How Volunteer Armies Works

This famous U.S. Army recruitment poster first entered usage during World War I.
MRI/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

There has scarcely been a time in human history when rival factions haven't clashed over territory, resources and ideology. The evolution of warfare has closely shadowed the technological ascent of man, with each scientific advancement inevitably fitting into some new ingenuous scheme to spill blood, raze cities and reduce entire populations to ash.

As such, some sort of army or similar notion has marched side by side with us across the millennia. The weapons and tactics have changed, but the military remains the ultimate means of enforcing policy and protecting a nation's citizens, either by action or by threat.


But how do you fill an army's ranks? Largely, there are two schools of thought: conscripted armies and volunteer armies. Conscripted armies are either partially or entirely manned through compulsory military service. If you fit the desired requirements for service, then guess what -- you're in the army.

Of course, that's merely the basic model -- conscripted armies can take many forms. For instance, Israel requires military service of both sexes, while the United States has only drafted males during its periods of conscription. Similarly, desperate or embattled factions (such as Nazi Germany toward the end of World War II) have handed out guns to old men and youths. In the past, nations have also filled the rank and file of their armies with slaves or peasants, while reserving command roles for the ruling elite.

A volunteer army, on the other hand, depends on willing recruits. This basic model also varies from situation to situation. During a time of crisis, volunteers may be motivated by a sense of patriotic duty. The rest of the time, to win willing soldiers, military recruiters might have to pony up some serious compensation such as competitive pay, education and a promise of a better life.

Volunteer and conscripted armies litter the history books, as well as the day-to-day headlines. Examples of each exist on every occupied continent.

In this article, we'll examine the challenges of maintaining a volunteer army and what it takes to maintain its ranks.


The Economics of Volunteer Warfare

An officer puts a stamp on the arms of candidates during an Indian Army recruitment rally in Allahabad, India.
AP Photo/ Rajesh Kumar Singh

To understand the demands of running a volunteer army, you have to understand how conscription-based militaries work. With a draft in place, recruiters have access to a large pool of recruits at a low cost. If every able bodied male has to show up to serve his country, then you obviously don't have to waste money on an expensive advertising campaign. You also don't have to offer the level of compensation needed to compete with civilian employers.

Yet nations that engage in conscription generally spend far more on sorting and training their wealth of warm bodies. Still, many recruits will only be suitable for less-skilled or infantry positions, requiring conscript militaries to depend on volunteers for skilled positions and command roles. Finally, conscripted soldiers generally don't stick around any longer than they have to, beefing up training costs with the added expense of excessive turnover.


With a volunteer army, on the other hand, soldiers tend to serve between three and 15 years, as opposed to the typical two to three years of a conscripted soldier [source: Britannica]. Furthermore, the volunteer soldier tends to be more suitable for skilled and command positions.

However, just like any premium product, the volunteer comes with a higher price tag. Unless volunteers join out of patriotic zeal or sheer willingness to survive, recruiters will have to compete with civilian employers for potential soldiers. For this reason, volunteer militaries such as the United States offer not only competitive pay, but also education and job training. And as mentioned earlier, attracting recruits also requires expensive advertising campaigns.

To put a price tag on some of these issues, the U.S. Congressional Budget Office recently revealed that the cost of maintaining one Army sergeant on the ground in Iraq is $500,000 [source: Utley]. That includes salary, benefits, pension and support staff. Keep in mind that this figure isn't factoring in past training costs. As for bringing in new recruits, the U.S. military's annual 2008 budget for recruiting and retention programs was $7.7 billion [source: Vogel].

Is it worth the expense? On the next page, we'll take a look at what critics and supporters of the volunteer military system have to say.


Volunteer Army Recruitment Challenges

A U.S. Army recruiter hands out flyers to NASCAR fans in front of a mobile interactive recruiting exhibit in Charlotte, N.C.
Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images Sport/Getty Images

You don't need to look any further than the American Civil War to find an excellent case study in the disadvantages of depending on a volunteer army. During the first few weeks of the war, Southerners had flocked to join the Confederate army in the tens of thousands. By the end of 1861, however, morale had taken a steep dive and roughly half the Confederate troops suddenly had the option to leave the army with the expiration of their one-year enlistments.

In an attempt to stave off this massive troop drain, the Confederate Congress passed legislation to reward reenlisting soldiers with $50, a 60-day vacation and the freedom to change regiments and elect their own officers [source: Wert]. In the end, however, the fledgling government was forced to institute a draft.


Similarly, critics of the United States' current volunteer army point to the military's continuing struggles to meet its recruitment goals -- a fact often attributed to continued operations in the Middle East. Of course, the U.S. Military has reserve units to call on, as well as all those selective service cards in wallets around the country. Should the U.S. need to reinstate the draft, there are millions of men aged 18 to 25 already in the system.

The U.S. Military has been forced to lower its recruitment standards, as it simply can't afford to turn as many volunteers away. Commentators have suggested recruiting more women, ending "don't ask, don't tell" and enlisting more non-citizens, in addition to further lowering standards and raising enlistment incentives.

In addition to struggles to bring in new blood, the U.S. Military continues to fight to retain trained officers with higher bonuses to keep them from taking their military leadership experience out into the civilian business world.

Demographic changes threaten both conscription and volunteer armies. If a nation's birth rate drops, it reduces the overall recruitment pool. Whether you intend to lure in new soldiers with a legal summons or a lucrative singing bonus, you only have so many citizens to draw from.

And what does a nation do then? Well, in 15th and 16th century Europe, the popular choice was to employ foreign mercenaries, who often proved dangerous and difficult to manage -- especially when not paid. This led to a third option: conscripting members of the peasant class to serve under nobleman officers. In doing this, the powers of Western Europe slowly wore down the social structure that separated nobility from common man -- which in turn led to the rise of the large, integrated volunteer army.

Explore the links on the next page to learn even more about volunteerism and the military.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles


  • "Defense economics." Britannica Online Encyclop√¶dia. 2009. (July 15, 2009)
  • Gaidar, Egor. "Socioeconomic Progress and Transformation in Military Recruitment Systems." Russian Social Science Review. November 2005. (July 15, 2009)
  • "If Uncle Sam wants you, he has to be able to find you." USA Today. June 30, 2005. (July 15, 2009)
  • "The Case for Conscription." History Today. April 2008. (July 15, 2009)
  • Utley, John Basil. "The Cost of Boots on the Ground in Iraq." Foreign Policy in Focus. Sept. 30, 2008. (July 16, 2009)
  • Vogel, Steve. "Military Recruiting Faces a Budget Cut." Washington Post. May 11, 2009. (July 16, 2009)
  • Wert, Jeffry D. "Confederate Conscription Woes." Civil War Times. October 2006. (July 15, 2009)
  • Wong, Leonard. "All-volunteer Army: AN ongoing experiment." USA Today. June 25, 2008. (July 15, 2009)