Market Volunteers: The Role of Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the All-Volunteer Army

During the 1981 confirmation hearing of Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, numerous Senate committee members expressed significant reservations regarding the armed services. Speaking to Weinberger, Senator John Tower (R-Texas) suggested the all volunteer force (AVF) lacked the requisite fortitude to succeed. For Tower, new recruits in the AVF lacked the skills necessary for the armed services. Tower told Weinberger, “You are on a talent hunt.” The Texas senator believed that service personnel in the AVF lacked “brain power …. raw courage and other things.” In Tower’s mind, the kind of soldiers the military required could not be found “at the crossroads or the street corners.” Then Indiana Senator Dan Quayle revealed his own doubts. Quayle confessed, “ I don’t know if the volunteer army is going to work.” Even Weinberger acknowledged a wider sense of skepticism regarding the military, promising that under his leadership he wanted the public, Congress, and others “to regain the respect and the honor and the appreciation that I think we should all feel for people in the uniformed services.” Weinberger continued pointing out that the service personnel in the AVF were “not militarists seeking glory abroad in a lot of bold or disastrous adventures, but they are shouldering, really, the burdens that enable us to continue to live in peace and freedom, and I think we should honor them for it.” (Confirmation Hearing Caspar W. Weinberger Secretary of Defense, Committee on Armed Services, 97th Congress, US Senate, Jan 6 1981)

Not even a decade old in 1980, doubts about the AVF pervaded Congress, the public, and the military itself. At the time, many doubted its continued existence. In 1980, Jimmy Carter signed into law the Registration to Military Service Act, which required all 18-26 year old males to register with the government for possible selective service. Many observers suggested the legislation represented the first step toward reestablishing the draft. Yet, through the final decades of the Cold War, US intervention in Latin America, “peacekeeping” in East Africa and Eastern Europe, and the current “War on Terror,” the AVF persists.

Coming into existence at the same time that neoliberal policies and New Right rhetoric came to dominate economic policy, the establishment of the AVF reflects the blossoming of these political and economic trends during the 1970s and 1980. Such developments influenced both the tangible and theoretical aspects of this “new military.” In America’s Army: Making the All Volunteer Force (2009) Temple University historian Beth Bailey examines the creation of the all-volunteer Army. Bailey traces developments in the AVF from its inception in the 1970s through the 1990s and into the early 2000s. In America’s Army, Bailey reveals the complexities of race and gender in creating the AVF and the various debates that unfolded as it came into existence. While the AVF and its officials displayed an open mind about race and class, gender and sexuality continued to bedevil both proponents and opponents of the AVF. Though women’s roles expanded in the years since its creation, the AVF reveals the blind spots and contradictions that continue to complicate ideas about women’s role in the modern military.

Military conflict itself provided the opening for the “new army.” The Vietnam War proved the catalyst for the emergence of the AVF. As Bailey points out, it “created a political perfect storm” justifying and lending credence to a wide spectrum of arguments promoting an all-volunteer military. (3) If liberals saw the selective service system as inherently unequal, benefiting the middle class at the expense of working class white and minority populations, then conservatives viewed conscription as yet another form of government intrusion. The failure of the Vietnam War and the social problems that emerged internally including drug use, racism, insubordination, and numerous other issues had even convinced some military officials that “‘[r]eluctant’ draftees did not make the best soldiers.” (3) Nixon, ever the politician, grasped the opportunity to reshape the military but did so under the guidance of “free market economists and libertarian thinkers.”

This restructuring of the military along the lines of New Right market-based ideologies illustrates the pervasive influence of the burgeoning libertarian movement. Milton Friedman best represents this consortium of the New Right that was to play a crucial role in reorienting the military. Friedman and others altered many of the principles that had underpinned military service. Along with his fellow Chicago school economists, Friedman jettisoned the ideal of military service as civic duty or an obligation of citizenship. In its place the language of markets and consumerist desire would prove the key to staffing the all-volunteer force, releasing Americans from what Friedman and others classified as a form of 20th century “slavery.” (87) As Bailey points out, Friedman’s consortium had replaced “the logic of citizenship with the logic of the market.” (4) Though many military officials bristled at the idea of service as simple “employment” or a market based decision, it nonetheless became policy. Nixon promised higher pay and increased benefits, illustrating the free market ethos of the neoliberal movement. Though Nixon hoped to quell leftist criticism of his administration by ending conscription he did so through the auspices of free market libertarian thinking that has become the business card of the right. Still, this shift mattered for more than just economic reasons or ideological trophies; Nixon had fundamentally altered the military’s relationship with society. Working from two principle assumptions – “individual liberty is the most essential American value, and the free market is the best means to preserve it” – Nixon and the New Right had pushed the military’s relationship to citizenship into the background, downplaying or muting issues of sacrifice, fairness, and obligation.

America’s Army is not Bailey’s first journey into the United States military. Her collaboration with David Farber on The First Strange Place: Race and Sex in WWII Hawaii explored the racial and sexual dynamics of Hawaii as thousands of service personnel poured into then territory and future state, altering gender and racial hierarchies. The transgressive nature of interracial relationships at the time illustrated the surging tensions of race and sexuality that simmered under American social relations. Though fundamentally a different book, in America’s Army, Bailey remains attentive to these issues. Limiting herself to the Army, Bailey uncovers dialogue between officials that reveals the discomfort many leaders felt toward the shift. Nonetheless, recruits were needed, hence the army’s new reliance on market logic. The advertising that came to dominate military commercials (print, radio and television) focused “on the ‘important psychological needs’ and desires of potential volunteers.” This approach, Bailey writes, “was given added weight by the market surveys and social science research that offered quantitative evidence about what young men and women wanted.” (76) Of course, the realities of Army life made meeting these desires more difficult than one might imagine.

Race emerged as a central concern of the new AVF. Advertising agency N.W. Ayer carefully drafted ads that featured African American men and women but attempted to avoid over representation. While racist arguments employed against the legitimacy of Black military service affected advertisements, fears over an AVF staffed by lower income minorities also gave officials pause lest accusations of using low income populations as cannon fodder (an issue that arose during the Vietnam War) came to symbolic fruition. Ayer’s racially inclusive ads featured men and women, black and white, in identical environments. “Each man was shot on a loading dock; each woman in an office, standing beside a mail cart. Sex changed the surroundings dramatically; race changed nothing,” writes Bailey. (79) Two aspects of this campaign seem notable.

First, the racial/ethnic binary ignored the possibility of Latino or Asian recruits. One might ask why? Considering the decorated military service of Latino and Asian Americans in WWII, one wonders why officials had not included these populations in their plans. It proves even more perplexing when one considers that the early 1970s were the high water mark for the Chicano movement. Even though the Chicano Movement offered a dissenting voice toward Vietnam and the “American establishment” as Lorena Oropeza illustrates in !Raza Si! !Guerra No!: Chicano Protest and Patriotism During the Vietnam War Era, many Chicano anti-war leaders often voiced their discontent with military service as a central frame. Many highlighted the long tradition of decorated Mexican American military service and argued that Vietnam extracted an unusually high toll on Chicano soldiers. Take activist Rosalio Munoz: “Chicanos came back from World War II . . . and they put on their uniforms and medals and they’d say ‘We served; you can’t call me a wetback, you can’t tell me where to go.’” Munoz continued suggesting there were consequences to this way of thinking. The Chicano activist identified this martial tendency as a “cultural and psychological thing.” Military service served as a means to ”prove yourself.” (Oropeza, 149) Like Munoz, some even accused officials of taking advantage of an inherent and/or socialized Chicano trait toward soldiering. Mexican Americans were far from one mind about the war (Oropeza, 143). Why the officials ignored such developments in terms of recruitment remains a fair question. Bailey addresses this issue noting that in discussions of the all-volunteer force, the word minority had come to mean Black to most speakers. If the public discourse of elected and appointed officials lacks the proper language or conceptual model such that participants cannot even break from binary thought through speech, it is probably asking too much to expect it of an ad campaign.

Second, as Bailey notes and explores in greater depth later, gender remained a problematic construct for officials to untangle. Early adverts for women seem to suggest the Army as a useful place for finding a husband as much as a venue for acquiring skills or martial discipline. To be fair, as Bailey points out, advertising for men sometimes sold sexual intrigue as one reason to join the Army. For example, one widely used advertisement featured a young man interacting with an attractive blonde European woman. The ad even played to none too nuanced sexual innuendo, featuring the women ”holding an open lipstick tube to her mouth.” (79) Not all advertising centered on sexuality. Some appealed to recruits’ desires to travel the world and sharing that bonding experience with others. As one ad boasted, “Mike, Leroy, Rocky, Vince, and Bunts are taking the Army’s 16 month tour of Europe. Together.” (79)

Undoubtedly, the discussion of gender during the transformation of the United States military serves as one of America’s Army’s strongest insights. Developing in the same period as the countervailing forces of the ERA amendment and Phyllis Schlafly’s conservative resistance, the AVF struggled to deal with the role of women. If the military proved, in comparison to broader society, somewhat progressive on racial issues, it remained far more cautious (one could just say sexist but the author digresses) on the issue of gender. Buffeted by these political winds, the expanded use of women drew derision from Schlafly and conservatives and applause from organizations like the National Organization for Women (NOW) and other liberals. Despite attention from the left and right, often debates regarding the AVF focused primarily on male soldiers, as Bailey notes “[officials and others] almost always assumed they were talking about men.” (133-134) Yet, when the issue of women in the military came up, it only did so usually as a difficulty to be managed. Military officials framed discussions of women’s place in the Army as “one of the problems,” that required attention. (134) Nonetheless through juridical processes and social change, women had normalized their role in the AVF while also increasing their numbers (in 1971 women made up 1.3% of enlisted ranks, by 1979 it had risen to 7.6% – this was for the armed services as a whole, the Army actually experienced a greater increase from 1.2% to 8.4%).

Simultaneously, women in broader American society had entered the workforce in larger and larger numbers. As Bailey points out, the increase in female enlistment functioned in part with ideas about what women could and could not do but also served as a “by product of the move to the market, the shift from the powerful cultural traditions of military service to the structural imperatives of labor market competition.” (133) Further while the ERA waited for confirmation, its existence “opened the door for women in the 1970s.” (134) However, though military officials openly insisted that women now played a key role in the Army, conservative opponents and even the Army’s own Women’s Army Corps (WAC) questioned or expressed hostility toward female enlistment. The aforementioned Schlafly articulated concerns over loss of femininity and worse, images of “America’s wives and daughters – drafted and dehumanized, sent into combat, brutalized maimed, raped and killed.” (134) Schlafly declared the idea of female soldiers an abomination. For Schlafly, the notion of women serving in military combat was “unnatural” and ”ugly.” Falling back on hyperbole, she labeled it “a death wish for our species.” (169) Generally, those in favor of increased female enlistment used the “language of law and logic” while opponents marshaled “timeless truths, personal experience and God’s will.” (167)

WAC leadership expressed concerns as well but framed their doubts around “cultural assumptions and prejudices, . . . differences in the average physical capacities of men and women, and … the unknown impact women would have on unit effectiveness and morale.” (135) Unsurprisingly, the debate over women in the army illustrated broader attitudes about gender and sexuality that one could only describe as misogynistic. Speaking to the Washington Post in 1976 (the same year the academies were opened to women), retired General William Westmoreland revealed the tip of the misogyny iceberg. Westmoreland surmised that it was possible to “find one women in 10,000 who could lead in combat,” but that such an individual would be a human oddity. The general concluded by pointing that he and other officials were “not running the military academy for freaks.” (135) Even General Hoisington, former director of the WACs, testified to Congress rejecting the idea of women as active combatants. Hoisington, stated that she believed that it was “a matter of . . . whether we are going to preserve the things our Nation stands for … Our constitution, our flag, our family life.” Westmoreland also spoke his mind. Marshaling ideas of masculinity and honor, the former General argued that “no man with gumption wants a women to fight his nation’s battles.” Even worse, he characterized female enlisted personnel as sexually deviant, condemning “female soldiers who bore babies ‘out of wedlock”” and arguing that “this is the first time that our nation has by its official policy sanctioned an immoral policy.” (169) Bailey rightly notes the good General had somehow forgotten about slavery, not to mention other dubious government policies (Native American removal to name just one). In this fetid mix, women remained prohibited from “combat roles” yet as civilian and military officials knew, during actual combat, lines between non-combat and combat positions blurred. Thus, every decision regarding women from “initial military occupation specialties (MOS) of accessions to the percentage of promotions by gender to the design of equipment and the provision of uniforms” underwent debate and scrutiny. (135-6)

A 1982 Virginia Pilot article illustrates the changing role of women in the army and the dynamics at play in public discourse. Focusing on the experiences of Private Linda Brooks, journalist John Cott conveyed the armed services’ new orientation: “It is no longer this man’s Army. It is this person’s Army.” Describing Brooks as “small, pretty and quiet,” Cott also pointed out, almost cartoonishly, that she had been “trained to kill an enemy soldier with a knife, rifle, or her hands and feet.” According to Cott, the women’s barracks were more “dainty” than those of her male counterparts. Brooks maintained a neatly organized closet and quarters adorned with a “Have a nice day” poster, and “a fat jolly teddy bear.”

After reflecting on Brooks’ apparent skills in warfare, Cott wrote “[s]omehow looking at the bear, the posters, her school notebook full of dreamy poems, it seems impossible.” Yet when speaking with non-commissioned officer Sgt. 1st Class Robert G. Scott, Cott found open support. Wearing a black Harley Davidson t-shirt, “greasy blue jeans,” boots, and an earring, the “grisseled,” “salty,” “highly respected” tattooed adorned Doors loving officer endorsed female enlistment. “Hey you give me a boat with nothing but girls and I’ll give you the best boat in the Army,” said Scott. Brooks’ Captain, West Point grad Michael J. Lally, appeared broadly supportive as well, though he fell back on ideas of women’s ability to tame male passions while also implying that the major obstacle to women’s enlistment was sexual. “Among the girls,” the captain noted, “I got ones who get around and one’s who don’t. Frankly, I like having the women. The guys like it. It settles them down. It makes life in here a little more like home, like normal.” (Cott, John, “The Army, Inside Private Lives,” Virginia Pilot/The Ledger Star, June 27, 1982.)

Even with increasing female enlistment, consumerist desire proved inadequate in meeting recruiting needs. The Army now needed to emphasize the armed services as a place where all recruits experienced equal opportunity. The issue of opportunity illustrated more than one dimension. First, in its initial decade, concerns about the quality of new recruits surfaced repeatedly. For example, a 1980 testing scandal revealed that despite official military reports to the contrary, 1/3 of new Army recruits tested into the lowest “mental category”, category IV. Armed Services Committee member and First District Congressional member Paul S. Trible Jr (R-Virginia) lamented the fact that the only way the military could “produce an effective fighting force [was] through a statistical sleight of hand.” (Hatcher, Ed, “Military Test Scores Called a ‘Scandal,’” Virginia Pilot, August 1, 1980.) The Virginia Pilot editorial board remarked that “all volunteer army is far from what is should be.” The newspaper granted that the all-volunteer force needed more time to develop but noted if things failed to improve, “[Congress and the President] must admit that the volunteer concept doesn’t work.” (“Intelligence in the Military,” Virginia Pilot, Aug 3, 1980.) The aforementioned Captain Lally presented the quality issue pragmatically. Lally characterized his unit as “the best and worst of American society.” According to Lally, “If it goes on out there, it goes on in here. It covers the whole spectrum from sexuality to drinking and drug[s].” I’ve got college graduates and high school dropouts. I’ve got guys who grew up picking their nails with switchblades and others who were choirboys.” (Cott, John, “The Army, Inside Private Lives,” Virginia Pilot, June 27, 1982.)

Though Lally presented the new army as a balancing act between various social markers, much of the “quality debate” unfolded under the auspices of race. Bailey unpacks such controversies pointing out that much of the discussion of category IV recruits masked racial concerns. From the outset concerns about an “‘all-black army’ undercut public acceptance of the idea of a volunteer force, and many of the strongest arguments against the AVF hinged on notions of race,” notes Bailey (108). Some observers like New York’s Charlie Rangel openly stated his belief that the AVF would depend disproportionately on poor black citizens that resorted to military service because of a dearth of economic opportunities. Others like former Oakland mayor and California Congressman Ron Dellums embraced “the Army as opportunity” logic. Despite his notable anti-war credentials, Dellums looked to ensure equal opportunity. The efforts of Dellums and others forced the Army to deliver the level of equality in the Army regarding the very opportunities it advertised. This debate intersected with arguments over the Army’s new purpose. Did the Army exist as a “source of jobs for American youth or treated as the fundamental instrument of national defense[?]” While the “social good” versus national defense argument would continue unabated through the mid 1990s, the issue of race in the 1970s overshadowed the opportunity debate.

Clearly, race had long been a controversial issue in the military. As Bailey argues, “debates about the viability of the AVF were, from the beginning, deeply embedded in American beliefs about race” (128). The Vietnam War only exacerbated this tension. Moreover, overseas bases in 1970s Germany reported high levels of racial conflict and violence. The combination of the Black power movement, resentment over Vietnam, and the fear of disaffected Black veterans somehow overturning the proverbial American applecart pervaded debates at the time. When Clifford Alexander ascended to the position of Secretary of the Army (the first Black man to hold the position, appointed under President Jimmy Carter) in February of 1977, he took dead aim at the Army’s entrance test known as the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Batter (ASVAB). Alexander found the test culturally biased and of little use in revealing who would be a good soldier and who would not. Bailey points out that even manpower experts expressed reservations about the exam. Consisting of “analogies, general information, and the vocabulary of the educated classes” the test remained “subject to cultural bias and reflect[ed] the results of education disparities.” (119) Even the military’s Recruiter Journal recognized that the test results were arbitrary enough that it advised recruiters to prevent or convince potential soldiers to avoid a wild night out the day before the test, as “a hangover was … particularly deadly in combination with a three hour test … a bad morning after a long night out could easily turn a Category III recruit into a Category IV.” (120) However, others like James Fallows in Atlantic Monthly presented the dilemma as less about race and more about class. Greater numbers of poor uneducated whites were enlisting. On average Black recruits “were more likely to come from at least the lower ranks of the middle class” while also attaining a high school diploma. (121-122)

The “quality debate” registered with the Black press. When international conflicts like the Iranian Revolution reignited concerns about the military’s quality, Black newspapers and magazines viewed such debates warily. Black Enterprise asked whether or not Cold War fears about Russians really masked domestic concerns about a military consisting heavily of Black recruits. The magazine wondered aloud if the fear was really “of giving blacks good opportunities in society?” (127) By Bailey’s account, the Army did address inequalities instituting policies and programs to increase the number of commissioned officers (3% in 1975, 11.4 by 1995) and senior NCO (by the 1990s nearly 1/3 were occupied by Black soldiers) positions. During the 2003 Supreme Court affirmative actions rulings, numerous retired Army generals supported the University of Michigan’s policies.

By the mid 1990s some social scientists suggested the Army had defeated its “race problems” while providing a model for the entire nation. Again, Bailey notes that this conclusion rested squarely on a binary model of race, which ignored the rapidly growing number of Latinos in America and the Army. Moreover, Blacks remained proportionately underrepresented in some high tech areas. College tuition served as a prime incentive as 51% of Black recruits identified money for college as a primary motivation for military service. Eighty percent of Black veterans utilized funding from the G.I. Bill to pursue higher education. The multiculturalism of the 1990s altered military advertising as well. Ads like “Soldiers Pledge” emphasized the diversity found within the army’s ranks. A 1995 New York Times editorial reflects the strides the military had made in this regard. The newspaper’s editorial staff noted that Whatever its ability to wage war , the all-volunteer military has made enormous strides since its creation in 1973.” The editorial continued crediting the military for its efforts at “racial integration” and its commitment to the “upward mobility of men and women who otherwise might not have had the opportunities that the armed services had provided.” (213)

The Army had grown more astute in regard to gender as well. When the Reagan administration took office, some observers expected an end to women in the military and a resumption of the draft. Reagan and Secretary of Defense Weinberger came out solidly in favor of female enlistment. By 1988, the Army had opened more positions to women that had previously been too closely associated with direct combat. Women remained prohibited from direct ground combat and support positions that left them exposed or vulnerable to hostile forces, but the idea of women soldiers was changing. According to Bailey, Desert Storm provided “the major turning point for military women.” The Gulf conflict accorded female soldiers the opportunity to exhibit their martial skills. Five deaths also cemented their place in military service. Fittingly, some pundits also used the results of the Gulf War to celebrate the success of the AVF. By the mid 1990s, the Army reported 14% of its force was female with 48% of the number identifying as Black. A total of 14% of commissioned officers were female but higher positions continue to lack female faces. This inability to rise to the Army’s highest ranks reflects the affect of seniority. This meant that having been banned from the academies and not emerging in larger numbers until the 1980s and 1990s women were at a disadvantage considering the amount of time necessary required for promotion. Furthermore, nearly 2/3 of general officers rose from tactical operations fields, a position women remain prohibited from entering. In the end, by the late 1990s Bailey argues “It is quite possible to argue that, despite remaining problems, the army offered more opportunity to racial minorities and to women than almost any segment of civilian society.” (219)

If gender and racial issues had not been solved but at least addressed by the 1990s, controversies over sexual orientation had not. From WWI and on, the Army had ruled homosexuality incompatible with military service. As Allan Berube’s Coming Out under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War II has shown, despite this decree the military and especially wartime service opened up new possibilities for homosexual experiences. John D’Emilio touches on similar themes in Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America as has Nan Boyd in Wide Open Town: A History of Queer San Francisco to 1965. If Bailey argues that Desert Storm contributed to fully legitimizing female military service, have recent American military engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan provided any similar attitude change for homosexuals? One might argue yes.

In a March 14, 2007 Washington Post editorial, former “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” supporter and Senator Alan Simpson (R-WY) openly endorsed the idea of gays serving in the military, arguing that the “policy has become a serious detriment to the readiness of America’s forces as they attempt to accomplish what is arguably the most challenging mission in our long and cherished history.” For Simpson, the dismissal of 300 Farsi interpreters crossed the lines of good sense. The former senator asked, “Is there a ‘straight’ way to translate Arabic? Is there a ‘gay’ Farsi? My God, we’d better start talking sense before it is too late.” The primary concern Simpson argued was filling the armed services with ”able-bodied, smart patriot[s] to help us win this war.” Noting changes in social attitudes, the legacy of gay military service, and his own personal experiences with homosexual friends and acquaintances, Simpson suggested the decision to abolish “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” rested on the question of whether or not homosexuals serving openly “would enhance or degrade our readiness.” Between the absence of much-needed interpreters and lower recruitment numbers, Simpson viewed the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy as damaging. While undoubtedly social and military attitudes had changed (after all the issue of homosexuality has become largely generational with many people 40 and under exhibiting greater levels of comfort with gay marriage an similar issues than their older counterparts), one cannot help but note an heir of desperation in Simpson’s appeal. One might argue that defeat of DADT this past December hinged to some extent on the fear of terrorism outweighing fears of homosexuality. Still, whatever results the War on Terror ultimately yields, the abolition of DADT might one day be considered one of them.

In recent years, Donna Alvah’s Unofficial Ambassadors: American Military Families Overseas and the Cold War, 1946 – 1965 (2009), Maria Hoehn’s GIs and Fräuleins. The German American Encounter in 1950s West Germany (2002) and her more recent Over There. Living with the U.S. Military Empire (2010) along with Bailey’s previously mentioned The First Strange Place (1994) have begun to unravel the complexities of empire, race, and gender for overseas soldiers and dependents during WWII and the Cold War. Bailey’s newest contribution America’s Army provides invaluable insights into similar issues for service personnel domestically. Bailey’s exploration of these factors from the viewpoint of policymakers and military officials provides critical reflections on the meaning of the all volunteer military in an age of sustained conflicts.

Ryan Reft

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  1. […] of From Front Porch to Back Seat, First Strange Place, and America’s Army, Beth Bailey has long addressed issues regarding gender, sexuality and military service.  Here […]

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