Thoughts on the All-Volunteer Force from Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery


Editor’s Note: The War on the Rocks Team is honored to have Admiral John C. Harvey, Jr., USN (ret.) join us as a Contributing Editor. 


Yesterday, on Veterans Day, I spent some time thinking about the recently returned veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. I thought about what we sent them to do, the sacrifices so many of them and their families made, and the challenges they face upon their return home.

I also thought about those veterans who didn’t return whole and about those who didn’t return at all. Many of those young men and women who died in the service of their country are buried in Section 60 at Arlington National Cemetery. And many of their comrades who didn’t return whole fought another grueling battle to overcome their wounds at our military medical centers not far from the hallowed ground of Section 60, the Army’s Walter Reed and the Navy’s Bethesda. Many of those battles will never end.

So it was very interesting to walk among the headstones of Section 60 on Veterans Day and reflect on the debate that is swirling around Washington, on Capitol Hill, in the Pentagon and among think tanks about the decline in defense spending, the impact of sequestration and the resultant need to rein in all aspects of our defense spending, in particular that portion of defense spending focused directly on our men and women in uniform: their pay, allowances, and benefits.

This debate is a very important one, to be sure, but how we conduct the debate is also extremely important. For, at the end of the day, we’re not just debating about pay and allowances or commissary benefits or Tricare fees. We are talking about the future of our All-Volunteer Force, how we will sustain it, and how it will be able to attract the kind of men and women who will repeatedly deploy into harm’s way, who will raise their right hand and freely take an oath “to support and defend the constitution of the United States,” and assume the limitless commitments that comes with that oath.

We’re not debating about numbers and percentages and what they’ll mean twenty or thirty years from now, but about people and what they’re worth. People like Senior Chief Petty Officer Thomas Valentine, USN, killed in a training accident in February 2008 while preparing for deployment to Afghanistan, Master Sergeant Thomas Crowell, USAF, killed in action in November, 2007, Sergeant Michael Woodliff, killed in action in March 2004 and Lance Corporal Jason Redifer, killed in action in January 2005.

What is it worth to us to have these kind of people fight and die for us? How much should we pay them to make this kind of sacrifice?

As we seek to answer these questions, we must do so in a manner worthy of those who have worn the uniform and borne the battle. It needs to be done keeping in mind that the men and women of our All-Volunteer Force are listening to the debate as it occurs and as they watch sequestration take away their training, take away their professional development and take away their opportunities to prepare for the deployments that we will not hesitate to send them on. What are they thinking while we debate whether or not we’re paying them too much?

The words of Rudyard Kipling’s “Tommy” came to mind:

You talk o’ better food for us, an’ schools, an’ fires, an’ all:
We’ll wait for extry rations if you treat us rational.
Don’t mess about the cook-room slops, but prove it to our face
The Widow’s Uniform is not the soldier-man’s disgrace.
For it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Chuck him out, the brute!”
But it’s “Saviour of ‘is country” when the guns begin to shoot;
An’ it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ anything you please;
An’ Tommy ain’t a bloomin’ fool — you bet that Tommy sees! 

Here’s what our modern-day “Tommys” are reading and hearing:

In May 2010, Defense Secretary Robert Gates famously asserted, “Health care costs are eating the Defense Department alive.”

This year, Under Secretary of Defense (Comptroller) Robert Hale said, “The cost of pay and benefits has risen more than 87 percent since 2001, 30 percent more than inflation.”

Arnold L. Punaro, chairman of the Defense Department’s Reserve Forces Policy Board, a former top staffer on the Senate Armed Services Committee and retired Marine Corps major general said, “The all-in cost of the all-volunteer force is one of the time-ticking bombs that could explode our defense capabilities if not dealt with responsibly.”

In May 2012, the Center for American Progress published Reforming Military Compensation –Addressing Runaway Personnel Costs Is a National Imperative, and in July, the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) argued, “The all-volunteer force, in its current form, is unsustainable.”  The report argues that, in the absence of major reform, military personnel costs will overrun the entire defense budget by 2039.

A recent Congressional Budget Office study noted:

For fiscal year 2013, the Department of Defense (DoD) requested about $150 billion to fund the pay and benefits of current and retired members of the military. That amount is more than one-quarter of DoD’s total base budget request (the request for all funding other than for military operations in Afghanistan and related activities).

We are sending the force that is serving today, the one that fought two wars in the last decade, and the force we are depending upon to re-enlist tomorrow the wrong signal. We’re telling them they just cost us too much, that they constitute a “ticking time-bomb,” and that they’re “eating us alive.” We are telling them that we are looking for a way out of fulfilling our commitments to them. Is this how you characterize those who volunteered to serve in time of war?

It is time to change the terms of the debate. First, we need to ensure the current members of the armed forces have a voice –  an active voice – in this discussion about their compensation.  What aspects of the current, and very complex, structure of pay, allowances and benefits do they most value and why? What parts of the current structure matter less to a young Soldier, Sailor, Airman and Marine and prospective recruits? How do their attitudes change as they grow more senior in rank, get married, and have families?

Second, we should view the resources we devote to our men and women in uniform as investments in our future, not simply as costs to be minimized as much as possible until we again learn the hard way (as we did in the mid-to-late 70s) that you can pay an all-volunteer force too little and that force can go hollow as a result.

But the impact of a hollow force in the present day would be far worse than it was in the 1970s. Increasingly, there is no longer an unskilled specialty in any of the services – fighting as an infantryman on the modern battlefield, for example, is a mentally complex task as well as a physically demanding one.  Thus the consequences of a sustained loss of quality in the force would perforce have an outsized negative impact.

Whether on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier launching high-performance jet aircraft that cost $80 million, conducting maintenance on a $2 Billion B-2 bomber, leading a squad of soldiers on a patrol through an Afghan village or serving in an embassy’s Marine security detachment facing down an angry crowd of demonstrators, our most junior enlisted members must be highly skilled, able to rapidly adapt, and capable of growing into mature leaders.  This will not be possible without high-quality young men and women want to enlist and then want to stay in the force. For this, we must be prepared to compensate those young men and women appropriately for the service we expect.

To focus the compensation debate solely about how to cut costs is not worthy of our society, our values, and our interests.  I suspect that if we do the hard work up front that is required to learn what really matters to our people, we will find considerable maneuvering space within which to make the necessary adjustments to the current structure of pay, allowances, and medical and retirement benefits that will ensure we can recruit and keep the kind of all-volunteer force we want and need.

For the last twelve years, “we the people” sent our All-Volunteer Force to war and now we know what it really costs for a democracy to fight extended conflicts, the longest in our history, with a high-quality, well-trained, and dedicated force of volunteers.

Whatever one may think of the rightness or the wrongness of the decisions to go to war in Iraq and Afghanistan and how those conflicts were conducted once we were there, our Presidents sent our  forces into combat and our Congress appropriated the funds to sustain those forces, year after year. And this was all done in our name.

This twelve year deployment of forces, which continues to this day, is unique in this nation’s history; to paraphrase Winston Churchill, “Never before have so few fought for so many for so long.”

There are many implications to sustaining this level of combat operations with a relatively small volunteer force and minimal mobilizations of the services’ reserve components and our National Guard, and we, as a people, ought to take the time and make the effort to study these implications in detail and reflect on what they mean for our future.

And while we undertake this study, we cannot forget that we made our choice in 1972 to go with an All-Volunteer Force and now we have to make the choices on how we will keep that force strong in the years to come.

Choices have consequences.  The current nature of the debate over the current and future cost of the All-Volunteer Force is inadequate for the magnitude of the issues at stake. We must make some fundamentally different choices on how we frame these issues and make our decisions. We must focus on the required level of investments in the human capital needed to sustain the force we have chosen send in harm’s way and fight for us.

Yes, makin’ mock o’ uniforms that guard you while you sleep
Is cheaper than them uniforms, an’ they’re starvation cheap;
An’ hustlin’ drunken soldiers when they’re goin’ large a bit
Is five times better business than paradin’ in full kit.
Then it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Tommy, ‘ow’s yer soul?”
But it’s “Thin red line of ‘eroes” when the drums begin to roll,
The drums begin to roll, my boys, the drums begin to roll,
O it’s “Thin red line of ‘eroes” when the drums begin to roll.


Admiral John C. Harvey Jr. retired as Commander, U.S. Fleet Forces Command. During his nearly 40 years of naval service as a commissioned officer, Harvey served in a variety of sea and shore billets. He was the Chief of Naval Personnel and he commanded USS David R. Ray (DD 971), USS Cape St. George (CG 71) and Cruiser-Destroyer Group Eight as part of the USS Theodore Roosevelt Strike Group. He is a Contributing Editor at War on the Rocks. 


Image Credit: Department of Defense