The Volunteer Army in Review

Its officers claim they have the best peacetime Army in history—but can it last?

The volunteer Army, controversial since its establishment, is marching into a critical period in which its cost, military effectiveness, and racial composition are seriously challenged by those who support other systems for filling the ranks.

The continuing debate is particularly significant because the Army is the force closest to the potential enemy, the Soviet Union, and the service chiefly responsible for implementing America’s forward strategy in war. Any extensive change in the volunteer system would have an immediate and drastic impact upon the balance of power in central Europe and upon relations between the United States and its allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

The accepted wisdom of “the brass” is that the volunteer Army is doing just fine. But criticism inside and outside the military establishment is mounting, with traditional arguments against the volunteer system now buttressed by statistics showing a serious decline in manpower available for the force in the next decade.

The debate is likely to come to a head early in 1978. By then the Pentagon will have a clearer picture of two problems which must be solved if the United States is to have a healthy volunteer Army. One is the availability of the men the Army terms Individual Ready Reserves, who would fill up regular divisions in the event of war. The other is the maintenance of force levels of the Reserve and National Guard components that would back up the volunteer Army in combat. The Army command is making intensive efforts to increase the number of men in these units. Late this year the reviews of the status of the volunteer force that were undertaken by various panels of outside experts and by the Defense Department will have been completed.

Both defenders and critics tend to move to extremes as the debate intensifies. Relaxing in his private train, General George Blanchard described the Seventh Army in Germany, which he commands, as “the finest we’ve ever had.”

“The Seventh is a product of the volunteer Army,” he added. “So, the volunteer Army must be working.”


Defense Secretary Harold Brown said, “The Army personnel people and commanders tell me, and, as I look at the evidence, I conclude they’re right, that the all-volunteer force is indeed working.. . .” General Bernard Rogers, the chief of staff, cited a long list of statistics indicating improved discipline and morale, and he believes that overall this is the best Army the United States has ever fielded in peacetime.

A lieutenant colonel of infantry at Fort Carson said he’d never seen forces as well trained. “You give them a job and they’ll go, go, go and do, do, do until it’s done. I’ll match my battalion against any three Russian battalions.”

His men had stumbled wearily into barracks at six that morning after twelve days of exercises over rough terrain. The troops had engaged a numerically superior “enemy” on a twenty - four-hour-a-day basis. (It is the judgment of the General Staff that any war in Europe would be fought “around the clock” to take advantage of the new night-fighting aids available to both sides.) The infantry had climbed out of armored personnel carriers in the frosty early morning to push across the hills. Tanks had found cover from antitank missiles and then emerged to engage advancing hostile tanks. The men were bone-tired and looked it. But their commander—and every unit commander interviewed—stressed that it is exactly this sort of thing that attracts the best volunteer soldier; if he had wanted a quiet life, he would not have enlisted.

This professional Army of the 1970s would be unrecognizable to the professionals of the 1930s. Its primary ingredient, the career soldier, is so expensive to recruit, equip, and train that tremendous effort is expended to help him grow as a person as well as a soldier. This emphasis on developing what officers call “the whole man” is perhaps the most significant difference between the contemporary Army and that of the past. And, as a thoughtful sergeant at Fort Hood pointed out, “We take more trouble with the kids now than we did when we had a draft Army. Hell, I was drafted. Basic training. Bam, next thing you know, you’re with a unit. No one, noncoms or officers, worried about what you felt. Nobody explained the Army to you. It’s different now. You still have to lead. But you have to tell ‘em why you’re doing what you do. And you have to spot the kid who’s unhappy, who thinks he’s being picked on, and straighten him out. Sometimes I don’t know whether I’m a sergeant or a shrink.”

Traditionalists will say that good officers and good NCOs have always attended to the inner conflicts and yearnings of their men. But in the volunteer Army the concern is backed by a series of programs designed to produce wellrounded soldiers and to further their education. There is an equal opportunity program which includes counseling services and special projects to fit black or Hispanic Americans into a strange and often bewildering environment. And education, not simply technical education, is one of the Army’s major enterprises. The high school dropout can complete his course; the recruit whose family could not afford to send him to a university can study for a college degree.

Yet the criticism persists. Civilians and military alike contend that the volunteer Army is too expensive, racially unbalanced, uneven in quality. Even if these problems are overcome, they add, the system is not producing enough reserves and will face a shortage in recruitable manpower in the 1980s.

Some criticism can be viewed skeptically. Sergeants who profanely describe the ineptness and laziness of recruits are not peculiar to the volunteer Army; other sergeants in other days said exactly the same things about draftees. Many civilian critics of the volunteer force deal in abstractions and statistics; they would be taken more seriously had they lived with the Army on exercises in Germany or sweated through a summer maneuver at Fort Flood.


But some suggestions for constructive change have developed out of the criticism. The Army is weighing a scheme under which soldiers would enlist for eight years in the active reserves and train for specified periods during their service. The Brookings Institution, that perennial gadfly of the defense establishment, argues for the recruitment of a greater number of women and their employment in a wider range of service jobs. General Daniel Graham, the former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, has gone so far as to call for a resumption of the draft.

Like all hierarchical institutions, the Army is wary of change. A resumption of the draft, commanders argue, while it might produce a larger Army, would be unlikely to provide troops as welltrained or efficient as the volunteer force. A draft Army, with its emphasis on training in the fundamentals, frequent turnovers in personnel, and diversion of combat leaders to training routines, would detract from military effectiveness. Nor do civilian officials or military leaders relish the political uproar that they expect would follow an announcement of the resumption of the draft. They believe that the services have finally recovered from the passionate antimilitarism of the 1960s, and they fear that a new draft would invite more of the same.

Although all of the fighting services /V are manned by volunteers, only the Army presents a real problem. Neither the Navy nor the Air Force has had serious difficulties in recruiting the quantity and quality of young men and women it requires. (Quantity, incidentally, is not yet one of the Army’s problems. At midyear its active strength was 779,000, compared to the 1977 objective of 778,000.) The focus is on the Army because for the first time in the nation’s history it, rather than the Navy, is the front line of defense.

The Seventh Army in Germany is positioned a few kilometers west of a larger and in some respects betterequipped force known as the Group of Soviet Forces in Germany. The Seventh and its supporting tactical air units are the core of the NATO defensive system in Europe. Any change in the method of obtaining and training recruits would influence the attitudes of America’s allies. Pessimistic officers in the Seventh Army fear that some would see it as a sign that the United States no longer took its military obligations seriously.

Europeans regard the Seventh as the best trained and equipped of all NATO forces. “Jesus, you start monkeying around with the Seventh and we’re all in trouble,” an agitated American major said at NATO headquarters.

There will be some “monkeying” if the critics have their way. Even the strongest supporters of the volunteer force are worried by costs. Defense manpower, of which the Army is the largest single component, will cost $61 billion in the next fiscal year, or approximately 56 percent of the total defense budget. The cost of recruiting a single soldier is about $1200 in 1977 and will rise to $1400 in 1978. Some critics claim that in view of constantly rising rates in pay, the active Army will have to be cut back from its present strength, which is 184,000 men below the 1964 level (the last year before the Vietnam buildup began).


Defense officials, however, regard an active Army of this size, supported by eight National Guard divisions, as the lower limit of prudence. The Soviet army numbers 1,825,000 men, organized into 168 armored, mechanized infantry, and airborne divisions— more than twice the American force.

The military gambles on its conviction that, in fighting a defensive battle in Europe, the quality of American and other NATO forces would triumph over the Soviets’ superior numbers. This might have been a reasonable bet in the 1950s. But in the last six years the Russians have steadily increased the quality of their equipment, particularly in strike aircraft, armor, and antiaircraft and antitank missiles.

Recruitment expenses

Can the cost of the volunteer Army be reduced? Defense Secretary Brown doubts it. He ascribes the steady rise in personnel costs to a decision that was made when the draft was ended: that the military should be paid on scales comparable to those of the civil service, which in turn would be paid on scales comparable to wages in the private sector. In addition, it takes money simply to find prospective soldiers.

Recruiting will continue as a vital program, although costs per individual soldier are rising. Recruiters have to be trained and paid. They have to travel. They have to explain the Army, often not only to the recruit but to his anxious parents. They have to be selective, since the high school dropout is twice as likely as the graduate to leave the Army early.

The recruiters’ target is small. There are approximately 10 million males in this country between the ages of seventeen and twenty-one, the age group that provides all but a handful of Army recruits. Over 40 percent of them are disqualified for mental or physical reasons. All but 2 million of the remainder are in colleges and technical schools, or have already entered military service or are veterans. From this number the Army must recruit enough men to sustain sixteen divisions, and it shares the market with the other services and the reserves,

Television and radio spots, billboards, and magazine advertisements are part of the recruiting business. They are expensive, too. The budget requests for fiscal 1978 are all higher than the revised 1977 figures: $378 million for recruiting, $74 million for enlistment bonuses, and over $105 million for advertising.

Dr. John P. White, the assistant secretary of defense for manpower, reserve affairs and logistics, defended recruitment, and the volunteer system by pointing out that “a return to the draft would not, in and of itself, save much money.”

“If one accepts the premise,” he wrote recently, “that equity requires payment of wages to all service members that are comparable and competitive with private sector wages, then the annual budget savings would be about $500 million. This saving results from smaller expenditures for active and reserve recruiting and enlistment bonus programs.”

Any greater savings, it is believed, could be made only if Army (and probably Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps) pay scales were reduced.

Could an effective draft Army be raised if pay for enlisted personnel were well below civilian levels?

“You could probably get an Army all right, but it would be damn difficult to recognize it as an Army,” a staff colonel said. “Outsiders bitch about the quality of the volunteer Army. What sort of quality do you think we’d get if the pay was reduced? Why, every kid we’d get would spend his time counting the days until he got out. Just like it was in ‘Nam.”

A major argument within the service against reversion to the draft is that the effective operation of modern weapons requires experienced soldiers with high technical ability. This will be even more true in the next five years as the flow of sophisticated new weapons—ground-to-air and groundto-ground missiles, laser and infrared sights, tanks, and helicopters—increases.

“You just can’t get proficiency in these weapons in a year of training,” a tank colonel said in Germany. “You need two, three years. Then you’ve got something.”

Another criticism that the Army frets over is its failure to attract more high school graduates. Only about 47 percent of recruits at midyear had high school diplomas, against the 1977 goal of 56 percent. Many people wonder if these education levels are high enough to insure competence in an increasingly technical service.

The Army’s reply is that, although the percentage of high school graduates is not up to expectation, there has been a slight increase in recent months in the recruitment of men and women with average or above average mental ability. It also argues that the new audiovisual teaching aids that have been introduced seem to be successful in molding recruits without a high school education into competent military technicians.

To the Army command, stability in both the ranks and the officer corps and sharp decreases in crime, disciplinary offenses, and racial incidents all weigh heavily against a return to the draft. The draft might guarantee a larger flow of manpower, they admit, but would it guarantee an Army as effective as the present force?

Shrinking reservoir

Critics respond that while these arguments are admissible at present, they do not take into account the most ominous problem facing the volunteer Army: the dwindling youth population. The number of eighteen-year-old men in the country will decline significantly after 1980. By 1985 the number of males of that age will have been reduced from the present level by about a third of a million, and by 1992 by more than half a million. The obvious question is whether a volunteer Army will be able to find 778,000 qualified recruits from a smaller population, while competing with the civilian economy.

These projections have already forced the Defense Department to reassess the volunteer force, emphasizing the need for an easing of the present physical requirements for enlistment and the increased use of women in the services.


A number of studies—the most recent by Martin Binkin and Shirley J. Bach of the Brookings Institution’s defense analysis staff—charge that, considering the nation’s changing social mores and a shrinking reservoir of male recruits, the Pentagon’s goals for recruitment of women are too low.

The Brookings study reports that some 540,000 military jobs, or about one out of three in all the services, are in the white-collar classification, but that women hold only 11 percent of such jobs as against 55 percent in the civilian sector. Under present restrictions women are unlikely to constitute more than 7 percent of the total military personnel. In the Navy and the AitForce they are prohibited by law from serving on combatant ships or aircraft with combat missions. The Army bars women from combat units in the belief that the country would not condone the deployment of women in battle.

Despite the restrictions, the number of enlisted women on active service more than tripled between 1971 and 1976. Women in the active forces are being promoted at the same rate (in some cases at higher rates) as men in the available Army jobs.

The Army attracts more women than the other services, and employs them more extensively. Early this year there were about 47,000 women serving in the volunteer Army, or 6.46 percent of the total force, as compared with 4.21 percent in the Navy, 1.77 percent in the Marines, and 6.08 percent in the Air Force. The total number of women in the services was 98,400, or 5.33 percent.

Many line officers are irked by the present Army restrictions on the employment of women. They believe that women should be used much closer to the battle line than is now permissible, and point out that the British and Germans used women in anti-aircraft batteries during the last years of World War II.

“These women are precise, careful, and calm under pressure, better on detail than some of the men,” an artillery colonel in the Seventh Army said about his female troops. “They’ve got guts and they can stand more physically than you think. And every one we use releases a man for the battle line.”

The charge that the volunteer Army is “too black” has also grown in volume over the last three years as the number of blacks, especially in the combat forces, has risen.

In the first three months of this year, first enlistments of blacks rose from 26 to 27 percent, and blacks now make up 26 percent of the entire force. By comparison, 13 percent of the national population between the ages of seventeen and twenty is black. In 1970, when the draft was still in operation, 14 percent of the Army was black.

The size of black representation worries both critics and defenders of the volunteer Army, for a variety of reasons. One argument is that a volunteer Army that is one quarter or more black does not represent American society. Another is that in war the rather high percentage of blacks in the combat formations would revive a bitter complaint that goes back to the Civil War: “It’s a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.” (The draft Army was vulnerable to a similar charge during the last years in Vietnam, as the number of blacks in combat units increased.)

A more guarded charge is that blacks, even those with high school diplomas, are less well educated than white recruits, especially in technological subjects, and as a result are more difficult to train to the exacting standards of a highly mechanized fighting force.

Line officers and noncoms say that while there is some truth to the charge, the problem is soluble. “You gotta remember that incentives work in the Army just like everywhere else,” a sergeant major of armor said. “The kid, black or white, that gets in without a good education damn soon learns that unless he studies while he’s in the Army, he’s not going to get promotion or more money. And if the kid wants to study, we’ve got the setup; more damn schools than you’ll believe.”

All the services are worried by the tendency of blacks to stick together when they are off duty. A visitor to a mess hall finds the tables neatly divided between black and white, with only an occasional table shared by soldiers of both races. A black sergeant in the Fourth Division explained, “We have our own talk, our own interests, just like the whites. We’re more at home together, especially during the first year.” Some in the Army believe that black groupings lead inevitably to racial friction. This belief was stronger five years ago than it is today.

“Things are changing,” a battalion commander said. “We’re losing a lot of the red-neck noncoms who disliked blacks just because they were blacks. The new noncoms are smart enough to know that if this Army is to be effective, black and white will have to work and fight together.”

There has been an encouraging decline in racial trouble within the volunteer Army in the last three years. One reason, seldom openly admitted, is that the rebellious black recruit today is usually disciplined by a black noncom.

“I know what it’s like,” a black sergeant in the First Division said. “I came in off the streets. Better the Army than a stretch in the slammer. But it was awfully tough getting used to a regulation life. And it still is for these kids. But a lot of them are earnest and ambitious. Hell, for some of them the Army is the first real home they’ve known, the first chance they’ve had to make something of themselves.”

Duty and pride

Sometimes in the candid hours of early morning, another question is floated among white officers and white politicians. Would combat formations consisting of a high percentage of blacks be reliable in certain circumstances? What would such units do when involved in a fight in which the enemy was wholly or predominantly black?

Those who scoff at such fears stress the professionalism of the volunteer Army. It is a service prepared, its commanders say, to fight anybody, anywhere.

But, a general was asked, what would happen if the 82nd Airborne Division, which has a high percentage of black soldiers, were ordered to intervene in support of the civil authorities in a situation such as the looting during the New York blackout in July?

“I hope to God the Army never has to take on such a mission,” he said. “But if it did, yes, I think the kids would respond. Critics forget we’ve spent years successfully building the ideas of duty and unit pride in our troops, black and white.”

He thought for a moment and added, “I believe that in a situation such as you have described, these would be stronger factors than racial loyalties.”

These questions and others about the volunteer Army are open to debate. But there is no doubt about the shortfalls in the strength of the Reserve and National Guard components of the total ground forces of the United States.

For the past eighteen months force levels have declined steadily. The Reserve components are now at about 190,000—19,000 below their mandated figure for fiscal year 1977. The National Guard, mandated for a strength of 390,000, is at approximately 367,000. Equally important to the Army command is the steady loss of Individual Ready Reserves, trained and skilled reservists who would fill up the active units going into combat. In the long run, these manpower shortages and the projected reduction in the number of men available for recruiting in the next decade may prove more powerful in forcing a change in the volunteer system than some of the criticisms discussed above.

But even those who believe that the manpower shrinkage will doom the volunteer Army fear that a draft would result in a loss of national military effectiveness. The public and the politicians, they argue, have failed to understand that in another European war, “We’re the first pin in the alley”; the Seventh Army would have to take the shock of the initial Soviet onslaught. To do this effectively and then to counterattack, the Seventh Army must be a highly trained professional force.

Supporters of the draft, who contend that it would provide a higher quality, more racially representative Army, worry about the time needed to put a draft Army into the field in an emergency. The Pentagon estimate is that the first draftee would enter the service 110 days after the decision was taken to renew the draft, and that another 100 days would pass before he joined a combat unit.

“Suppose we bring in the draft in a serious emergency, and it will have to be serious or every damn politician will raise hell,” a senior officer said. “You’re talking about 210 days, thirty weeks to get the draftees into the line. Hell, the next war will be fought and won in a month.”