Rarely has a government personnel decision so inspired Hollywood blockbusters as the decision in 1973 to abandon the draft and move to an All-Volunteer Force (AVF)—that yielded Private Benjamin (1980) and the classic Bill Murray comedy Stripes (1981). In the latter, Pvt. John Winger, played by Murray, calls out to his fellow soldiers, “we were all stupid enough to enlist in the Army. We’re mutants. There’s something wrong with us, something very, very wrong with us. Something seriously wrong with us—we’re soldiers!” Yet in the end, in both films, the Army works. Even Pvt. Winger, the most misfit of misfits, turns into a combat leader and a hero. Perhaps more importantly, both characters, although once wary of military service and the military in general, were lured into the Army by its slick and deceptive advertising campaigns. Winger joined after seeing one of the new Army ads on television and Benjamin told her captain, “See, I did join the army, but I joined a different army. I joined the one with the condos and the private rooms.”
Beth Bailey’s well-researched and persuasively written America’s Army is the best analysis yet of the Army’s adoption of the marketing and advertising skills necessary to entice young men and women into military service. The Army’s transition to an AVF faced a mountain of challenges, including the negative public perception of the military in the wake of Vietnam; racial tension in the military and in society more generally; the Air Force and Navy’s ability to attract the highest quality recruits; Congressional parsimony; the expectation of many senior leaders that the AVF would fail; and the uncertain impact of the Equal Rights Amendment on gender discrimination in military policy. An increasingly tense global situation in the 1970s, ending with the Iran hostage crisis and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, made the situation urgent. The presumably low quality of the volunteer Army that might have to face these challenges produced the two cinematic depictions of a dysfunctional system noted above.
Yet today, even with the nation involved in two major wars, there is no serious call for abandoning the AVF. Part of this support for a volunteer military comes from traditional American values such as the characterization of mandatory military service as a labor tax and concerns about the right of a state to compel potentially life-threatening service from its citizens. These beliefs, Bailey argues, were fundamental to the formation of the AVF. The Gates Commission that made the recommendation to President Nixon was stacked with libertarian economists influenced by the University of Chicago’s pro-free market Economics Department; they included Milton Friedman and Alan Greenspan.
But the economic theorizing of the Commission could not guarantee that an AVF would work. Indeed, many of the Commission’s assumptions, including [End Page 320] the predicted racial and gender makeup of an AVF, proved to be far off the mark. It was therefore left to the Army to solve the theoretical, bureaucratic, and practical problems involved in the transition from a reliable draft to an unpredictable AVF. One of the many strengths of this important book is its analysis of how the Army managed that transformation. Bailey depicts an Army that came into the AVF with a set of misogynistic and often racist assumptions (William Westmoreland greeted a newly promoted female general by kissing her on the lips), but quickly learned and grew into an institution that was in some ways far ahead of civilian corporations in offering opportunities to women and African-Americans. Recall 1982’s An Officer and a Gentleman, wherein a black drill instructor motivated a white recruit.
Bailey shows the usual conservative behaviors of any large institution with deep traditions, but she also shows an Army that was proactive and progressive. Forward-thinking senior officers like George Forsythe, Mildred Bailey, and Maxwell Thurman recognized the need to reject the Army’s old ways of dealing with young people and forge...