September 17, 2020

The All-Volunteer Force: Civil-Military Relations Hit Home—and Abroad

The Bottom Line

  • Recruitment challenges should factor into the National Defense Strategy (NDS) at a much more prominent level. The reliance on traditionally military-friendly regions, institutions, and families fails to take into account that diversity takes many forms.
  • Civil-military relations is not a remote discipline without real-world consequences; it is a strategic issue for national security. The deepening civil-military divide threatens the reputation of the armed forces as the most trusted institution in the country.
  • The next NDS must tackle the personnel fissures that threaten both the strength of the force and the integrity of U.S. military decisions. Losing the trust of the American people will make carrying out strategic aims unnecessarily difficult and complicated, posing a significant risk to national security.


Since the end of conscription in 1973, the United States military has relied on an all-volunteer force (AVF) of professional troops that over time have significantly improved the quality of the force. However, the lack of familiarity with military service and the resulting recruitment challenges are national security threats that have significant impacts on the robustness of and use of military force. With an active duty force of 1.3 million and a reserve component of 845,600, the military currently makes up less than one percent of the American adult population. Very few people maintain any connection to the armed forces, leading to the development of service as a family business and increasing the familiarity gap. As the number of Americans serving and families directly affected by military engagement has dropped precipitously—nearly 10 percent of male baby boomers served in Vietnam—the public maintains a willingness to engage in military actions to defend vital strategic interests and allies. A professional military that is increasingly distinct from the general population undermines a functional civil-military relationship and threatens national unity and security.

A professional military that is increasingly distinct from the general population undermines a functional civil-military relationship and threatens national unity and security.

Department of Defense (DoD) leadership consistently extols the importance of troops as “our greatest asset,” yet also consistently fails to look beyond investment in technology and platforms to maintain a stronger connection with society. An increasing familiarity gap between the public and service members is inescapably linked with the willingness to engage in military action. The American public is so disconnected from the troops—geographically, a lack of family connections, and how the nation pays for war—that vital national security issues are left unaddressed. Democratic accountability for national security issues relies on trust in institutions, which has deteriorated unevenly, with civil-military consequences reaching as far as Afghanistan and as close as the streets of Washington, D.C. Due to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and mass protests across the country, the relationship between the civilian population and the personnel of the armed forces has quickly been pushed to the forefront. The strategic goals laid out in the NDS rely on the popular trust and support of the American people through their representatives in Congress and the executive branch; it is easier for the public to be unaware of the hard decisions their representatives must authorize to appropriate military force when the military seems remote and unrepresentative of the general population. The NDS should promote social cohesion as a targeted effort to recruit a more representative force.

Civil-Military Relations

The military has consistently been the most trusted institution in the United States, especially by comparison with other national institutions such as Congress, the media, public education, and law enforcement. Under the Constitution, the military is subordinate to civilian officials, both elected and appointed. Recent polls have consistently shown new levels of low trust in Congress and the presidency—compared with high levels of confidence in the military as an institution. These dramatically different levels of faith in the military compared with the civilian leadership responsible for its funding and actions reflect a long-simmering tension that is exacerbated when the relationship is strained.

The deepening so-called civil-military divide is highlighted by public perception of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Lack of personal connections to service means many Americans engage with the ongoing conflicts only through news coverage of casualties or negotiations. Furthermore, taxpayer financial stress through higher taxes has been largely absent during these conflicts. The low rate of military service in the United States has led to a phenomenon of hero worship among the civilian population in regard to service members. Those familiar with the civil-military divide are acutely aware of the crisis, yet few outside the military are even aware that there is a divide. This is itself a sign of trouble. Recent events have alarmed veterans, current military personnel, and national security civilians so much that some fear the United States is approaching a breaking point in civil-military relations.

The deepening so-called civil-military divide is highlighted by public perception of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Civil-military relations are often discussed in policy and academic circles that for many Americans are out of reach. However, the problem extends far beyond the spheres of high-ranking military officers and journalists. The civil-military divide extends to the everyday lives of Americans, affecting especially military families and veterans. According to the 2019 Blue Star Families Lifestyle Survey, nearly half of respondents claimed that “their local civilian community has limited awareness of, appreciation, understanding, support, and respect for military and veteran families.” Combined with the fact that 40 percent of military families do not feel like they belong in their civilian communities, the ever-widening gap is clear. The AVF rests on a social contract between the country as a whole and the armed forces. In order to uphold the military’s end of the bargain, conversations between the military and civilians should not be limited to recruitment pitches.

Patterns of recruitment reveal more foundational issues between civilians and the nation’s military force, especially the geographic concentration of recruits. The Southeast Atlantic states are responsible for the greatest percentage of first-time recruits; the top states of South Carolina, Georgia, Virginia, and Florida contribute the most recruits per capita. The Northeast states of Connecticut, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts have the lowest recruitment rates in the country. For the military to reflect the American people, diversity and inclusion efforts should encompass many facets, including gender, race and ethnicity, geography, and socioeconomic status, in addition to talent. Military dependents are much more likely than others to join, due to familiarity with the lifestyle. When the ranks of the military fail to reflect U.S. diversity in every way, connection between civilians and troops becomes that much more difficult. The deepening divide between the military and the public it serves has far-reaching consequences. Further aggravating this trend is that the armed forces are held in higher regard than the civilian officials who direct military actions. This is dangerous for society.

Willingness to Engage in Military Action

In the past two decades, the Global War on Terror has stretched the limits of wartime authorizations and definitions: the United States is engaged in some type of counterterror activities in 80 countries. During conscription eras, veterans were consistently well represented in Congress, but the percentage of veterans holding congressional office has been declining since the introduction of the AVF. As of 2020, only 96 members of Congress have military experience, approximately one-fifth of the legislative body. While veterans represent seven percent of the U.S. population, and therefore are overrepresented in Congress, the legislature as an institution is unrepresentative of the people in a few key ways: age, experience, socioeconomic background, and education level. Members who have children in the military are estimated to number approximately one percent. Without discounting the experience of non-veterans in many different types of public service, when the overwhelming majority of members of Congress have no connection to the military, the stakes in it are lower on a personal level. Furthermore, beyond representative and personal connection, members of Congress represent constituents who are generally uninterested in foreign policy- listed as one of the least important issues to voters.

The American public’s relationship with its military has become one of benign neglect, with citizens largely abdicating personal responsibility for military actions because they perceive that those who volunteer make a self-selected sacrifice. This disconnect, combined with the lack of understanding between legislators—who appropriate military funds and authorize actions—and the people who follow their instructions is damaging to the civil-military relationship, and to democracy in general. The costly war in Afghanistan exhibits this detachment. That the war continued for so long without accountability demonstrates a breakdown in the relationship between the military waging the war and the legislature appropriating the funds and holding ultimate authority as civilian policymakers.

The American public’s relationship with its military has become one of benign neglect.

On the other hand, problems can also arise from being overly deferential to military officials. The Washington Post published an example of this in late 2019. The Afghanistan Papers consist of documents based on 400 interviews, Pentagon memos, and lessons from the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR). They paint a picture of staggering mismanagement of the longest war in U.S. history. The failures in Afghanistan demonstrated in the project should have provoked a strong reaction in Congress many years ago, when the events described took place. Since publication of the Afghanistan Papers, members of Congress have called for a more complete reckoning, but no high-ranking officers have been relieved of command. Generic calls for accountability by members of Congress have been toothless.

Americans have little connection to the wars fought on their behalf, in terms of both blood and treasure. Immanuel Kant long ago philosophized about the relationship between citizens and war in a democracy, stating in “Perpetual Peace”: “If the consent of the citizens is required in order to decide that war should be declared . . . nothing is more natural than that they would be very cautious . . . decreeing for themselves all the calamities of war. Among the latter would be having to fight, having to pay the cost of war from their own resources.” When civilians who do not have a personal stake in military engagements that put people in harm’s way, the cost should be a shared financial sacrifice.

Ironically, the end of conscription precipitated the decline of the “war taxes” that gave electoral cover to politicians unwilling to make unpopular taxation decisions. The burden of war has shifted from the majority of the population—including both those in uniform and those paying tax increases to finance them—to a tiny minority who volunteer. The politically popular decision to shield constituents from the financial costs of war further widen the gap between the American people and the armed forces. This divide is the end result of a military drawn from recruitment strongholds and military families. When the armed forces are not representative of the people, the incentive is reduced for elected leaders from congressional districts and states without a large military presence to effectively conduct oversight of the military. Instead, the armed forces should have strong ties to the civilian population and be fielded from all of the demographic groups and regions that make up the United States of America. To recruit otherwise is ultimately a distorted representation of the United States population.


Tensions in the civil-military relationship threaten national security from conflicts abroad to cities across the United States. The situation urgently needs to be addressed as part of crafting the new National Defense Strategy.

  • Expand recruiter presence outside of traditionally military-inclined regions. To fully realize the recruiting potential necessary for a more diverse armed force, the services should look to cities and institutions that lack a strong military presence.
  • Set up an external committee on geographic diversity as a collaborative effort between senior military personnel and civilian leaders from each region of the country. Two examples that how the benefits of a cultural shift are the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services and the Defense Advisory Committee on Diversity and Inclusion in the Armed Services.
  • Include the civilian population in communities for military families. Both on and off bases, social and professional connections between military families and the surrounding population can only strengthen bonds. In the age of COVID-19, virtual connections between military and civilian communities can offer a valuable tool to reach towns that do not have a military presence.


The study of civil-military relations is sometimes perceived as an issue for experts, one that has little meaning for most of the American electorate. Civilians and members of the military—officers, enlisted personnel, elected officials, appointed officials, and voters—often live in different worlds. In the 47 years since the end of conscription, there has been a marked change in both the makeup of the armed forces and the U.S. population in general. Together, these changes have reduced the burden of conflict to a select few.

In the 47 years since the end of conscription, there has been a marked change in both the makeup of the armed forces and the U.S. population in general.

The number of young people eligible for and interested in military service has plummeted, and with it the health and strength of the AVF have suffered. As it maintains an active professional military, DoD must also play its part in ensuring a continued strong relationship with the nation it serves. For an institution that relies on volunteers, tense scenes of troops facing off with protestors demanding racial justice present both a challenge and an opportunity. Increased diversity in the armed forces is necessary, but is not sufficient; transparency in recruiting practices is key to bridging the gap. Just as the diverse makeup of the United States—today built, supported, and maintained by people from every nation on the planet—is a one of the nation’s greatest strengths, so too its military can only benefit from troops drawn from every varied walk of American life. Hero worship is not healthy for a vital institution that relies on taxpayer funding. The next National Defense Strategy should take the opportunity to make recruitment changes that will ensure the military remains the country’s most trusted institution. The armed forces must represent the whole country in every possible way.

About the Author

Nathalie Grogan is a Research Assistant in the Military, Veterans, and Society program at CNAS. She holds a master’s degree in public policy from George Washington University and a bachelor’s degree in history and French from the State University of New York at Geneseo.

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From July to December 2020, CNAS will release new papers every week on the tough issues the next NDS should tackle. The goal of this project is to provide intellectual capital to the drafters of the 2022 NDS, focusing specifically on unfinished business from the past several defense strategies and areas where change is necessary but difficult.


The Next Defense Strategy

About this commentary series By statute, the Department of Defense (DoD) must deliver a new National Defense Strategy (NDS) to Congress in 2022. And CNAS is here to help. From...

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