The American Conservative web site recently published an interesting piece by Dennis Laich and Lawerence Wilkerson called ‘The Deep Unfairness of America All-Volunteer Force. As you may have guessed from the title, the article suggests that the ‘volunteer’ force is far from egalitarian given powerful recruitment resource is focused on potential recruits from what they describe as ‘receptive,’ circumstances. ‘Poor,’ would have done fella’s.
The piece also quotes from an Economist article from 2015 which suggested that the All Volunteer Force is becoming more expensive and challenging to sustain while growing ever more distant from the people for whom it fights and indeed, those who send it to war. To make the point of the challenging recruitment environment they say, 'the recent recruitment by the Army of 62,000 men and women, its target for fiscal year 2016. To arrive at that objective, the Army needed 9,000 recruiting staff (equivalent to three combat brigades) working full-time. If one does the math, that equates to each of these recruiters gaining one-point-something recruits every two months—an utterly astounding statistic. Additionally, the Army had to resort to taking a small percentage of recruits in Mental Category IV—the lowest category and one that, post-Vietnam, the Army made a silent promise never to resort to again."
You can guess where they are going with their argument. That in the case of the United States, a population of 300m souls ‘lay claim to rights, liberties and security that not one of them is obliged to protect and defend.” In emphasising that only 1% feels the obligation, ‘bleeding and dying for the other 99%,’ they note that most recruits come from the less well to do areas of the Mid-West and Southern states. One slightly surprising statistic is that while 40% of recruits come from just seven states of the Old South, more recruits come from Alabama alone, with a population of 4.8m, than come from the combined metropolitan areas of New York, Chicago and Los Angeles with a total population of 25m. They go on to discuss in the article the increased dependancy on the National Guard for overseas deployments in recent years. They conclude by suggesting that the inherent bias in where the ‘1%,’ are recruited from, and by implication their socio economic class, and the lack of involvement by the families of corporate America, the Ivy League universities and the elite in general may make war more possible rather than less.
Both authors speak with some authority given they are both retired senior officers and come with experience in Washington and in education. My immediate comment would be, ‘was it ever thus?’ It would be silly to suggest that the military has ever found recruitment easy, except perhaps in time of national emergency, and areas suffering economic hardship will always yield more recruits than those which do not. Moreover, I would guess the tradition of military service remains strong in some southern states where perhaps in the metropolitan areas with greater immigration, prosperity and looser family ties it clearly is not.
The article though has resonance for us here in the UK where the Army is in a perpetual state of under recruitment even after it has been slashed and burned in size by successive governments, (which is probably a contributory reason for under recruitment). I suspect that the geographical breadth of recruitment in the UK is better than is the case in the US simply because we are a smaller country and despite the best efforts of the aforementioned ‘successive governments,’ to homogenise the Infantry, local links although weakened still remain. Remarkably, and I suspect this is deeply political, the Ministry of Defence does not record where recruits come from which I find odd. Except that is unless they are from overseas and this was a surprise. A total of 11,120 servicemen from 77 different countries out of a regular strength of 147,280 for all three services were born outside the UK. That is 7.55% of our fighting strength. One of the bizarre aspects to this is that while we have 200 servicemen born in in Malawi, 130 from Cameroon, 50 from Thailand, 50 from the Philippines we only have 1320 who were born in Nepal and we could recruit as many Gurkha’s as we need. Not that there is anything unusual about recruiting from overseas of course, we have been doing it for centuries. Also, the underrepresentation of those born in Eastern Europe who now represent a sizeable percentage of our population is surprising.
There are no easy answers to recruitment either quantitively or qualitatively to ensure that the military represents the society which it is charged to defend. In the UK, the erosion of confidence in Westminster's actions rather than words in securing fair and reasonable pay, conditions and security of tenure for servicemen absolutely has not helped. Nor has relative economic prosperity, the Independence referendum in Scotland and constant tinkering and interference with structure and tradition which gradually has moved the military further and further away from their home communities. David Cameron’s decision just before he left office for the leafy environs of Oxfordshire to allow women to serve in the Infantry demonstrate how far removed from military reality the residents of No 10 actually are and the little regard they have for informed advice.
Is a form of conscription the answer? Probably not given it would throw up more problems than it would solve although anecdotally, my ex military friends are more reflective and thoughtful on the subject than would have been the case thirty years ago when everyone was against the idea. There are more imaginative and constructive initiatives that the MOD could take, some of which I have put forward here in the past but at the end of day, the prospect of joining an organisation in structural decline is not the most attractive incentive for young people. Our forces remain understrength and underfunded to fulfill not just whatever the ego’s of their political masters dream up for them next but the actual threat which the country and our allies face. The worst part of the Defence debate however is that not only can the Government not decide what it wants from the Armed Forces, and the heads of the Services appear to be just as confused about what they want their individual Services to be, but there is precious little national debate, or for that matter interest, in the subject. We have of course been here before both in the years leading up to 1914 and quelle surprise! in the 1930’s and again in 1981/2 with John Nott's planned defence cuts before the Falklands War. Let’s hope things work out rather better this time round.