Yesterday, one of my grandsons completed basic training at the U.S. Naval Station in Great Lakes, Illinois outside Chicago. Hence, I have the military on my mind this week.

Yesterday, one of my grandsons completed basic training at the U.S. Naval Station in Great Lakes, Illinois outside Chicago. Hence, I have the military on my mind this week.

All Volunteer Force [AVF]

The Selective Service Act of 1940 occurred at the tail end of the Great Depression. By then American industry was well along in ramping up to supply our European Allies in fighting Germany and Italy. In 1938-40 men were enlisting in the military to earn money and eat better. [An estimated one-fourth to one-third of those seeking enlistment were physically unqualified because of mal or under-nourishment!]

The 1940 Selective Service Act pertained to men ages 21 to 36, but with entry into WWII in 1942, the age was reduced to 18 and extended to 45 and eligibility extended “for the duration.” Men ‘registered” for the draft at their local draft boards and were actually drafted by lottery. Eventually 10,000,000 were inducted.

Dissatisfaction with the War in Vietnam brought widespread discontent with the draft along with the deferments favoring college students eventually led to the end of the draft in January 1973. An ongoing, systematic program of research was begun to study the All Volunteer Force replacing the draft and has paid enormous dividends.

The armed forces are now considered ‘professionalized. Advertising, bonuses and educational incentives have produced not only enlistees with higher IQ’s but also more education. A smaller armed force has reduced enlistment quotas. Volunteers are more motivated than conscripts were. [Exception: Men were clamoring to join the armed forces after Pearl Harbor.] Enlistees are younger—49% being 17 to 24. A sixth of enlistees are female. Over 90% have high school diplomas and 95% of officers have baccalaureate degrees with 38% having advanced degrees. African-Americans represent 16% of the military compared with 14% of the general population. Recruits come primarily from families in the middle or lower-middle classes with the high end of the distribution under-represented. The military learned that they had to offer reenlistment bonuses and career paths relevant to civilian life following military service.

Very few able-bodied men avoided military service in WWII but as of 2010 only 7% of the population were veterans. The proportion of members of Congress who are vets was 20% in recent years but now steadily declining and expected soon to be less than 10%.

Guns or Butter

The ultimate source of U.S. national power is not military but economic. Dictators such as those running Russia and North Korea recently held giant military parades and exercises in a display of military strength. It is easy for the average citizen to mistake these as displays of national power. In fact, the size and increases in GDP and productivity growth are far better indicators of a nation’s strength. Russia and North Korea are both woefully weak economies which have siphoned off economic strength [butter] into military assets [guns].

“The successful powers will be those who have the greatest industrial base…Those people who have the industrial power and the power of invention and science will be able to defeat all others….Industrial productivity with science and technology, became an ever more vital component of national strength Alterations in the international shares of manufacturing production were reflected in the changing international shares of military power and diplomatic influence. ..As Nazi Germany’s own fate revealed, the test of world power by war was ruthlessly uncaring to any nation which lacked the industrial-technical strength, and thus the military weaponry, to achieve its leader’s ambitions.[1]

“Much depended as always upon the immutable facts of geography. [2] India doesn’t fear land warfare with China because of the Himalayas. Europe was protected from Genghis Khan whose army moved on horses ineffectual in mountains, forests, and mud, and whose bows didn’t work in high moisture terrain.

Surrounded by oceans protecting us from invasion, our industrial might grew during WWII while those of our global competitors were destroyed—yielding us two decades of monopoly power in global markets now known as our “Golden Age.” The U.S. emerged as a global superpower—the strongest, richest, freest national in all the world….Economically, the world was its oyster. The transition to peace touched off an unprecedented economic boom. Wartime economic expansion [GNP] grew by 60% between 1939 and 1945. The immediate postwar era became the golden age of the American middle class.“ [ 3]

“The history of the past five hundred years of international rivalry demonstrates that ‘military security’ alone is never enough. War or the very possibility of war makes the establishment of a manufacturing power an indispensable requirement for a nation of the first rank. Yet by going to war, or by devoting a large share of the nation’s ‘manufacturing power’ to expenditures upon ‘unproductive’ armaments, one runs the risk of eroding the national economic base.

Statesmen find themselves confronted with the usual dilemma between buying military security at a time of real or perceived danger which then become a burden upon the national economy, or keeping defense expenditures low, but finding one’s interest sometimes threatened by the actions of other states. [1] .

[1] Kennedy, Paul, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, NY: Random House, 1987, 196-8; 538-540.

[2] Marshall, Tim, Prisoners of Geography, London, Elliott and Thompson Ltd., 2015.

[3] Bacevich, Andrew J., The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism, NY: Henry Holt & Co., 2008, pp24-5.