Maintaining a volunteer military in the 21st century
Many modern developed countries around the world still uphold the ancient practice of compulsory military service: the Swiss, Koreans, Israelis, Austirians and French to name a few. By contrast, the United States consists of a volunteer military despite having one of the largest and most well-funded militaries in the world. A fair amount of that funding goes into paying for the higher education of young men and women enlisted in Reserve Officer Training Corps, or ROTC for short.
ROTC was founded in 1916 right at the start of the United States’ involvement in World War I. Before that, the existence of military colleges was not a foreign concept, with many receiving state-sponsorship as early as 1862. Students would join these schools with the hopes of receiving a commission faster than the average enlisted individual. Commissioned officers are bureaucratically separate from non-commissioned officers in the military. There are entirely different ranks and roles and entirely different attitudes about those ranks; while a commissioned officer like a colonel may expect you to address him as sir, non-commissioned officers like drill sergeants expect to be referred to by their full rank. Commissions were and still are status symbols in the military but with the introduction of the ROTC, demographics for commissioned and non commissioned officers in the military have diversified quite a bit.
In 1973, two years before the fall of Saigon and the formal end of the Vietnam War, the secretary of defense, Melvin Laird, announced there would be no further draft calls. This was in response to the nation-wide call to abolish the draft by protesters and politicians alike. After this, selective service was instituted by the Department of Defense in conjunction with Congress, which required all able-bodied men over the age of 18 to register for a national draft. Many of the young men reading this article are most likely aware of this policy as it enables one to apply for federal student aid, but may not be familiar with the finer details. It keeps the military a volunteer organization but in emergencies, numbers will be called and young men specifically will be drafted as women are exempt from this process.
The definition of ROTC seems to have changed very little to its recruits. When my grandfather signed up in the 1960s he was concerned with paying for school and having employment throughout college. To him, it was an opportunity to serve, and earn his way through school. Today, it is not too different. Even expectations are somewhat similar. My grandfather served in Vietnam, but he never expected anything of that magnitude to happen in his military career. When Jake and Dane were asked about active duty, combat, or tough situations in the national guard, they gave short answers, saying that they would do their job or that they had not really considered those sorts of scenarios before.
Some were drawn to the program for ideological purposes, and not so much for money, like one student Dane R. He stated that he had a desire to serve his country in a way he found meaningful and his definition of service included the army. Junior Jake B. joined for more practical reasons but still maintained that the principle of having a good work ethic was just as good as any political or moral ideology that might draw someone to the service. This commitment to the unit, and to the job rather than the ideology and political motivations associated with the military is important to understanding why America can afford to keep a volunteer military on lock.
An emphasis is placed on trust in the chain of command, the idea that orders have to make their way down the chain and that there is a level of trust between a soldier and their commanding officer to direct them in a moral way when giving orders. Dane R. mentioned that he trusts his commanding officer to give him good orders because that is the relationship they have built-in training. The orders coming out of the mouth of an officer ultimately have their origin at the Pentagon. But to the soldier receiving them, that seems to be abstract.
In interviewing these young men, I found that political ideology plays less of a role in their motivations than many people think and that while they are obligated to follow orders from either the governor of their respective state or the commander in chief and the chiefs of staff, they do not see themselves as potential tools of these regimes and power structures. Jake B. mentioned an experience he had of being confronted in an elevator while in uniform. He was asked why he condones the murder of Afghani children. He did not choose to elaborate on the confrontation but he says that these days, comments like that do not affect him as much and that his role as a soldier in the National Guard is no more a part of his identity than being involved in extracurriculars like club lacrosse or hockey on campus. He does not see himself as a tool of political violence, as a supporter of the murder of Afghani children.
While many of us want to make sweeping assumptions about the men and women in uniform, the truth is that they are human beings like us. At the end of the day, to serve is a decision made based on circumstance as much as personal principles. Movies, the media, pundits and recruitment officers, will have their own narratives about the men and women who serve. The soldiers in these specific narratives will become heroes and warriors, murderers and maniacs, victims and perpetrators, in short order, dramatizations of the people who are actually enlisted. The truth is a lot harsher than that. These young people that serve are as human as any other, with dreams and aspirations and lives. They are family members, friends and peers who have been turned into tools of political violence by the powers that be. The blood of young people and teenagers is as much on the hands of the brass as is the blood of civilians in foreign countries. There is no good, no bad, only ugly.
Leo Baumbach is a second-year english major who has nightmares about an involuntary draft. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Art by Treasurer Julia Batista.