The All-Volunteer Military and American National Security


Col. Larry Wilkerson discusses the inefficiency of an all-volunteer force and how it increases the possibility of conflict

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SHARMINI PERIES, EXECUTIVE PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore.

When the United States ended the draft and moved to an all-volunteer military in 1973, just after the Vietnam War, most political and military leaders assumed that if the US needed to fight another major, long-lasting war, then the nation would reactivate the draft, but that did not happen. Instead, we have an all-volunteer force today. What does this mean? Is it the best way to approach issues of national security and how we resolve geopolitical issues of the day? Is it efficient and sustainable, or does it feed this notion of perpetual warfare, maintenance of an expensive defense system such as NATO.

On to talk about all of this is Larry Wilkerson. Larry is the former chief of staff for the US Secretary of State Colin Powell and he’s currently an adjunct professor of government at the College of William and Mary. As always, thank you for joining us, Larry.

LARRY WILKERSON: Thanks for having me, Sharmini.

PERIES: So Larry, you’re headed to a conference. Tell us about it, what the main questions are, and then we can get into whether the voluntary force is the best route to go.

WILKERSON: We put together a group called the all-volunteer force forum, and it’s composed of national security experts in academia, it’s composed of retired military officers and some active duty military officers, and other people who are interested in this business of, is it fair and equitable for the nation? The host down at the University of Kansas is going to be a new group just stood up by professor Beth Bailey and others out there. It’s called the Center for the Study of the US Military, and I suspect in the future it’s going to be heard from.

This is one of its first extracurricular events, if you will. We’re going to get together. We want to start this debate and we want to base it on some fundamental questions: Is it working? Is it sustainable? Is it efficient, and is it ethical? That is to say, is it good for this democracy to have less than one percent of its people, and that percentage in its enlisted ranks, in particular, comes mostly from the fifth quintile of wealth and other measures of success in America, poor people, in other words, is it fair to have those people doing the dying for the rest of us?

PERIES: And then, of course, there’s this question of, does having a volunteer force always ready to go, which is the route we are going, is it the best way to resolve the problems of the world, in terms of geopolitical conflict?

WILKERSON: No question about it. It also has another ramification, and that is, is it the best way to secure us if we should have a real conflict? That is to say, if we were to suddenly stumble into something, for example, with China or with Russia, would this force be able to defend us? The answer to that is no, unequivocally no. And congressmen will say, oh my goodness, we’d have a draft in that event. Well, I’m sorry, Mr. Congressman. Take a look at the politics of it. You might give a war and no one would come. Before we rush off to say, well, that would be good, let’s just think about that if it were a real threat.

On the other side of that question is what you implied, and that is, does the all-volunteer force contribute more to the predilection of the president to use the military instrument? Absolutely, the answer is yes. During the 46 years of the Cold War, for example, we used the military in some really recognizable way about 12 or 13 times depending on how you count one or two of those operations in conjunction with the CIA. During the 22 years since the end of the Cold War we’ve used it 13 times in very visible ways, so all you need is that statistic to know that having this unresponsive to the nation force, this professionalized military, allows the president to use military far more frequently than otherwise would be the case.

I guarantee the Pentagon knows that. When I was there we actually studied this phenomenon. So yes, your implication that the president is more apt to use the war instrument when he doesn’t have 99 percent of the nation heavily invested in it, no skin in the game, so to speak, is a dangerous precedent.

PERIES: And, the earlier point you made, Larry, about such a large portion of the military coming from the poorest classes in this country, is that fair? That’s a good question. How do you think it’ll be addressed at the conference?

WILKERSON: I think, we’re looking for this first conference to be a real debate. We’ve invited people from all sides of the argument. We’ve invited people for the, what used to be the Franklin Project a few months ago, it’s now the Service Year Alliance, which is looking at not compulsory national service but voluntary national service, so they all argue from that point of view, that you could get service out of the rest of America, if you will, its 18, 19-year-olds by making it voluntary.

We think, those of us who are on the other side of the argument think that’s kind of nonsense, that you’re simply not going to get that kind of volunteerism in this country, and you’ve got people who will say the all-volunteer force is working, it’s not physically unsustainable, that this last 15 years of war has been an aberration, that it’s not the usual thing, so we can go back to a steady hum, if you will, with this professionalized force. And we’ll have people that will argue, I think strenuously, for a return to conscription of some sort.

So we’re looking for a full debate on all the issues that might be associated with, and then we’re having a second symposium a year later here at William and Mary, and we want to pick up on that debate and go after some alternatives to the all-volunteer force as hard as we’ve looked at the AVF itself.

PERIES: Now, as you said, Larry, some heavyweights are at this conference. I understand Lawrence Korb, former secretary of defense, Major General Dennis Laich, a former director of the selective service and former undersecretary of Defense as well as heavyweight like yourself. This is fairly substantial. How likely is that the military and the pentagon is listening to the ideas and potions coming out of a conference like this.

WILKERSON: I don’t think the leadership is listening, Sharmini. That’s part of the problem. I think the leadership has grown sclerotic. It doesn’t understand the generations that are coming up, for example. One of our presenters is going to be a psychologist for the Air Force who’s just done a rather brilliant paper on the new generations, the generations, incidentally, that I’ve been immersed in the last 11 years, teaching at William and Mary and at George Washington University. The propensity of these people to serve in the armed forces and to question, to question that service, not in an unpatriotic way but in a very patriotic way, is pronounced, and the military’s going to have a very, very challenging, if not impossible, time trying to recruit in these people’s ranks.

It’s simply going to be extremely difficult. It’s going to be even more costly than now. You’ve got the army spending 8 billion dollars, for example, to recruit people, and you’ve got us taking people who have committed felonies. You’ve got us taking people who have been convicted of drug use and so forth, and we’ve raised the rate of the women in the military from 2.7 to 25 percent, not because we’re egalitarian in spirit but because we can’t find the men.

So these are huge problems coming up that the leadership’s going to have to deal with and frankly, Sharmini, this leadership is ill-equipped, intellectually or otherwise, to deal with these challenges.

PERIES: Good for you for taking these issues up, Larry. Thank you so much for joining us today.

WILKERSON: Thanks for having me.

PERIES: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.


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