A Soldier by Choice: The U.S. Army and the All-Volunteer Force

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Unlike most national armies, the United States Army depends on voluntary enlistment of Soldiers.  Most countries require all male citizens to serve for periods ranging from months to years. The U.S Army switched to an all-volunteer force in the 1970s.  At that time, military planners and national leaders seriously doubted whether a volunteer force could be successful.

During the Vietnam War, the draft became very unpopular.  Fear of the draft boosted the anti-war movement.  After the war, the government decided to abolish the draft.  The Army began planning to transition to an all-volunteer force.
The last time the Army relied on volunteers was just before World War II.  Back then, the Army was small.  Now, the Army had to recruit a large force without the draft. Leaders needed to learn how to recruit high-quality Soldiers, how to keep them in the Army, and how to pay for them.
The biggest issue was money.  The draft brought in young men for a short period of service at low wages.  Volunteers would want higher pay.  The government needed to find enough money to offer a competitive wage.  Without competitive pay, the Army would struggle to recruit and retain the best Soldiers.  The Army also needed money for advertising to help make service an attractive career choice.

The Army had to learn new training and leadership methods.  Draftees had to serve or go to jail, and the Army could use strict discipline to keep them in line.  Volunteers would have a choice and would refuse to enlist if Army life seemed too harsh.  The Army learned to focus on professionalism and esprit de corps instead of harsh punishments to motivate Soldiers.

The Army eliminated many of the negative aspects of Army life.  Draftees worked as cheap labor and performed many nonmilitary menial tasks, such as cutting the grass, painting quarters, “kitchen police” (KP), and working as clerks.  After the draft ended, the Army could not afford to assign highly trained Soldiers to these tasks. The Army needed more money to replace these Soldiers with civilian workers.  The changeover improved morale, giving Soldiers more time to train and improve their skills.
The draft ended in 1973.  At first, the Army struggled to recruit enough Soldiers.  Recruiters missed their targets by almost 32% in the first year.   Some critics thought the Army was failing, on purpose, to bring back the draft.  But by June 1974, recruiters began to exceed their quotas.

There were a number of reasons for this turnaround in recruiting.  The Army shrank after the Vietnam War so fewer Soldiers were needed.  Congress also authorized pay raises and enlistment bonuses for Soldiers and recruiters.
The Army also increased opportunities for women.  Since 1948, the number of women in the Army was limited to no more than 2 percent of the total force. Women were excluded from most combat and combat support specialties and concentrated in the clerical and supply fields. Married women could not enlist, and women who became pregnant faced mandatory discharge. To meet the new all-volunteer Army manpower quotas, all that would have to change.

By 1978, there were 53,000 women in the Army.  By the end of 1983, there were 80,000.  Without the tens of thousands of women who willingly joined the service, the Army would have failed to meet manpower requirements.
Large organizations never change without creating new problems.  The Army faced a growing problem with sexual harassment and fraternization (improper social relationships between Soldiers).  In response, the Army wrote new regulations and policies to help the predominately male force adjust to the growing number of female Soldiers.  Over time, the Army grew more professional, and Soldiers learned to treat each other with mutual respect.

Controversy over the role of women and concerns about the quality of the Soldiers persisted through the 70s and 80s, but the all-volunteer Army slowly proved a tremendous success.  Volunteers helped build an Army that was a far cry from the battered and demoralized force that came out of the Vietnam era.  Training became tougher, standards increased, and Soldiers at all levels in the Army rediscovered the pride that comes from a job well done.  The all-volunteer Army has proven itself as capable, if not more, than any force in history.