You may not be interested in war,” it has often been said, “but war is interested in you.” Perhaps so, but Trotsky’s dictum hasn’t applied to the United States since January 1973, when the country, having relied on conscription from the Civil War through Vietnam, replaced a draft-based military with an all-volunteer force. Since then, only a sliver of U.S. society has ever served in the military, let alone participated in combat. The rest, even people age-eligible for military service, have been walled off from the hazards of war; because the post-9/11 wars have been financed through borrowing rather than higher taxes, Americans haven’t even had pay for it out of their pockets.
In turn, neither post-Cold War presidents nor members of Congress need worry about mass demonstrations or electoral backlashes, which has given them greater freedom to continue wars for years.
Today, only 0.5 percent of the U.S. population is on active duty. Veterans account for 7 percent. The proportion of young people who enlist or choose a military career has declined. In a 2015 survey, 85 percent of those between 18 and 29 said they definitely or probably wouldn’t sign up for military service even if they were needed, never mind that a majority supported using force to combat terrorism. Financial enticements, including bonuses, which run as high as $40,000 for first-time enlistees and $81,000 for those who reenlist—don’t seem to have sufficed. Despite significant increases in expenditures for bonuses, the Military Times reported in 2019 that only 180,000 of the 1.2 million individuals who turn 18 and meet the enlistment standards in any given year are willing and able to join the ranks. Even though that’s just about what’s required to maintain the size of the total force, in 2017, the Army, the largest branch by far, planned to spend $300 million on bonuses and publicity to add an additional 6,000 to its ranks. As for 2018, although the Army reduced its initial recruitment goal from 80,000 to 76,500, it still fell short by 7,600 despite waiving quality standards for at least 10 percent of enlistees. Shortages affected not only specialized fields such as explosive and ordnance disposal and cyberoperations and electronic warfare specialists—jobs that require skills for which the military must compete with the private sector—but also entry-level infantry positions.
Read the full article in Foreign Policy.