The military’s move to the All Volunteer Force (AVF) in 1973 amounted to a minor revolution. The draft had remained in place after World War II to support the policy of containment, but the costly and prolonged Vietnam War rendered the draft controversial and ultimately untenable. Restricting the military to volunteers, coupled with the withdrawal of combat forces from Vietnam, would quickly reduce widespread anti-military sentiment.
Over time, the change would affect not only the military but also the general public. For the military, a culture of public support and respect augmented the military’s improved pay and benefits. This support became particularly pronounced at the time of the Gulf War and in the months after the 9/11 attacks.
Even though the public was grateful, it took little interest in military affairs. During the long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, most Americans thought supporting the troops was enough. This did not mean much in practice—maybe a few solemn moments before ball games and the occasional “thank you” to someone in uniform at the airport. Otherwise, it was business as usual. Like George W. Bush said, “Go out and shop.”
When casualties spiked, the public was not fully invested. The troops had the support and sympathy of the public, but there was little personal connection. The nation was not at war so much as the small military caste. Thus, these wars inspired little music, art, or other forms of cultural production, such as those which reflected the trauma of Vietnam or the national unity of World War II.
There was a small anti-war movement during the 2000s, but it turned out to be narrowly partisan, and it disappeared after Obama’s election. The movement had almost nothing to say about our festering conflict in Afghanistan, which ultimately ended in failure.
A Small Professional Military Shielded American Empire from Domestic Scrutiny
While the public supported the military, they barely knew anything about it. So the policies and costs of American Empire were rarely a factor in electoral contests. For example, when four soldiers were killed in Niger in 2017, even high-level elected officials were surprised to learn that we had troops there.
The aloof relationship between the public and the military benefited the American Empire. Since our country’s imperial commitments did not create a lot of casualties or other inconveniences, the public mostly ignored them.
The AVF coincided with America’s brief reign as the “sole superpower.” Temporary, but real qualitative advantages in American technology—particularly airpower and the technology supporting intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance—allowed a swift conventional victory in the Gulf War, along with fast progress during the conventional phases of the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns. The low quality of our adversaries enhanced the scale and spectacle of these victories.
There were also limitations revealed by the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns. Rather than showcasing a revolution in military affairs, these low-tech occupations and counterinsurgencies revealed limitations in the ability of America to impose its will, not least because low numbers of “boots on the ground” contributed to a lack of security for the locals.
While unable to achieve their objectives, the generals and other national security professionals seemed mostly untroubled by the results. After the unsuccessful ends of these campaigns, there was almost none of the soul-searching that took place in the wake of Vietnam.
Instead, the brass and their cheerleaders in the Military-Industrial Complex announced they were shifting their focus to conflicts with peer competitors (read: Russia or China). Procurement and training were quickly shifted in this direction. Many thought American forces would excel in this type of campaign compared to the indeterminate slogging of counterinsurgency.
Ukraine as Test Lab for a War Against a Peer Competitor
The Russian invasion of Ukraine occurred in parallel with the U.S. military’s turn towards preparation for peer conflicts. Because NATO had been supporting Ukraine since 2014, a lot of chest-thumping ensued about superior NATO training, equipment, doctrine, and esprit de corps.
Ukraine’s military at first exceeded expectations, but it reached a high-water mark in the fall of 2022. Russia responded by mobilizing an additional 300,000 troops in response to its loss of Kherson and Kharkov. Since that time, Russia’s military proved stronger than expected, and its economy has demonstrated surprising resilience, particularly its defense industrial sector.
While a lot of embarrassing hyperbole circulates in the public sphere, more serious members of the military have been following the conflict closely, cataloging worrisome developments in tactics and technology. For example, Ukraine’s counter-offensive has not been able to accomplish very much, even after it received fairly sophisticated NATO Equipment like Leopard tanks and M777, along with months of indoctrination in the NATO way of war. Observers have also taken note that the size and scale of the battles, the numbers of casualties, and the destruction of equipment have far exceeded anything the U.S. military has faced since World War II.
This matters because the AVF military has always been fairly small. Even during the height of the Cold War in the 1980s, the Army’s active-duty troops numbered only around 750,000, whereas the conscript army of World War II numbered over 8 million. The 1990s “peace dividend” reduced the Army further to a little below 500,000, and it has hovered around this number ever since. The other branches were similarly reduced at this time. Surprisingly, no branch of the armed forces significantly expanded its active component to address the demands of the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns.
Such low numbers might work against overmatched third world armies, but they proved inadequate to achieve victory against illiterate guerillas. Harder still would be something like the war of attrition now taking place in Ukraine.
Not only are large numbers of troops needed to cover territory in such a war, but larger numbers are needed to deal with casualties an order of magnitude greater than anything the U.S. military has faced since World War II. A recent article in Parameters observed that “Army theater medical planners may anticipate a sustained rate of roughly 3,600 casualties per day, ranging from those killed in action to those wounded in action or suffering disease or other non-battle injuries. . . . For context, the United States sustained about 50,000 casualties in two decades of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. In large-scale combat operations, the United States could experience that same number of casualties in two weeks.”
The authors reached a conclusion about the limits of the AVF, particularly in light of recent recruiting challenges: “The technological revolution . . . suggests this force has reached obsolescence. Large-scale combat operations troop requirements may well require a reconceptualization of the 1970s and 1980s volunteer force and a move toward partial conscription.”
Military leaders have recently expressed similar sentiments.
A Disunited Country Will Not Tolerate a Draft
The prosperous, homogeneous, and high-trust America of the 1960s—one where most of the families had two parents, and the dads were World War II veterans—nearly tore itself apart over the Vietnam-era draft. That cultural conflict cast a long shadow and discouraged military adventurism for many years. It is impossible to believe that the disunited, fragmented, and multicultural America of today would support a draft to pursue a high-casualty war of attrition for some abstract goal like “the balance of power in Europe” or “open shipping lanes in the South China Sea.”
Right now, Americans are mostly indifferent to their empire because it does not demand anything of them. Some even have a positive view, thinking it keeps us safe. But if American Empire now means you, your son, or (God forbid!) your daughter is being drafted to protect some place no one has ever heard of, the American people will immediately turn hostile.
Public support for defending countries like Ukraine and Taiwan is a mile wide and an inch deep. So long as we have nuclear weapons and two oceans protecting us, no one will treat a conflict over some foreign land as existential (other than the Kagan family). While the AVF had a lot of freedom for many years due to public apathy about foreign policy, that same indifference is the reason most Americans will not stomach a draft to support a costly conflict with a peer competitor. Americans do not care about remaining the “sole superpower” nearly as much as the ruling class does.
There is a growing, worldwide anti-American alliance opposing the American Empire. China and Russia lead the movement, but it includes many other countries among the so-called BRICS. For a long time the AVF was an effective and politically viable means of imposing the American will on these countries, but our small professional military is no longer fit for the task.
It is too small, it has expended too much of its reserve equipment and ammunition in Ukraine, and quality has gone down. It also now faces a loss of public support along with a recruiting crisis, which shows few signs of abating. In parallel with these challenges, the defense industrial sector has proven unable to keep pace with the requirements of a modern war of attrition.
Thus, the American Empire is now in the middle of an existential crisis due to the limitations of the AVF. Though small, for a time this force had a qualitative advantage over the rest of the world, and it received consistent domestic political support because its burdens were absent for those outside of the military. This approach is no longer viable because of changes in warfare and changes to America itself.
If a draft is required to maintain the American Empire, we should consider other modes of coexistence with the rest of the world that do not depend on oversized American military power, because a draft is impossible in today’s America.
Christopher Roach is an adjunct fellow of the Center for American Greatness and an attorney in private practice based in Florida. He is a double graduate of the University of Chicago and has previously been published by The Federalist, Takimag, Chronicles, the Washington Legal Foundation, the Marine Corps Gazette, and the Orlando Sentinel. The views presented are solely his own.