, Jeff Reinke, and our co-creator Jeremy Sherlick.
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For Why It Matters, this is Gabrielle Sierra signing off. See you soon!
The United States has operated an all-volunteer force (AVF) since 1973, joining the United Kingdom and several other countries in adopting that model of military recruitment. The U.S. military, internationally recognized as the world’s most powerful, consists of 1.4 million personnel stationed across the globe.
But recruitment has been falling for years, prompting questions about U.S. military readiness amid an increasingly hostile international landscape. As the AVF approaches its fiftieth anniversary, it will be nearly two million people smaller than it was at its creation, encompassing less than 1 percent of the U.S. population. The majority of volunteers have at least one family member who served, and issues such as the high prevalence of sexual assault in the military could be deterring applicants. As the prospect of globally destabilizing war returns to the fore, is the all-volunteer force still up to the task of defending U.S. national security?
Christa N. Almonte, “Inspiration in the Ranks,” Renewing America
George M. Reynolds, “How Representative Is the All-Volunteer U.S. Military?”
From Our Guests
Amy Bushatz, “Military Ranks: Everything You Need to Know,” Military.com
Max Boot, “The All-Volunteer Force Turns 50 – and Faces Its Worst Crisis yet,” Washington Post
“2021 Demographics: Profile of the Military Community” [PDF], U.S. Department of Defense
Dan Lamothe, “Pentagon Is Pressed on Worsening Recruiting Shortfalls,” Washington Post
Dave Philipps, “With Few Able and Fewer Willing, U.S Military Can’t Find Recruits,” New York Times
Watch and Listen
“Uncle Sam Really Wants You,” Today, Explained, Vox