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The other 1%—what Americans don’t understand about their own army

Reuters/Lucas Jackson
Communication problems.
  • Harvey M. Sapolsky
By Harvey M. Sapolsky

Professor emeritus, MIT

Published This article is more than 2 years old.

One of the strangest criticisms of US security policy is that it burdens a too-small percentage of the American people, because only about 1% of the adult population serves in the military. Because such a small percent of the population is at risk in American wars, American politicians are said to feel free to send the military to fight wasteful, unwinnable, and costly wars.

The preference is apparently for conscription, which would put more of the population at risk, and supposedly lead to fewer and wiser wars. “If only the politicians’ sons or daughters were forced to serve!” is the lament.

The model is always WWII, when over 12 million Americans were in uniform—more than 15% of the adult population of the time—and a much higher percentage of the adult male population.

The burden of fighting then was supposedly widely shared. The contrast: today, fewer than 1.4 million men and women are active-duty military, and another 800,000+ are in the reserves. Given that there are about 200 million Americans between the ages of 18-65, this is just over 1% of the relevant population.

There are several problems with the argument.

Fifteen percent of 200 million would produce a military of 30 million—a bit large, one must say, for less than all-out global warfare. But even 2% produces a military of four million people; a third larger than the military on active duty during the 1960s, when the Soviet Union was being confronted globally, while a major war was being fought in Vietnam.

Only about 1% of the adult population serves in the military

Each year, about four million Americans reach the age of 18. Currently, the American military needs fewer than 200,000 of them to volunteer for active duty or the reserves to maintain its numbers. With that pool, the military can insist on a high school education for enlisted personnel, and a college degree for officers. Avoided are the medically unfit, those with serious criminal records, and those who would chafe under the discipline required.

Of course, the argument isn’t that all of the age group should serve in the military. Rather it is that some form of public service should be required of all. But what would the government do with four million 18 year-olds each year?

Our hospitals, inner-city schools, and Native American reservations already have well-paid employees to do the necessary work. Political correctness would require women to face the same obligations as men. Who would be forced into the military or prison guard jobs? Could it be voluntary? Wouldn’t that be the same system we have now? Wouldn’t the rich and influential always find a way to make the service of their children career-enhancing or at least safe?

During the last year of the Second World War, there was a manpower crisis as the US found itself running out of infantry soldiers. The better-educated draftees were used in technical and support functions, or found their way into safe and draft-exempt civilian occupations.

In the past, wars brought dedicated tax increases

During the Vietnam War, the draft—in effect only to feed the infantry fighting the war—was essentially voluntary as those who wanted to avoid fighting joined the Navy, found an easy disqualification, or fled the country. The current all-volunteer force allows people to choose their risk, and compensates them for it. Those who want to be in the most hazardous branches of the armed services are double or triple volunteers, having had to decide to join the military, and then having opted for its most dangerous jobs.

Some might say that all who do so are coerced by their poverty to be in the military, making the military a home for black people and others who are economically disadvantaged. African-Americans are indeed over-represented in the American military when compared to their percentage of the general population, but not of the prime relevant age group (18-24).

The military is an attractive employer, given its pay structure and post-career benefits. But minorities are over-represented in the non-combat occupations (medical services, transportation, administration, etc.); combat arms are predominantly white, attracting youths who see themselves as spending some post-high school time in an adventure-land with guns and as having no intention of making the military a career.

The volunteer military is actually better educated and less poor than the draft military, because it is smaller and more selective than the draft military. One third of American youth, heavily minority, do not complete high school, and thus make themselves largely ineligible for the military even if they wish to serve.

In fact, more than 1% of Americans are involved in America’s defense. In addition to the two plus million service personnel—the 1.4 million active duty and 800,000 plus in the reserve components—there are 800,000 plus civil service employees of the Department of Defense—people who work in military depots, defense laboratories, shipyards, and contract management offices—and five to six million (the exact number is not known) contract employees—people who build weapon systems, provide support services, and conduct defense related research.

This totals to 3-4% of the adult population. Add spouses and other family members, and you can see that not an insignificant portion of the American population is involved in defense.

The current all-volunteer force allows people to choose their risk, and compensates them for it.

One percent or eight, the interests of America’s military, defense civil servants, and defense contractors are not ignored by politicians. Bad wars aren’t the product of a military that is too easy to commit and too small to count politically. Rather, the bad wars are the result of America being the global policemen, seeking to guarantee the security of too many others—and creating the expectation that America will intervene in every dispute where force may be involved.

It isn’t that soldiers’ lives aren’t valued. Actually, the concern with their casualties has grown with time even after conscription was abolished. It is just that American presidents are expected to act—to do something when trouble starts in the Middle East, when North Korea rattles some sabers and when Russia tries to change its boundaries. Doing something often involves the deployment of ships, the use of soldiers as advisors, a missile strike, and the start of a bombing campaign. One thing leads to another, but rarely to a quick, easy victory.

A better criticism is that America has stopped paying for its wars. In the past, wars brought dedicated tax increases, and the sharing of burdens broadly among citizens—taxpayers and voters as well as the soldiers in the fight. But the global war on terror instead gave Americans tax cuts, deficits, and borrowing on a massive scale which was readily obtained from foreigners at low interest rates.

The domestic political constraints on the use of force are only casualties, and not a growing financial burden on taxpayers. The costs of wars are passed to future generations, those not yet with a vote. This is not a good development. Few citizens are warriors or need to be, but all should pay for their country’s wars.

This post originally appeared at E-International Relations.

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