All Volunteer Force Is in Crisis

By Major General J. D. Lynch, USMC (Ret.)

An instructive example of the "whats" and some of the "whys" may be found in the Army's current drill sergeant sex scandal. Having been tried and convicted in the media, the halls of Congress, and elsewhere, the accused now are being court martialed. Only time will tell, but news accounts indicate that some of the cases have been pursued with a vengeance reminiscent of the Tailhook investigations and the odious procedures used to cast aspersions on or punish the innocent as well as the guilty, while simultaneously protecting accusers whose own conduct has been less than exemplary. Meanwhile, the politicians, media mavens, and others who were so quick to attack the drill sergeants have remained unaccountably silent with regard to the accusations made against the President made by Paula Jones. Some have offered the thought that, if her allegations are true, the conduct of the accused was nothing more than a crude but misguided courtship ritual.

Any thinking person need not wonder why society is decaying and modern youth lack core values. The sad truth is that the core values problem extends far beyond youth, and our decline to an absence of standards has class distinctions. Those who can further political causes may be given a pass, while others—less advantageously placed—will suffer the consequences.

Tailhook and the Army drill sergeants are examples of the military's problems. Unfortunately, the situation is far more complicated. There would be trouble enough for a downsized military that has not seen the end of its shrinkage; that knows it will be victimized by smaller budgets and increasing commitments; that can expect more confusion stemming from an added emphasis on humanitarian and peacekeeping operations such as the Somalian and Haitian failures and the increasingly likely failure in Bosnia. However debilitating all of that may be, critical mass is not reached until we pile on the concurrent pressure to have America's daughters march into combat side by side with its sons. That the women-in-combat pressures have nothing to do with combat readiness and everything to do with social engineering is self-evident. That they are the outgrowth of a political agenda, not an informed effort to improve the armed forces, also is self-evident. That the pressures are being bought, not fought, by America's military and civilian leadership is equally obvious, as is the fact that they are based in dishonesty—dishonesty to those who will bear the brunt in future wars and to the public that, with apparently decreasing conviction, provides and supports the war fighters.

The core values problem is serious and may prove unsolvable, given its thorough entrenchment at levels far beyond those of youth. The issue of women in combat can be isolated, addressed, and resolved to the national good far more easily.

During the past few months, the public has been bombarded with media accounts that, in the final analysis, describe the weakening of America's military. Perhaps the most pointed was written late last year by nationally syndicated columnist Suzanne Fields. Evidently using Pentagon sources, whom she described as "senior officers, terrified of speaking the truth in public," she quoted one as saying, "We can get away with only frequent episodes of embarrassment as long as we don't have to fight a war. But a catastrophe of the kind we've never had before is inevitable, and everyone from the commander-in-chief down knows it."

Those are strong words and, with any luck, an exaggeration. After all, a nation that has seen its capital occupied and burned; Bull Run; Pearl Harbor; the Bataan Death March; and the 1950 North Korean Army's rout of General Douglas MacArthur's Far East Command is a nation that has known catastrophe. More important, the suggestion that "everyone from the commander-in chief down knows it" has to be dead wrong. To know or believe the situation is that desperate and to do nothing about it is to flirt with treasonous conduct. More likely, the statement was made for shock effect, and the anonymous senior officer meant that the chain of command should have a more realistic understanding of the situation. Regardless of what he or she meant, it's time to wake up. It's time to sound reveille. It's time to return to the basic truth that a nation's military exists to destroy the nation's enemies and nothing more. In short, the military exists to kill.

War and Assumptions

Some of the debate, at least that portion involving the Army and, by extension, the Marine Corps, centers on the thought that women must not be blocked from advancing along the three main routes to senior leadership: armor, infantry, and field artillery. Much of the rhetorical underpinning stresses modern technology and the push-button, nearly sterile nature of future battlefields. Anybody can do it. There they are, men and women, seated comfortably in air-conditioned, camouflaged trailers, watching enemy tanks on television monitors; noting the infrared sensor reports of enemy infantry movements; pushing buttons; launching missiles . . . it's like a game. It is hard to remember that people out there are being blown apart. It also is hard to remember that some beady-eyed bad guy may be ready to stuff a missile into that clean, antiseptic, camouflaged trailer. In short, the push-button war is all about assumptions, and the assumptions are badly flawed.

For the foreseeable future, wars will be not too unlike those of the recent past. Modern munitions, methods, and machines mean that the killing will be more efficient, but the mud, blood, shattered bones, torn intestines, screams, fatigue, terror, and endless demands for more physical and mental effort will remain unchanged. There are any number of books that can prove instructive in this regard, but three stand out. Dr. Eugene B. Sledge's With the Old Breed (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1996), Joseph Owen's Colder Than Hell (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1996), and James Webb's Fields of Fire (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1978) all emphasize the realities of combat. Each reflects some of the elements to be found in future conflicts: weather, types and tenacity of enemies, attitudes, demands—the gamut of complexities that comprise life or death in a combat unit. A study of those and similar works can lend reality and—dare we hope—integrity to the essentially one-sided debate advocating combat roles as the route to senior leadership positions for women.


Sometime during 1990, a Canadian lieutenant colonel, touring Parris Island, visited my office. His purpose there was to learn how the Marine Corps trains its women recruits. When asked why, he answered that Canada's politicians had decreed that his command conduct gender-integrated recruit training; the program had been implemented as directed and, in his view, was failing. Realizing that Canada has not cornered the market on politicians capable of issuing such edicts, I expressed the thought that it might be better if we were to visit his command and learn how to do what we might also eventually be ordered to do. His response was unforgettable. There was no need for the visit because, in his words, all one need do is "lower the standards and ignore the results." On further questioning, he noted that the "ignore the results" portion referred not only to reduced levels of physical performance but also to sexual harassment, the use of sex to gain favors, and the divisiveness caused by those two.

Where are we seven years later? Right where that Canadian officer said we would be, only we cannot ignore all of the results. In the U.S. context, former Secretary of the Navy James Webb has said that "in many areas where females have been introduced into the military, leaders imbued with the imperative of ethical conduct are constantly challenged to hold back on the truth or risk their futures." Let's look at where we are today and let's start with the Army, the largest of the services and the one that historically bears the brunt of the United States' major wars.

In November 1996, the nation was treated to a front-page photo of a congresswoman angrily pointing her finger at two testifying Army generals. What prompted the outburst was not made clear in the supporting article, but it was noted that the generals "strongly opposed" segregating the sexes during basic training. In a moment of courage, the Army hierarchy subsequently floated a trial balloon indicating that maybe "strong opposition" to segregation wasn't such a good idea after all. The trial balloon apparently was zapped shortly after lift off, and Army spokespersons have since returned to the mantra of "training as we will fight." As we will fight whom? At present, somewhere around one of every four or five soldiers in the U.S. Army is a female. Under the Army's current recruiting performance, increasing reliance on female enlistments is the norm, and the ratio of women to men continues inching toward one in four.

Despite the vast, virtually daily coverage of the sex scandals and failures of the male-dominated military, little or nothing has been said about the capabilities of an army tasked to fight two simultaneous regional conflicts when nearly one-quarter of its members are female. What does that statistic say about combat readiness? About the ability to sustain casualties? About the capability to replace combat losses with trained soldiers? The answer, in all cases, is nothing.

Yet the beat goes on. It goes on despite appeals to common sense. It goes on despite statistics garnered by a Harvard researcher indicating that only 3% of the enlisted Army women surveyed believed that they should serve in combat arms, "just like men," and that only 11% of the enlisted women and 14% of the women officers "would volunteer for a combat role if one were offered." 1 These women may never have seen combat, but the vast majority have arrived, intuitively, at the same conclusion nations have arrived at for centuries. What makes late-20th century America different? More to the point, where in the defense leadership, both military and civilian, is the "duty, honor, country" ethic, which demands professional stances from professional officers?

If the Army has major problems, the Navy is not far behind. And if the Army is not handling the problems well, the Navy is not doing any better. Like the Army, the Navy is becoming increasingly reliant on female recruits. Unlike the Army, which resists assigning women to narrowly defined combat fields, the Navy has aggressively pursued a policy of sending women to surface combatants. If it is assumed that-for the first time in 50 years or so-torpedoes, missiles, mines, and humans once again will be trying to punch or burn large holes in large numbers of big, gray ships, then these women are being placed in the Navy's counterpart of Army battlefields. There seems to be little or no published discussion of this point. Perhaps the Navy has lost its institutional combat memory, or perhaps it sees no potential opponent capable of putting its ships in harm's way.

The wartime price of degraded combat readiness—the inability to field damage-control teams properly, for example—apparently is being assumed away. The peacetime price, however, cannot be dismissed. In part, it is being paid in the form of shipboard pregnancies. Predictably, there is an inside-the-beltway versus outside-the-beltway dispute about the subject. In an instructive article entitled "Navy Says Readiness High On Its Love Boats," Rowan Scarborough, writing in the Washington Times , highlights the differing opinions. The Navy Personnel Research and Development Center in San Diego surveyed 2,032 women assigned to 50 ships and reached the conclusion that shipboard pregnancies are more disruptive than pregnancies ashore. A Navy spokesperson in Washington denied that there is any such effect and insisted that "personnel readiness is at an all-time high." Who can be believed? That's a no-brainer.

Throughout most of the trials and tribulations of the Army and Navy, the Air Force managed to remain nearly invisible. But that pleasant state of affairs changed when, in a clear demonstration of the "you can run but you can't hide" theory, the Air Force became the subject of a spate of articles concerning officers being court-martialed for adultery. All the accused officers were female, and as sure as sun follows rain, the articles recounted accusations of an Air Force bias against women. Media interest shifted when the Kelly Flinn Follies bounced on stage and became world entertainment.

The Marine Corps had some involvement in the Tailhook scandal, and hundreds of Marines lived through its idiotic aftermath, signing statements swearing that they had not attended Tailhook, even though they were not aviators or were college students when the debauchery occurred. Otherwise, the Marine Corps thus far has escaped the scandals surrounding the other services. In time, that doubtless will change—put enough cars on the road and there are going to be accidents—but the one thing that cannot be changed is the fact that the Marine Corps is the only service to have avoided integrated male/female recruit training. This does not mean that there are no pressures to do so. It also does not mean that the Marine Corps is, or will remain isolated from, the effects associated with the drive to put as many women as possible in combat fields. But Marine leaders know that the Corps must continue successfully to defend its recruit training position, for reasons as obvious as they are crucial. Anything less means the end of the Marine Corps as the nation knows it.

Paradoxically, in this world of unintended consequences, the newest Marine Corps training innovation, the Crucible, may prove to be the vehicle used to position an unwilling Marine Corps in the vanguard of the women in combat faction. The Crucible, a challenging physical, mental, and psychological test, was designed to address the core-values situation. Nobody expects it to cure the problems by itself, but it is a positive start and, by any standard, an outstanding training exercise. In an honest and professional attempt to improve the quality of the entire Marine Corps, the challenge of the Crucible also has been hurled at women recruits and other women Marines. This, of course, has been featured in media accounts. Coupled with plans to conduct gender-integrated post-recruit combat training for those entering noncombat fields, the Crucible may be seized on as "proof" that, with the Marine Corps showing the way, women can and should be assigned to combat fields en route to the topmost leadership positions.

There are several realities to be considered. First, these brief summaries of each service's current situation represent a miniscule percentage of the information that has been inflicted on an increasingly less-impressed public. There have been complaints that the media reports are having a negative impact on the armed forces. That point may be well taken. The problem is that the media are reporting the facts-facts that the taxpayer has every right to know.

A second reality is that the media accounts also are read or watched elsewhere in the world. The unfriendlies out there must take great comfort in what they see. To think that many are not contemplating future mischief as a result is self-delusion.

Third, the drive to put women in combat roles and produce a "gender neutral" military has been and is incremental. We have gone from women in the service academies to voices now demanding women infantry, artillery, and tank officers—all one step at a time, without any clear notion of where this was taking us.

And finally, no one has protested. No one has leveled with the taxpayer. Civilian and military leaders have trumpeted the increased assimilation of women into fields or assignments that could lead to direct combat; meanwhile, in the heavily politicized environment surrounding the matter, no voice in Congress speaks out to question what, if anything, this contributes to the national defense.

Throughout it all, a curious thing may be happening on the way to the public—a public, it should be noted, that contains millions of veterans, a significant percentage of whom have seen more real combat than most of today's civilian and, for that matter, military and naval leaders.

The All-Volunteer Force

Early in the 1990s, the commanding officer of a Marine Corps Recruiting Station observed that recruiting for the all-volunteer force (AVF) was a "fragile" effort. He was right. The AVF has given the nation its highest quality military in peacetime history, but anyone associated with recruiting knows the fragility of its continued prosperity. Proof came, or should have come, during Desert Shield, the deployment prelude to Desert Storm. For reasons founded in politics, not fact, black leaders across the nation began railing that, in the impending war, black soldiers and Marines would be used as cannon fodder. The result? Quietly and without fanfare, black enlistments dropped sharply. It reached the point that, one day in the fall of 1990 at Parris Island, a recruit company with no black recruits on its rolls was formed for training. A few months before, that or any other company's rolls would have reflected a roughly 20% black recruit population. The phenomenon was reported to Headquarters, Marine Corps, and a reply was received indicating that the other services were having the same experience.

What would recruit training companies have looked like had Desert Storm proved to be the casualty-producing war it could have been? That's an interesting question—and one that should be thoroughly studied by organizations and staffs other than the individual services' recruiting structures. Planners, for example, who are determining just how many regional conflicts the United States will prepare to fight at any one time should have a sound understanding of the AVF. Politicians could use a dose of the same knowledge. There might then be a reduced tendency to play to the nearest audience and an increased tendency to remember that words can, and often do, mean something.

The basic point about the AVF—one made by the blacks who chose not to enlist for the crusade against Saddam—is that if the American public decides that a conflict is not worth the expense, the fighting, the maiming, and the dying, there will be no camping on the Washington mall, no protest marches, no demonstrations in foreign capitals. They just won't join.

A conclusion that also should have been drawn is that if the public does not like what it sees in peacetime, there will be no joining then, either. We may be seeing some of that attitude today. Maybe our youth and those who are positive influences on youth have gotten fed up with the adverse publicity resulting from the sex scandals. Maybe those same citizens have decided that fighting the nation's wars is no longer a male responsibility. Or maybe the institutional confusion surrounding the military has persuaded citizens to not become involved. And maybe a public that was never anxious to see its sons killed, maimed, and wounded in combat is turned off by the forces that want to use its daughters to the same purpose. The reasons are relevant, but it is doubtful that anyone wants to poke too hard and learn too much. The results are equally relevant and are now beginning to show. As recently widely reported, military officials acknowledged before congressional committees that recruiting for the AVF is becoming increasingly difficult, a fact that is now leading to reduced quality criteria. The public is weighing in.


The crime in all of this is that the nation's defense establishment is being weakened, and its soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines-both male and female-are being done an unforgivable injustice. So many who have served so well are now being held up to ridicule before the world, a world they, as the military representatives of the world's sole superpower, are expected to confront when ordered to do so.

It would be nice to conclude that things have gone far enough and that leaders, military and civilian, will begin to speak out. It's time for that. It's long past time for that. In fact, it is so far overdue that the basic conclusion is inevitable: There will be no speaking out. Little or nothing will be done, and Suzanne Fields's anonymous senior officer will prove more right than even he thought when he uttered the words about impending catastrophe.

It has been said that nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public. This time, it may be happening. The military structure itself may be going broke as the public, which seems to have caught on, is perceptibly reducing its support.

It is a time for reveille; a time for courage; a time for truth.

General Lynch, an infantry officer, retired from the Marine Corps in 1991. He commanded the Marine Corps Recruit Depot and Eastern Recruiting Region, Parris Island, South Carolina.

   1. James Webb, "The War on the Military Culture," The Weekly Standard , 20 January 1997. back to article


Major General Lynch, U.S. Marine Corps (Retired), an infantryman who fought in Vietnam, was Proceedings' Author of the Year for 1995.

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