Military Compensation and the AVF: There is a problem


Admiral John Harvey’s piece “Thoughts on the All-Volunteer Force from Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery” got me to thinking.  I am very, very conflicted by this article.  First, I am a John Harvey acolyte, admirer and friend.  Second, his transcendent intelligence automatically makes me question my own views when I find myself even in slight disagreement with him.  But that is the case here.

I read in his prose an echo of a societal condition I have elsewhere diagnosed, that of an increasingly unhealthy propensity to place on a pinnacle the people of our military, and create a cocoon of emotion around them that renders straightforward policy debates about how best to compensate them out of bounds.  This condition is a direct and somewhat predictable result of America’s move to an All-Volunteer Force (AVF) after Vietnam.

I am not in favor of returning to the draft, and I believe the AVF has been largely a triumph.  As a veteran of the AVF, I take a backseat to no one in my respect for what our military does and the conditions under which it does it.  That said, military service has become increasingly disconnected from the everyday reality of vast swathes of our society.  As a result, our wars are deterred and fought by someone else, only incidentally by someone we know, grew up with, or are related to.  Their “otherness” and societal guilt over their assumption of the burdens we offload on them leads to great hesitance to ponder legitimate policy questions, for fear of not supporting the troops, or not appearing to support them.  And while Admiral Harvey is correct in pointing out both the immoderate language used in raising these questions and the need for the input of those who would be most impacted to have a voice in the debate, the reality of the situation is that nothing is likely to happen as long as this abiding sense of societal guilt and adoration remain, aided and abetted by interest groups who reinforce the status quo and Members of Congress who live in fear of them.

Retirements that vest only after 20 years, healthcare premiums that recognize neither rank nor inflation, and a compensation system that raises salaries A) upon promotion B) essentially every two years with longevity increases and C) annually as a result of Congressional appropriations are the result of political choices made in the past, choices that should be fair game for review.  While I agree with and appreciate the point of view that says we cannot break faith with those who serve, we must be clear-eyed about what has been promised, and we must not be afraid to make a new covenant with those who do not yet serve.

Ultimately, we must make changes and we must (as the Admiral avers) communicate those changes in a manner that suggests that not only will money be saved, but that the people who serve will have more choices and will be better served by the reforms.  The first step though, is in recognizing that there is a problem.

Bryan McGrath is the founding Managing Director of The FerryBridge Group LLC.  A retired Naval Officer, Bryan spent 21 years on active duty including a tour in command of USS BULKELEY (DDG 84).  His final duties ashore included serving as Team Lead and Primary Author of the US Navy’s 2007 Maritime Strategy A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower.


Image: U.S. Air Force