All Volunteer Military

In May 1967, The New Guard magazine published an article by Milton Friedman on “The Case for a Voluntary Army.”  It was a compelling case and was adopted when the U.S. suspended its military draft in January 1972. But was it correct? “45 years later Nixon-Gates commission”

In the 1960s, the drafting of 18 year old’s to fight in Vietnam was avoided by those able to go to college. This was rightly challenged as discriminatory against the poor and college deferments were replaced with a lottery system that started in 1970, which picked the birthdates at random that would then be first in line to be drafted each year. I was granted the last of the college deferments.  “Draft lottery (1969)”

While a student of Friedman’s at the University of Chicago from 1965-70, I joined with several other libertarian classmates to form the Council for a Volunteer Military to promote Friedman’s call for an end to the draft. The Directors of the Council were: James Powell, National Director; Henry Regnery, Treasurer; myself, Executive Secretary; Danny Boggs, national Filed Secretary; and David Levy, Publications Editor. Our sponsors were: Yale Brozen, Bruce K. Chapman, Richard C. Cornuelle, James Farmer, David Franke, Milton Friedman, Sanford Gottlieb, Eugene Groves, Karl Hess, and Norman Thomas: an impressively diverse group.

In 1969 President Richard Nixon establish the Gates Commission to advise him on established an all-volunteer military and appointed Friedman to the commission.  Based on the Commission’s recommendations, President Nixon signed a law in 1971 that ended the draft in January 1973.

A Rand Corporation report on the All-Volunteer Force (AVF) by Bernard D. Rostker stated that: “Although the country had conscripted its armed forces for only 35 of its 228 years — nearly all in the 20th century — the American people were generally willing to accept this practice when service was perceived as universal. However, in the 1960s, that acceptance began to erode. There were five major reasons:

  • Demographics. The size of the eligible population of young men reaching draft age each year was so large and the needs of the military so small in comparison that, in practice, the draft was no longer universal.
  • Cost. Obtaining enough volunteers was possible at acceptable budget levels.
  • Moral and economic rationale. Conservatives and libertarians argued that the state had no right to impose military service on young men without their consent. Liberals asserted that the draft placed unfair burdens on the underprivileged members of society, who were less likely to get deferments.
  • Opposition to the war in Vietnam. The growing unpopularity of the Vietnam war meant the country was ripe for a change to a volunteer force.
  • The U.S. Army’s desire for change. The Army had lost confidence in the draft as discipline problems among draftees mounted in Vietnam.”

At the time Crawford H. Greenewalt, another member of the Commission, wrote to Gates that “while there is a reasonable possibility that a peacetime armed force could be entirely voluntary, I am certain that an armed force involved in a major conflict could not be voluntary.”

“Rand research briefs”

The AVF matched or exceeding the high expectations for it. The professionalism of our Army improved. We fought 13 wars with our volunteer force: Lebanon (1982-4), Grenada (1983), Panama (1089-90), Gulf War (Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Israel 1990-91), Somalia (1992-5), Bosnian War (1992-95), Haiti (1994-5), Kosovo War (1998-99), Afghanistan War (2001-21), Iraq War (2003-11, 2014-2020), Somali Civil War (2007-21), Libya intervention (2011, 2015-20), and Syria (2014-present). Each was limited enough not to exhaust the supply of volunteers needed.

But a different criticism of our all-volunteer force was raised that gave me pause. Our costly and futile war in Vietnam from 1955-75 was finally ended (without admitting the defeat it surely was) in response to the growing protests in the U.S.  No such protests were raised for our imperial adventures since then. Some observers began to point their fingers at the absence of a draft and thus a military/industrial complex better sheltered from public criticism. When we campaigned for the end of the draft and an all-volunteer military, we assumed that we needed to maintain an Army for our defense. Instead, our military was deployed all over the planet (800 bases around the world) with sufficient restraint (generally) to avoid strong public push back.  “National defense”  If the average middle class family’s children were not being drafted to fight unnecessary wars in far off places, they were not as likely to complain about the billions of their taxpayer’s money being pumped into the military/industrial complex.  This was an unanticipated side effect of ending the draft that we had not anticipated.

Both former President Trump and President Biden expressed their intentions to end our forever wars and, at least in the case of Biden, to strengthen our capacity to deal with the world with diplomacy. We should wish him well. And we should urge Congress to reinstate the Weinberger Doctrine, which limited the use of U.S. forces to when vital U.S. interests were at stake, and only as a last resort. “A Biden doctrine starts to take shape”

You can read my experiences in Iraq in my book: “My travels to Baghdad” and my experiences in Afghanistan in my book: “My travels to Afghanistan”.

PS. Some how I forgot that I had written on this before with a somewhat different proposal: https://wcoats.blog/2015/01/23/the-all-volunteer-military-unintended-consequences-and-a-modest-proposal/

About wcoats

I specialize in advising central banks on monetary policy and the development of the capacity to formulate and implement monetary policy.  I joined the International Monetary Fund in 1975 from which I retired in 2003 as Assistant Director of the Monetary and Financial Systems Department. While at the IMF I led or participated in missions to the central banks of over twenty countries (including Afghanistan, Bosnia, Croatia, Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Kosovo, Kyrgystan, Moldova, Serbia, Turkey, West Bank and Gaza Strip, and Zimbabwe) and was seconded as a visiting economist to the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (1979-80), and to the World Bank's World Development Report team in 1989.  After retirement from the IMF I was a member of the Board of the Cayman Islands Monetary Authority from 2003-10 and of the editorial board of the Cayman Financial Review from 2010-2017.  Prior to joining the IMF I was Assistant Prof of Economics at UVa from 1970-75.  I am currently a fellow of Johns Hopkins Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, Institute for Applied Economics, Global Health, and the Study of Business Enterprise.  In March 2019 Central Banking Journal awarded me for my “Outstanding Contribution for Capacity Building.”  My most recent book is One Currency for Bosnia: Creating the Central Bank of Bosnia and Herzegovina. I have a BA in Economics from the UC Berkeley and a PhD in Economics from the University of Chicago. My dissertation committee was chaired by Milton Friedman and included Robert J. Gordon.
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1 Response to All Volunteer Military

  1. Joe Cobb says:

    I treasure those memories. Jim Powell and I were among a small group who had dinner with Ludwig von Mises one evening at the UChicago, after Von Mises gave a talk to our little club(s) in the mid-1960s. Since we all were enthusiastic about abolishing the Draft, I was sitting next to Von Mises at dinner and I asked him about the idea.
    “No,No, he replied.” He claimed a free republic needed a military that was NOT professional, and thus not a military ‘Praetorian Guard’ threat to its own government. He was adamant, so we changed the subject.
    The rumor is that Martin Anderson, Reagan’s advisor, put the commission together.

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