Roman Lessons for the American All-Volunteer Force

August 27, 2021 Topic: U.S. Military Region: United States

Roman Lessons for the American All-Volunteer Force

Much like modern defenders of the All-Volunteer Force, the Romans seem to have thought that their professional army could be scaled up in an emergency and that the threat to civilian control could be managed. Neither turned out to be true.

The more immediate risk, however, is that created by the confluence of a widening civil-military gap when combined with increasingly tense and polarized partisan politics. The statement, issued in the Washington Post on January 3, by every living former defense secretary declaring that the military had no role in an election might well be taken as reassuring, but the very necessity of such a letter spoke to the real concerns among the defense establishment that an effort might be underway to use the military in exactly this way. That this concern, expressed before the January 6 insurrection, was not entirely unfounded seems borne out by subsequent events. Initial reporting has suggested that roughly 20 percent of individuals arrested for actions connected to the January 6 insurrection were current or former U.S. military personnel, more than double the rate in the general population. At least one of the capitol insurrectionists appears to have been a retired lieutenant colonel in the Air Force. And Michael Flynn, a retired lieutenant general and former national security advisor to former President Donald Trump, even suggested that the president might use the army in exactly the way Sulla did, to rerun an election that had produced an “unacceptable” result. Fortunately, his suggestion that this could be done went unheeded by either the former president or the military. Nevertheless, the Roman example strongly suggests that heightened partisan polarization increases the risks that an all-volunteer force poses to civilian government. Given that the United States’ current period of high negative polarization shows no signs of ebbing, this ought to be concerning indeed.

THE COMPARISON of all-volunteer forces over such chronological distance suggests two things. First, there were indeed serious historical reasons to doubt many of the blithe assertions made by the Gates Commission, or subsequent supporters of the All-Volunteer Force, that it need not lead to a less flexible military, nor foster a potentially dangerous civil-military gap. Already there is substantial evidence that these assurances, while perhaps honestly offered, have not held true.

At the same time, the presence of these very drawbacks in other all-volunteer forces like the Roman army also indicates that many of these drawbacks are congenital, rather than merely easily solved artefacts of the particular current implementation of the American All-Volunteer Force. This is not to say there are not counter-balancing advantages, both domestic and strategic, to the All-Volunteer Force. But it does suggest that these dangers are the essential and probably unavoidable tradeoffs of gaining the advantages of a professional all-volunteer force.

On the one hand, the shift to a strategy oriented towards peer competition is likely to require an emphasis on future capacity over present capabilities—a set of strategic priorities poorly served by the demands of maintaining a large, all-volunteer force in-being even during periods of relative peace. The experience in Iraq after 2003 has already demonstrated how difficult it can be to scale-up a professional, all-volunteer force to meet new security needs. On the other hand, the shift towards increasingly intense domestic partisan polarization heightens the danger the All-Volunteer Force poses to the country itself. In such situations, an all-volunteer force is the national equivalent to keeping a loaded gun in the house of a country going through the political equivalent of a depressive episode. Against these concerns, of course, must be balanced the advantages in operational capabilities and strategic options that the All-Volunteer Force provides. The All-Volunteer Force is like a sharp, double-edged Roman sword. We can only be in a position to decide if the sharpness of the back edge is worth the sharpness of the front edge by acknowledging that both edges are dangerous.

Bret Devereaux is a visiting lecturer at the Department of History of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Image: Wikimedia Commons.