May 08, 2017

CNAS Releases New Report “Generations of War: The Rise of the Warrior Caste and the All-Volunteer Force”

By Amy Schafer

Washington, May 8 – The Center for a New American Security (CNAS) Military, Veterans, and Society Program today released a new report examining the increasingly small subset of the U.S. population serving in the military and their isolation from the general population. In the report “Generations of War: The Rise of the Warrior Caste and the All-Volunteer Force,” CNAS Research Associate Amy Schafer writes that the trend of military service being passed from generation to generation has created a warrior caste in which a small section of the population bears the burden of America’s wars. The report examines the risks and benefits associated with a warrior caste, but advocates against returning to conscription. Its recommendations include:

  • Expanding the exposure and footprint of military recruiters and partnering with other service organizations – like Americorps and Teach for America – to attract recruits beyond the military’s traditional recruiting pool.
  • Increasing military engagement with the general population, particularly by leveraging the Reserve component’s connectivity to communities.
  • Increasing the publicly-available data on the warrior caste phenomenon.

Dr. Janine A. Davidson, the former Under Secretary of the Navy, wrote the preface to the report.

The full report can be found here:


There is a widening gulf in the United States today between the public and those who serve in the military and fight the nation’s wars. Though the populace expresses a great deal of trust in the military, the number of citizens with a direct connection to the military is shrinking, suggesting that respect for the military is inversely proportional to participation in it. There are several critical factors contributing to this separation, one of which is the growth of the “warrior caste” – a trend in which a large proportion of those who do choose to serve come from military families. This dynamic is worthy of careful attention; with less than 1 percent of Americans serving in the armed forces today, there are both risks and benefits to a subset of the U.S. population bearing the burdens of war.

The familial service phenomenon offers an opportunity to explore broader questions of the role of an all-volunteer force in a democracy. Who serves when not all serve? What is society’s obligation to the armed forces? With a force that is unlikely to grow larger than 1 percent of the population, how might the nation share the weight of war? Most importantly, if a “warrior caste” has led to an imbalance in sacrifice or contributed to the isolation of the military, how does the nation ameliorate these effects without jeopardizing the efficacy of the force or compromising the relationship between democracy and the armed forces?

Damage to civil-military relations is often contemplated in the chambers of power and academia, but can be just as pernicious at the societal level, particularly if service members, veterans, and their families feel isolated and misunderstood by the nation they have chosen to serve. The introduction of the All-Volunteer Force (AVF) created this modern-day “warrior caste” in which the military is increasingly composed of those who have an immediate family member who has served. Given the small proportion of the citizenry serving in uniform, there are risks in military service being relegated to the warrior caste alone. As Secretary of Defense Robert Gates warned in 2010, “For a growing number of Americans, service in the military, no matter how laudable, has become something for other people to do.”

Though no causal link has been identified between this growing phenomenon and the ability of the armed forces to recruit, it is not difficult to project a future in which very few outside of military families are exposed to military service. This separation poses challenges to the efficacy of the All-Volunteer Force and to our democracy. Over the past several decades, familial military service has become one of the strongest predictors of future service, and this trend is likely to become more concentrated as fewer Americans opt or are eligible to join the military.

There is a risk that this schism will play a role in use of force decisions. Both popular opinion and policymakers themselves have been shaped by a culture divorced from the military – and the consequences of military engagement. Many lawmakers do not represent any significant military constituency. Furthermore, public polling reveals that most voting decisions do not prioritize foreign policy, an attitude reflective of the luxury of an all-volunteer military. While today’s youth show a distinct willingness to support the use of force, they lack a commensurate willingness to serve in the military. Should the effects of the warrior caste continue, there is cause for concern in the ability to sustain the trust necessary for productive and healthy civil-military relations.

This paper begins by describing the history of the All-Volunteer Force and the demographics of the military today. Next, it provides the currently available data on the warrior caste. Finally, it highlights the importance of understanding this phenomenon in the context of both recruitment and use-of-force decisions. The purpose of the AVF is to provide the nation with the strongest military while balancing cost and equity considerations. Any changes to this system must prioritize the efficacy of the force. Current recruiting practices and societal dynamics have created a trend of family service, which offers both risks and opportunities for the success of the AVF.

Schafer is available for interviews. To arrange one, please contact Neal Urwitz at or 202-457-9409.


  • Amy Schafer

    Former Research Associate, Military, Veterans, and Society Program

    Amy Schafer is a former fellow at the Center for a New American Security, where she focuses on civil-military relations, issues facing military families and veterans, and mili...