Is the Volunteer Military Too Expensive? Or Is Global Intervention Too Expensive?

The Napoleonic Wars consumed the lives of between 2.5 million and 3.5 million soldiers, most unwilling draftees. Although defeated, discredited, and exiled after years of brutal conflict, the self-anointed emperor responsible for those deaths today is honored – lionized, actually – in Paris. His tomb is located in the Hotel Les Invalides surrounded by commemorations of his many great but costly victories.

Aggressive war and mass slaughter obviously look better through the mists of time. And conscription, which Napoleon used to terrorize a continent, is still routinely employed by nations today.

Today millions of people can be dispatched by a few bombs launched from half the world away. A couple people sitting in a missile silo can unleash hell and more by turning a couple keys. However, the tragic propensity of mankind to engage in war obviously goes back to humanity’s beginning. The horror and cruelty of ancient conflict is almost unimaginable. It was mass killing at its most personal. Massacres required many hands and took much time and effort.

As political control fractured European warfare eventually turned into the far more restricted game of kings. Unless you were unlucky enough to live near a battlefield, you probably wouldn’t be bothered. Indeed, you might not even notice that a war was going on. And reliance on mercenaries helped keep casualties down. They wasted neither their time nor effort, and certainly not their lives, on silly notions like patriotism and loyalty. Protracted conflicts could still be costly, but the numbers of combatants involved look shockingly small compared to modern wars.

However, the French revolutionary wars and rise of Napoleon moved the supposedly civilized world back toward the older, more brutal era. This change also heralded a shift to militaries that were both professional and mass. Which required a universal draft.

As the emperor Napoleon carpeted Europe with corpses to Moscow and back, France filled the ranks of La Grande Armee through conscription, The other great continental powers, most notably the kingdoms of Russia, Prussia, and Austria, also drafted men into military service to meet France on the battlefield. A century later the greatest war machines – Wilhelmine Germany, Czarist Russia, French Republic, Austro-Hungary, and even the liberal democracies of America and United Kingdom – fielded considerable armies through a modern levee en masse. The draft, reaching ever further into diminishing manpower pools, was the only way for the combatants’ armies to replace the massive casualties that ravaged an entire generation of young men.

Government leaders kept the horror of war from the public while demonizing the enemy. The casualty lists were horrible enough. To admit the nature of the fight, raising doubt whether any victory could be worth the price, risked triggering popular revulsion which might force the end of the war. And that, political leaders across countries, ideologies, and parties agreed, could not be allowed to happen.

A generation later came an even more horrific conflict. In it even the UK and U.S. began the war with conscription, as did the other major combatants. It is impossible to imagine the extraordinary carnage of the Eastern Front if Germany and the Soviet Union did not have the power to draft. That authority was essential for war-making. The world’s worst conflict could not have been prosecuted without an open human spigot for the military.

After just a year lapse in conscription authority at that war’s end, Washington imposed a "peacetime" draft during the Cold War. With conscription the US fought two more large-scale wars, in Korea and Vietnam. In them America’s peak troop strength was 327,000 and 536,000, respectively. Only conscription made these unpopular wars possible. And allowed them to continue for years, despite rising opposition. War is the health of the state, declared Randolph Bourne; conscription is the health of war.

The Vietnam War effectively ended the draft. As Richard Nixon drew down the US military presence, the abundant manpower generated by conscription became unnecessary. He also figured that ending the detested annual lottery ritual would defuse political opposition. The All-Volunteer Force was inaugurated in 1973.

The AVF survived a rocky beginning, bolstered by warm support from the Reagan administration. A couple decades later under George W. Bush the volunteer military hit an even rougher patch, during which the government over-extended both active and reserve forces in an unnecessary and unpopular war. The armed services – and army in particular – bent, almost breaking as many potential enlistees said no to both active and reserve service, and thus ultimately to war. The volunteer military, in sharp contrast to conscription, allowed people to essentially shut down the system by refusing to join.

The subsequent drawdown in endless wars eased pressure on the AVF. Yet the propensity to serve in the armed services fell along with the share of the population fit to serve, forcing the Pentagon to lower personnel standards and increase enlistment incentives. Which spurred complaints that voluntarism is no longer sustainable.

Among the arguments put forth at the AVF Forum’s conference last week against voluntarism is that it is too expensive. Not that the military per se is too expensive – that its size is too big, procurement is too inefficient, deployment is too expansive, bases are too many, commitments are too imperial, or use is too promiscuous. But the recruitment process costs too much. Rather than rely on a slightly more modern and civilized process of impressment, by which the British navy simply grabbed sailors off seaport streets, the US military must induce young men and women to sign up and turn their lives over to Uncle Sam for a number of years. Government must make the case that military service is good for the individual and nation.

Doing so is inconvenient and costly, but that is a benefit, not a cost, for America. There is no bigger Big Government program than war. There is no greater power in the state than to send the nation into war and its people into combat. There is no more draconian control over an otherwise free man’s or woman’s life than the military. There is no more dangerous occupation than the wartime armed services. So thrusting America into such horror and tragedy should be neither easy nor automatic.

However, is today’s AVF no longer capable of providing America’s armed forces? At the conference retired Maj. Gen. Dennis Laich worried that America might get to the point where "we just won’t be able to afford it. There just won’t be enough money to go around. When you have a $26 trillion national debt and the Defense Department makes up half of the discretionary spending in the federal government."

America is a fiscal wreck. Noted the Congressional Budget Office early last month, before passage of the administration’s $1.9 trillion supposed COVID-19 spending extravaganza, filled with booty unrelated to the pandemic: "By the end of 2021, federal debt held by the public is projected to equal 102 percent of GDP. Debt would reach 107 percent of GDP (surpassing its historical high) in 2031 and would almost double to 202 percent of GDP by 2051. Debt that is high and rising as a percentage of GDP boosts federal and private borrowing costs, slows the growth of economic output, and increases interest payments abroad. A growing debt burden could increase the risk of a fiscal crisis and higher inflation as well as undermine confidence in the US dollar, making it more costly to finance public and private activity in international markets."

Moreover, the Biden administration is pushing a massive infrastructure program, with abundant outlays to enrich other political interests. Some of that spending might be offset by higher taxes, but Congress is unlikely to impose substantial fiscal pain on constituents and supporters. Whatever legislation passes will further inflate the debt burden, likely significantly over time.

At a time when someone could make "Politicians Gone Wild" videos about the Washington, D.C. budget process, conscription should not be seen as a money-saver let alone a budget miracle. First, conscription would only allow the Pentagon to cut wages for new accessions, of whom there were 155,000 last year. The savings would accrue for just a couple years, since draftees typically serve shorter terms than volunteers. Conscription advocates never suggest slashing the (higher) pay for NCOs, the backbone of the American armed services, and officers – let alone the 653 general officers who top the manpower charts.

Second, a draft would not cut costs. Rather, it would shift costs by forcing people to work at lower wages. Indeed, coercion increases total social costs, forcing many people to serve who don’t want to and preventing some from joining who wish to – available spots having been filled by conscripts. Moreover, it is morally grotesque for a wealthy society to take advantage of the politically weak to procure cheap labor. Why should the successful and satisfied be able to force the young to bear the disproportionate expense of defending the nation, which benefits everyone?

Third, conscription is expensive. Enforcement machinery is necessary. Evasion activity is rife. Perverse incentives are inherent. The military would suffer dramatically from the change in incentives, moving from a system in which all those entering want to be in uniform to a situation in which most of them want to be somewhere, anywhere else. In operation, the armed forces would pay dearly for whatever budget savings occurred.

Fourth, there is no reason that the military alone among federal programs should have to resort to extreme measures to meet expenses. The federal government spent $4.48 trillion in 2019, the last year without massive COVID-19 emergency funding. Is the Pentagon really the lowest priority program, likely to be placed at the rear as Uncle Sam doles out future funding? Is there nothing at the Department of Commerce, Department of Housing and Urban Development, Department of Education, or Department of the Interior which could be trimmed first if the federal government found itself short of cash?

The obvious answer to a cash crunch would be to cut low priority programs, of which the federal government is full. However, if that is too painful politically, why not apply Laich’s proposed solution of conscription to civilian programs? Why not draft federal civilian workers?

For example, the Department of Defense employs about 700,000 civilians. Conscript them if the federal government must save money. Pay them a salary comparable to that what military draftees would receive. Do the same for the Department of Veterans Affairs, which has nearly 400,000 workers.

There is no reason to stop at military-related agencies. The Postal Service employs roughly a half million employees. Why not institute a postal draft, cutting pay for them? Homeland Security has nearly 200,000 on staff. The Justice Department and Department of Agriculture employ around 100,000. Conscript them all! That should save a lot of cash. Of course, doing so wouldn’t be fair, but neither would be a military draft. If the government is going to force someone into service, it would be better to conscript those whose lives would not be at risk. This could be viewed as a form of mandatory "national service" so beloved of social engineers.

Laich’s concern that Washington won’t put DOD at the front of the very long federal soup line suggests that he recognizes a deeper problem. If the Pentagon stops protecting the nation it no longer deserves preferential treatment over, say, the Departments of Agriculture and Energy. And foolish wars of choice like Iraq and unnecessary welfare for rich friends like NATO do not make Americans safer.

US military budget requirements are not immutable, set by the stars or other cosmic phenomena. Rather, defense outlays are the price of America’s foreign policy. The latter will, or at least should, vary over time based on changing circumstance. However, as long as Washington implements a frankly imperial foreign policy the cost will be exceedingly high.

Defending the US is relatively easy, with vast oceans east and west and pacific neighbors north and south. In contrast, most of what the Department of Defense does is offensive, designed to variously coerce and protect other nations. Sometimes doing so is necessary for America’s defense, but not nearly as often as claimed by Washington.

The forever wars make no sense. The Iraq invasion was an enormous blunder and two decades of nation-building in Afghanistan have been a terrible waste; both were humanitarian catastrophes. The US should spurn, not join, foreign civil wars like Libya and Syria.

South Korea, which enjoys an economy more than 50 times as large and population twice as that of the North, needs no American garrison. NATO lost its raison d’etre with the collapse of the Soviet Union and dissolution of the Warsaw Pact. Europe vastly outranges Moscow in economic wealth and population size yet prefers to rely on US defense guarantees rather than invest in its own defense. Reducing unnecessary US military commitments would allow a concomitant reduction in force structure.

Washington’s fiscal irresponsibility is beyond description. Government should set priorities. Congress should spend only for serious purposes and pay for what it spends. Which requires substantial cuts in wasteful programs throughout government.

At the top of any priority list should be those who take on the always difficult and sometimes dangerous job of serving in the armed services and defending America. Even so, significant budget cuts should be made to the Pentagon as well. The US should drop needless, expensive military commitments. End subsidies for prosperous, populous allies. And stop foolish, counterproductive social engineering abroad, especially fruitless nation-building projects.

Other important military issues would remain. The AVF Forum rightly worries about fundamental issues including combat effectiveness, citizenship values, and social fairness. The subjects are serious and complex. The solutions won’t come easy. But conscription is not one.

Uncle Sam has a spending problem. A big one. However, the major challenge is not affording the cost of military manpower. The federal government does far too much and does it far too expensively. The same goes for the military. The solution is for Washington to do less, and to do what it does less expensively. Not to draft young men and women to fight more needless endless wars.

Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. He is a former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, where he worked with the Military Manpower Task Force, and the author of several books, including Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire (Xulon) and Human Resources and Defense Manpower (National Defense University).