The Volunteer Army’s Most Important Benefit

Fred Kaplan at has a nice article on the combat capacity of the US armed forces. The key point is that only 40% of military personnel are combat troops. Right now, there are about 390,000 troops who are prepared to fight in Iraq or elsewhere, although the Army has nearly a million soldiers. The rest are in support roles like medicine and administration. Kaplan says this is good. Volunteer soldiers are better motivated and better trained. The draft requires the armed services to accept people who don’t want to be soldiers, or who simply don’t have the right personality or skills.

Although it comes at the end of the essay, Kaplan makes a deep observation about the volunteer Army and democratic politics:

“Does America want to be–can it be–the world’s policeman, colossus, liberator, call it what you will? If so, with what resources? By itself or with allies? Through international law or by whim?

Whatever the answers, there is a potentially calamitous mismatch between the Bush administration’s avowed intentions and its tangible means. They can print or borrow money to float the national debt. They can’t clone or borrow soldiers to float an imperial army.”

So there you have it. The volunteer army is a natural check and balance on the executive branch. There is nothing about the democratic process that will stop a popular leader from waging wars. Voters, courts and legislatures are willing to cut the executive branch a lot of slack when it comes to war. However, a volunteer army imposes a strict limit on how many wars the President can fight. Ask yourself this: Would Lyndon Johnson have pursued his relentless escalation of the Vietnam war if he had only 400,000 American combat troops to cover the entire world?


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