Jomana Amara writes about how increasingly, the U.S. regards military service as a personal and professional career choice – not a national or civic duty.

Is US Military Service a Civic Duty?

In 1968, President Nixon established the Commission on an All Volunteer Armed Force, commonly known as the Gates Commission, which was charged with evaluating the proposed transformation of the U.S. military from a compulsory or draft force to an all volunteer force.

At the end of its deliberations and coinciding with the conclusion of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam, the commission recommended abolishing the draft and transforming the U.S. military to a force of all volunteers beginning in 1973.

The Gates Commission based its recommendation on commitments to individual freedoms, economic concepts, and cost benefit analysis.

As a matter of fact, as many nations began to shift to all volunteer forces, the deliberations were similar and basically involved economic comparisons of the cost and benefits of the two systems used to man the forces.

The economic comparisons centered around four issues:

  • The concept of opportunity cost or the value of output that a service member could have produced if the member opted to work in the private sector instead of the military
  • The cost of evading service when the government and individuals expend costs and effort to enforce the draft
  • The cost of recruiting, training and retaining qualified members of the armed forces
  • The financial burden resulting from taxation in order to raise and collect funds to pay for the armed forces.

The conclusion was that the total sum of all economic costs are lower for an all volunteer force than a conscript force. There have been repeated concerns expressed regarding the institution of the all volunteer force and its effect on citizenship and societal values.

Recently, commentators have argued that the justifications behind the advantage of the all volunteer force over the conscript military should be questioned and revisited and we begin to see the emergence of a dialogue arguing for a system of compulsory national service.

The arguments move away from economic comparisons and emphasize civic duty and responsibility.

The arguments focus on several points;

  • Most importantly, the issue of ownership and oversight of the forces
  • Secondly, the connection between the military and the citizen
  • Lastly, the concept of service as an essential and necessary component of American citizenship

The ownership argument

The ownership argument states that the military uses a substantial amount of the nation’s resources and plays a key role in deciding issues of foreign involvement. Since volunteers now man the forces and with less citizens serving, the link between the state and the citizen has been weakened.

The American people do not have a sense of ownership and responsibility for the actions for the forces and a stake in lowering the levels of military spending.

In addition, congress and the nation’s political leadership are less inclined to challenge military decisions reflecting the lack of ownership, declining accountability, and lessened oversight.

The argument continues and accuses the military of increasing engagement and involvement in adventurism abroad since the end of the conscript force in 1973 and with no political constraints or considerations to hold them in check.

The proponents of a change to the all volunteer force maintain that the connection between the military and the citizen and the concept of service as a component of American citizenship were strained when the nation eliminated the draft and moved to a volunteer force.

The move also lessened the stake of citizens in the military; additionally, the separation between the military, the citizens, and government increased, resulting in minimal personal connection.

Advocates of national service

The advocates of national service maintain that the defense of the country is a fundamental duty of all citizens in return for government services and protections, and that it is the patriotic duty and obligation of all citizens to serve.

The concern is that the all volunteer force encouraged a sense of entitlement without civic service.

Further that it undermined the American melting pot by removing the shared experience of citizens, regardless of background, in serving the nation in a common institution; the idea that a shared experience is a key factor in cultural assimilation in a country of many races and ethnicities and a key factor in the desegregation of racially and culturally diverse communities with historically little interaction.

Lastly, the all volunteer force is seen as promoting individual rights and personal choice over community and national considerations.

Closing thoughts

The consensus regarding the U.S. military’s move from compulsory service to an all volunteer force is that the change was a resounding success that resulted in a professional, career-oriented military that has repeatedly established itself as the preeminent military in the world.

There does not appear to be broad based and strong support for any compulsory service including a system of national service.

Increasingly, the nation regards military service as a personal and professional career choice and not a civic or national duty or as essential to the debate on American citizenship.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s and do not reflect those of the Department of Defense. The usual caveats apply.