No Americans have sacrificed more on the altar of our current undeclared wars than veterans and their families. Their suicide rate is now 20 a day, haunting testimony to their betrayal by our Congress and citizens who send them to war without a declaration that joins all Americans in the commitment to sacrifice for its success.
It is testimony that indicts the national misuse of the All-Volunteer Force System — AVF — a perpetual gift to all American families that extinguishes an inherent obligation of citizenship and the anxieties of compulsory service.
Our volunteer Army became a success when it became a community with the promise that, as President Reagan vowed, “No mother would ever willingly sacrifice her sons for territorial gain, for economic advantage, for ideology.” The AVF was designed not only to inspire volunteers and to enhance our military, but also to benefit society at large by the recognition that citizen-soldiers were enduring community assets.
But these expectations have been selectively unfulfilled by political-military leadership for several decades. The result: a military increasingly divorced from the citizens it fights for abroad; and a broken generation at home.
The ease of engaging in war because of the AVF has destroyed the integrity of our military structures. Logistics, the most justly celebrated sustaining structure of the American military, is now a contract function for companies flipped on Wall Street alongside Waste Management and Burger King. We have a military that cannot feed itself in the field or in garrison. We have an Army that cannot maintain or move its equipment and that has marginal capacity to protect itself or gather tactical intelligence.
These “contracted out” structures have failed the volunteers for the past 14 years in Iraq and Afghanistan. They subjected them to the toxic burn pits and the foreign contract labor “chow lines” of war profiteers.
America’s political leadership has forgotten the scourge of war, the value in its deterrence, and the requirements for the successful societal reintegration of those who sacrificed to fight them. We are now a nation willing to commit the honor and bodies of volunteers to undeclared perpetual imperial wars of occupation. We turn nations into uninhabitable wastelands and call it nation-building or humanitarian relief.
The ethical foundations of military operations have been obliterated, our moral compass broken. Ethics concern the manner in which an institution conducts itself, how it is used, and what image it has of itself. The founders of the AVF understood the value and primacy of the rule of law, professionalism, and human life. To that era, meaning was derived from the pledges of the Atlantic Charter, the Geneva Conventions, the fundamental quest for fairness embodied in the Uniform Code of Military Justice, and an open and free press that permitted the heroism of Mauldins, Pyles, and Murrows. None of this can be discerned in the current era, symbolized by Abu Ghraib, waterboarding, and the bombing of hospitals and marriage celebrations.
Our nation and its leaders have misused the societal gift of the All-Volunteer Force and have immorally exploited the dedication and willingness to serve of young citizens who are willing to make the sacrifice. We owe them, their families and their communities an accounting for the decisions to sacrifice them in the cause of undeclared, imperial wars. It is also time to reconsider the design, use and value of the AVF to our nation’s security.
Delbert Spurlock was general counsel of the U.S. Army, from 1981-82; assistant secretary of the Army, manpower and reserve affairs from 1983-88; and U.S. deputy secretary of labor from 1991-93.