May 08, 2017

Generations of War

The Rise of the Warrior Caste and the All-Volunteer Force


By Dr. Janine A. Davidson

Though the American experiment of an all-volunteer military force is largely considered to be a success, maintaining long-term awareness of challenges facing recruitment and retention will prove instrumental to sustaining the force for years to come. One such element is the “warrior caste” – the propensity of youth from military families to serve in the armed forces – a concept gaining renewed attention as the wars of the past 15 years wind down and the composition and readiness of the military take priority.

While the “warrior caste” offers unique benefits and certainly speaks well of the military community and ethos of service fostered therein, it also raises questions about future recruitment prospects, who bears the burden of a nation at war, and how this trend may affect use-of-force decisions. Schafer rightly observes that this trend may portend future problems for both recruiting and civil-military relations. She provides a key examination of the available data and a critical foundation for further research and discussion.

The importance of robust civil-military relations will only increase as the nation faces an increasingly tumultuous domestic and international environment. Ensuring the proper tools and dynamics are in place for the future must start with careful consideration of the varied factors contributing to fractures in civil-military relations today. “Generations of War” adds cogent analysis and insight to this discussion and raises questions about how an emerging “military caste” might affect the nation’s relationship with its military.


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.

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. 

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. 

The full report is available online.

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  1. Gallup, “Confidence in Institutions,” June 2016,
  2. Mona Chalabi, “What Percentage Of Americans Have Served In The Military?” FiveThirtyEight, March 19, 2015,
  3. Pew Research Center, “War and Sacrifice in the Post-9/11 Era,” October 5, 2011,
  4. Robert Gates, “Lecture at Duke University (All-Volunteer Force),” September 29, 2010,
  5. Interview with Dr. Peter Feaver and Dr. Richard Kohn, February 2, 2017.
  6. Harvard University Institute of Politics, “Survey of Young Americans’ Attitudes toward Politics and Public Service” 28th ed., October 30 – November 9, 2015,
  7. Mackubin Thomas Owens, Warriors and Citizens: Thank You For Your Service (Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution, 2016), 92.
  8. Thomas S. Gates, Jr., “The Report of the President’s Commission on an All-Volunteer Armed Force,” (Government Printing Office: Washington, D.C., 1970),


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