All Commentary
Tuesday, February 1, 1972

The Modern Volunteer Army

SP4 David J. Kramer was born in Joliet, Illinois in ¹946. He received a master’s degree in geology from Northern Illinois University in 1970, a few weeks before he was inducted into the service.

Specialist Kramer received basic training at Ft. Polk, La., and has since been stationed at Ft. Belvoir. He is currently working in the Fuels Handling Equipment Division at USAMERDC. This article does not represent any official Army viewpoint.

The modern volunteer army is a term heard more and more frequently in both military and civilian circles. Newspapers and magazines cite “drastic changes,” such as new regulations on hair length, pay raises, and the like, as giant steps toward a bright future for the military.

Despite the new regulations and publicized changes, the trickle of men into the MVA is at the rate of $2,585 spent on advertising for each recruit.¹ Dissatisfaction runs high among enlisted men, and the April antiwar demonstrations saw many of them throwing away their decorations in utter disgust. Something obviously is wrong with the system.

High-ranking officers and civilian policy makers are unable to explain the difficulties except to say that the youth of today are somehow different from “their” youth. If they were able to view the situation from the bottom of the heap instead of the top, they might discover that they are trying to cure an illness by treating only its symptoms. Over the years that the military draft has existed, procedures have evolved which are entirely appropriate to an agency employing coercion to obtain its needed manpower. But the procedures, the multitude of petty rules and regulations, are merely manifestations of the underlying coercion. And minor easing of the rules is simply not sufficient to induce young men to enter the service of their own free will.

Just as the proper role of the police force is to protect citizens and property from internal aggressors (i.e., criminals), the job of the armed forces is to protect the nation from foreign aggressors. Needless to say, every civilized society must have some such protection in order to survive; the duties of the policeman and soldier are just as important as those of the farmer, educator, and industrialist.

A Sacred Duty

The Army, however, sees its role as not only necessary but sacred (for an example of this, chat with any senior officer). A young man thinking of the military as a career will find highly unsavory this notion of “sacred duty” — complete with a fantastic aversion to constructive criticism and whole companies whose sole (though not official) purpose is to parade on Sundays. The defense of this nation is not a sacrosanct honor but a demanding and often thankless task which must be approached realistically.

The view that the Army’s job is sacred is often used to justify the military draft in the eyes of the public. If defense were considered to be no more vital to the country than food production, the draft would appear strange and unfair. (We don’t draft farmers, so why draft soldiers?) But so long as national defense is believed to be an activity worthy of “special consideration,” this system of coercion seems necessary and just — the government has a right to draft a man into the service. This notion stands in contradiction to the central concept of an all-volunteer force which, in effect, declares that the wishes of the individual come before those of the government. In a broader sense, the idea that it is proper for a citizen to sacrifice the whole or part of his life to some “higher order” has been the cornerstone of every dictatorship which has ever existed.

We are not saying here that persons should never come to the aid of their country in time of trouble. A government which upholds and protects the rights of the people will never have to worry about a lack of support. But history tells clearly what happens when the “rights” of the state come before those of the individual. “Government must be the servant, never the master,” cries the record, and the youth of today are listening.

A second part of the problem is the attitude of Army officialdom toward those in the lower ranks: “personnel,” to be used in any way seen fit. Once the premise is accepted that the government has the “right” to take two years of a man’s life, the conclusion follows that the Army in effect “owns” the individual for those years. There are no drivers with whips or toiling masses building a Colosseum, but the attitude is there despite talk about enlisted men’s councils and the airing of grievances.2

Discipline is necessary, of course, for the success of any venture and is of vital importance when the agency involved, such as the armed forces or the police, possesses the capability of massive destruction. True discipline, however, is a product of respect. If a man respects the laws he obeys, the superior he follows, and the power of the weapons he controls, there is no problem of discipline.


The attitude of “ownership” of the rank-and-file soldier gives rise to other problems: the notion of the “interchangeability” of enlisted men, and the separate system of justice for the military.

The old tales about master mechanics and holders of advanced degrees serving as cooks and infantrymen for two years are true.³ The idea behind these misallocations is that, since the Army “owns” the soldier, he can perform efficiently any job that he is programmed to perform, and his own thoughts about the task he is given may simply be ignored.

The results are plain to see: men held in positions below their ability become despondent and negligent once their efforts at attaining other positions have failed, while men held in jobs above their ability become anxious and insecure. A perpetual waste of individual talent occurs.

The Army does make some effort to allocate jobs according to ability when a group of men are inducted. However, this attitude of draftee interchangeability — as well as the fact that the draft is geared to numbers, not skills —does much to negate the effort. Few soldiers relish the thought that they can be shuttled into different positions and duty stations by superiors who may not even ask the soldier’s opinion on the matter. Also, the enthusiasm of a potential volunteer will not be increased if his friends in the military declare, “Sure, the MVA is a nice idea, but they can still do whatever they want with you.” No private business would ever treat its employees in such a cavalier manner; yet, a soldier in a volunteer army is an employee, much the same as a policeman.

A more serious obstacle is the idea behind military justice, the idea that a separate system of justice is needed for military men because, as “property” of the government, they are different from other citizens. The result is a double standard, sometimes unbelievable. For example, a recent amendment in Army regulations has allowed military men to read any literature they wanted, even when the literature was critical of the government. This went into effect 180 years after the Bill of Rights was adopted! Five years ago, a man at Ft. Knox, Kentucky, was refused an accelerated promotion simply because he had a copy of an “underground” military newspaper in his locker.4

In discussing military justice, we are not talking about those laws which are derived from general principles and which apply specifically to soldiers. All occupations have complementary sets of rules and ethics. What concerns us here is the idea that a system for creating and administering the law may be set up apart from the general system of justice in the United States.

This attitude has no place in any plan for a truly effective volunteer army. The life of the soldier should be tied in as closely as possible with that of the rest of the society, not cut off and isolated within a separate sphere. This integration of systems will be no easy task, and the man who finds a way of solving the special needs of military justice through the system of civil jurisprudence will certainly be considered one of the founders of the MVA.

Summation and Conclusion

Here, in summary, are the various points we have discussed:

·         A major problem facing any attempt to create a volunteer army is the “draft-army” mentality, a set of attitudes and ideas belonging to an agency which has long been using coercion to supply its manpower requirements, but ideas that are incompatible with the principles behind an all-volunteer defense force.

·         The outward aspect of this mentality consists of the notion that a citizen “owes” two years of his life to the country and that the government may determine how those two years shall be used. Justification of this notion lies in the Army’s view of itself as a super-sacred agency whose role in the society is far above all others.

·         The inward aspect is mainly the idea of ownership — the Army is owner and the soldier the temporary property. This has fostered the notion of the interchangeability of the rank-and-file in the various occupations and the attitude that a separate system of justice for the military man is a proper institution.

At this moment the draft-army mentality may not appear to be a cause for alarm. But posters have been put up throughout military installations announcing this or that new program to help implement the MVA, and the advertising campaigns continue in full force.5 Sooner or later the Army, called upon to fulfill its “campaign promises,” will run aground on its own rules. Now is the time for those who set policy to evaluate in a sober manner the whole Army philosophy. If they succeed in breaking through this stifling collection of attitudes, they will not only make their branch of the service more efficient and responsive, but will prove that coercion is not necessary for the defense of the nation. If they fail, the proponents of state omnipotence will gloat over another failure of the principle of voluntarism to achieve the desired goal — in an area where voluntarism never had a chance.



¹ The Castle, July 21, 1971 (The newspaper of Ft. Belvoir, Va.).

2 The nickname “GI” stands for Government Issue, a term applied to government property even today.

3 “A glaring example is the job assignments of men trained as soil scientists. In fiscal 1969 the Army needed 103 soil scientists. In calendar 1969, 244 enlisted men entered the army with such training but only 6, or 2.5 per cent of those available were assigned to their college specialty.” Chemical & Engineering News, June 29, 1970.

4 The Castle, July 14, 1971. It is not true that military justice is mostly biased against the enlisted man. In some instances he has more legal rights than the civilian. The important thing to remember is that the two systems are separate.

5 General Westmoreland has set July 1, 1973, as the target date for an all-volunteer army.



Daniel Webster

A military force cannot be raised, in this manner, but by the means of a military force. If administration has found that it can not form an army without conscription, it will find, if it venture on these experiments, that it can not enforce conscription without an army. The Government was not constituted for such purposes. Framed in the spirit of liberty, & in the love of peace, it has no powers which render it able to enforce such laws. The attempt, if we rashly make it, will fail; & having already thrown away our peace, we may thereby throw away our Government.

—From a speech in the House of Representatives, December 19, 1814.