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Opinion: How America's all-volunteer force reshaped the military — and the country

James Wright James Wright
But there were two events in 2020 that deserved more discussion. First, the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service, established by Congress in 2016, issued a significant report on March 25 urging a renewed emphasis on a culture of service. And 2020 marked the year when men born in 1955 became eligible for Social Security. Those men were the last Americans eligible to be drafted into military service. Now, no American under 65 has faced a draft notice.
The All-Volunteer Force was implemented in 1973. During the 20 years of war in the Middle East, few of us have known those who have served there. Moreover, these have been the first extended wars in our history without a dedicated tax to pay for them. Most citizens have only a passing understanding of, or interest in, these military operations.
The All-Volunteer Force was recommended in 1970 by a commission chaired by former Secretary of Defense Thomas Gates, and members included economist Milton Friedman, Notre Dame President Father Theodore Hesburgh, and NAACP Director Roy Wilkins. Their recommendations had broad support by groups ranging from anti-war and anti-draft demonstrators to libertarians to senior military leaders, and they were approved by liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans alike — as well as by President Richard Nixon. All were seeking to distance themselves from the draft controversies of the Vietnam War.
In this century, these volunteers have served in the most professional, highly educated, and diverse military this country has known. They have conducted themselves well — with multiple deployments under trying circumstances in wars without end. They deserve the thanks of the nation.
A smaller volunteer force has consequences. In the over-75 age group, 44% of the men and 1% of the women are veterans. In the under-34 age group, among men it is 3% and women less than 1%. The military today is represented by enlistees from rural areas more than urban, and the South and the West more than the rest of the country. Over 40% of enlistees are Black, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, or Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander. Sixteen percent are women. Many enlistees come from a military family.
What Biden and Blinken don't want to tell Americans about AfghanistanWhat Biden and Blinken don't want to tell Americans about Afghanistan
A disproportionate number of those arrested following the January 6 attack on the Capitol were veterans. This should be troubling. There are a few factors that might partially explain this: The 21st Century military has been more successfully recruited from rural areas, as well as in the South and Southwest — notably “red state” areas.
Politically, veterans have tended to be more Conservative, and they were more supportive of President Donald Trump — although that support has declined in the last four years. Enlistment processes have not screened for racists; and military commands often have ignored white supremacist and neo-Nazi views among those in their ranks. Extremist groups, especially the para-military organizations. have explicitly sought to recruit military veterans. The consequences of these circumstances were visible on January 6. A CNN analysis shortly after the riot found that 14% of those charged with criminal conduct were veterans.
What needs to be equally apparent is that many of the voices who have spoken out against the January 6 assault on democracy were also veterans. A study in 2012 indicated that the Capitol Police Force had over 20% veterans. Brian Sicknick, the police officer killed in the attack, was a veteran.
The problem with the Republic today is not a problem with military veterans. To be sure, some veterans, along with many non-veterans, joined in actions contrary to our democratic values. They must be held accountable. But there has been something more fundamental at work in this country in the last 50 years: a decline in civic culture, an erosion of trust in government, in its representatives, its democratic processes, and a contagion of conspiracy theories.
Those born in 1955 heard it later when President John F. Kennedy insisted, “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” They watched siblings and friends enlist in the military or the Peace Corps. Despite the controversy over the draft, nearly 80% of those who served in the military during the Vietnam era were enlistees. Children of the WW II generation, they grew up in a culture that emphasized service.
This culture was not sustained. In the last half century, this nation has watched the release of the Pentagon Papers and the revelations of Watergate, detailing deceit at the highest levels of government. President Ronald Reagan argued that government is not the solution but the problem. This attitude has evolved from a campaign slogan to a conviction that the government cannot be trusted — that career public servants are deep-state swamp dwellers.
Many politicians and political commentators today reject bipartisan statesmanship. They shout that politics is about tribal loyalty and call opponents untrustworthy and disloyal. Expressions of racism and intolerance of “others” have become too common. Political leaders have refused to accept the results of a democratic election. Fringe views have become mainstream, and cynicism, hatred, and fear are stoked on cable television and social media. Schools are far less likely to require basic civics courses.
If veterans were represented disproportionately among those arrested for invading the Capitol on January 6, I would observe they were far from proportionately represented among those Republican leaders and media personalities who lied to them and encouraged them. Although it is the case that of the 53 veterans serving as Republican members of Congress, 35 of them voted to reject the certified Arizona electoral votes.
The importance of dedicated service and sacrifice has been celebrated during the Covid-19 crisis. We need to build on the example of those who cared for us. The National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service urged an effort to build upon this, to affirm a “widespread culture of service….”
Starting with our leaders and representatives, all Americans need to acknowledge that our republic depends upon mutual trust, volunteerism and civic values. People who insist they are “patriots” should start acting like it. The vast majority of our veterans already have.
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