Lawrence J. Korb
Lawrence J. Korb

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2004 issue of Foreign Affairs.

The swift victories won on the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq vindicated the recent transformation of the U.S. military into a leaner, more high-tech operation. Subsequent problems in winning the peace in these two countries, however, have highlighted the failure to transform another, critical aspect of the U.S. armed services: namely, their personnel systems. Since the effectiveness of the U.S. military depends not just on "smart" bombs but on smart, well-trained, highly motivated people, this shortcoming must be corrected quickly. If it is not, the quality of the United States’ all-volunteer force, especially that of the Army, will suffer. As David Segal, director of the Center for Research on Military Organization at the University of Maryland, noted, "Our volunteer army is closer to being broken today than ever before in its 30-year history."

The personnel system currently in use by the U.S. armed forces was created 30 years ago, in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. During that unpopular conflict, despite the fact that the United States maintained a draft, most of the country’s elites managed to avoid service. Moreover, in order to minimize the public impact of the war and hence a damaging public debate, President Lyndon Johnson refrained from mobilizing or activating the National Guard or the reserves — even though this meant that he had to expand the active-duty services by nearly a million people solely by increasing draft calls.

Relying on draftees to fight the war had disastrous consequences, however. It forced the military to send individuals, rather than cohesive units, to Vietnam on a constantly rotating basis. Moreover, since most of the nation’s elite managed to avoid the war entirely, the quality of new recruits was much lower than in past conflicts. Thus it came as little surprise when General Maxwell Taylor, former Army chief of staff and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who served as U.S. ambassador to Saigon in the 1960s, quipped that although the Army had been sent to Vietnam to save that nation, it had to be withdrawn in order to save the Army. Vietnam, quite simply, was destroying the U.S. military.

Richard Nixon, in his successful 1968 presidential campaign, promised to change all that by getting the United States out of Vietnam and by ending conscription. He accomplished both goals by the end of his first term. But the creation of an all-volunteer force (avf) in July 1973 came at a very difficult time for the Pentagon. Because of the unpopularity of the Vietnam War, defense spending had been declining precipitously; not only had it slipped 40 percent in real terms from its Vietnam War high, but it had also dropped 20 percent below its prewar level.

The creation of the avf required a dramatic increase in military salaries. During the draft years, enlisted men and officers earned subsistence wages. Now, if the military hoped to be able to attract and maintain new troops, it had to start paying them better. Thus, by fiscal year 1974, the U.S. government had begun spending twice as much per active-duty soldier as it had in fiscal year 1968. The military also urgently needed to be updated, since, to hold down the overall size of the defense budget during the war and thus mask its real cost, the Pentagon had postponed the modernization of its forces. Finally, the Soviet threat began increasing during these years, and the United States needed to spend more in order to catch up.

To meet these demands while keeping costs under control, Washington decided it had no choice but to substantially reduce the size of its active-duty military to somewhere between 2 and 2.2 million people, or about 25 percent below its pre-Vietnam level of 2.7 million. Because the Nixon Doctrine stated that the United States would not fight any more land wars in Asia, and because finding volunteers was always harder for the Army than for the other services, it bore the brunt of these reductions, dropping from more than one million people before the war to 780,000 in 1974, its lowest level since before the Korean War.

To compensate, the Pentagon developed the concept of the "Total Force." Under this plan, the military’s reserve component would receive enough resources to make it a full-fledged part of the nation’s military. The National Guard and reserves were given separate accounts, and their share of the budget was doubled. In deciding which forces to place in the reserves, the Pentagon resolved to prevent a repetition of Vietnam — where successive presidents managed to fight a major war by relying entirely on the active-duty force — by putting fully half of the Army’s combat units in the reserves. In addition, certain noncombat components that were deemed to be essentially civilian functions, such as military police, engineers, and civil affairs, were allocated almost entirely to the reserves. These skills would be needed only for postwar stabilization, or what is now called "peacekeeping." But 30 years ago, few imagined that the U.S. military would be used extensively for such operations, and thus the risks of placing these functions in the reserves were considered minimal. Nor did anyone ever consider that the civilian police officers, firefighters, or medical personnel who joined these units would ever be needed to protect the homeland.

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Lawrence J. Korb

Senior Fellow