America, and America’s Armed Forces, passed a major milestone this summer—the 50th birthday of the All-Volunteer Force. Born out of the necessity—at least on the surface—to quell the massive social unrest related to the Vietnam War era draft, the AVF was also seen as a more truly American approach to its military. Activists, politicos, and public intellectuals on both the Right and Left then were similarly arguing that conscription (in Barry Goldwater’s words), “undermines respect for government by forcing an individual to serve when and in the manner the government decides, regardless of his own values and talents.”

At the same time, an entirely volunteer military was seen as the best remedy for a military with a badly damaged morale, in need of institutional reform to reestablish professionalism across its branches. This was especially needed in the army, the largest branch, and therefore the one most directly affected by the draft. But the arguments that most carried the day—especially for Richard Nixon, the one to end the draft and institutionalize the AVF—were arguably the economic ones forwarded by prominent free marketers like Gary Becker, Milton Friedman, Walter Oi, and Alan Greenspan. 

Their arguments against conscription generally proceeded along three lines of reasoning. First, conscription was costly and inefficient; the constant turnover in conscripts meant that their training never met the levels of expertise needed for a technologically advancing military. Second, conscription was a “hidden tax;” the economic costs, especially in terms of opportunity costs, fell unequally across society, affecting the poor and middle class the most. Finally, to the above-mentioned point, conscription in a free society was immoral.

As I explored further in an essay on this topic for Law & Liberty, “Saluting Those Who Freely Serve,” while there may be merit in the free marketers’ arguments, there was arguably also a fundamental error of calculation. This, the two-year-running military recruitment crisis that has little end in sight has brought to the fore. This miscalculation, at its most fundamental level, was about the “second social contract” that a democratic nation must have with its armed forces. 

Whereas we tend to think about society’s obligations to soldiers in terms of furnishing them with the needed equipment and providing them with the necessary housing, food, health, and training, there is a much deeper civic obligation to soldiers. It entails creating and maintaining a society that understands the ways in which it relies on its armed forces, existentially but also just to function day-to-day. As citizens in uniform, government and society owe soldiers the means by which to fill and replenish their ranks such that they are not laboring under impossible burdens.

Without a public civic education, both formal and informal, that explains and encourages the conception of citizens having some mutual duties toward their fellow citizens and their nation along with their rights and how that translates into behaviors of public service, we cannot, in fact, have a volunteer military. A volunteer military, it turns out, is only possible if a democratic nation has the strategic civic reserves in the vaults of the hearts and minds of its people to sustain it.