PBS Premiere: Sept. 2, 2003Check the broadcast schedule »

Historical Comparison: Then and Now

Facts and Figures

The United States recently observed the thirtieth anniversary of the All-Volunteer Force, with ceremonial re-enlistments performed at the White House and around the nation. The AVF was established in 1973, largely in response to vociferous opposition to the Vietnam War and to compulsory service. Since then, the armed forces have developed a much different image. Recruiting campaigns emphasize the practical benefits (college funds, technical training) as much as they mention the ideals of national service, and military leaders speak frequently of the benefits of an army of committed professionals.

Despite ongoing controversy over the role of military service in society, and the economic imbalances that often correlate to volunteer service, a great deal has changed over the last thirty years in the way soldiers and support staff are recruited, trained, and deployed.

Present (2001)
Average age of newly enlisted soldiers25 126.8
Average age of commissioned officers31.7 134.1
Number of married soldiers20%52%
Percentage considered minority18%42%
Average length of service
for an enlisted soldier
4 years6 years
Average length of service
for a commissioned officer
7.6 years11.5 years
Ratio of enlisted soldiers to officers6.5:15:1 2
1 1981; 2 1997

Numbers of active-duty and reserve troops

On the whole, the Army has grown smaller, with less active-duty and reserve troops. The last time the Army was this small was before WWII.


In 1971, inductees did not have a real choice in their jobs nor where they were assigned. Everyone took the Armed Forces Aptitude Battery (a test which identified skills) and based on those results, and the needs of the Army, inductees were given assignments. Volunteers took the same test, but would talk their aptitudes through with their recruiter and choose among their options. Today, everyone entering the Army takes the Armed Forces Aptitude Battery, which is updated on an annual basis, and they are offered a number of choices based on their aptitudes and on projected openings.

1971- "Today's Army Wants to Join You"

1973- "Join the People Who've Joined the Army"

1973- (End of the draft era, beginning of all-volunteer force)

1981- "Be All You Can Be"

2001- "An Army of One"


During the Vietnam era, the Army did not need to offer incentives. The draft filled the ranks, based upon the Army's needs, for the most part. Today, there is the Montgomery G.I. Bill, there are incentives such as bonuses for choosing certain positions that the Army needs particularly to fill, the Army can offer a choice of assignment, both in unit and location. Those were not options during the Vietnam era. Back then, in the case of career soldiers, for soldiers who had served out the period of their draft and wanted to re-enlist, there were options in assignment, as a matter of retention, not recruiting.

The Role of Women

During the Vietnam era, women played a support role. They were part of what was called the Women's Army Core (they were known as WACs). They served as nurses, secretaries, administrative support, they worked in finances. Today, women serve in all sorts of positions in the Army, with the exception of infantry, armor, and field artillery, which are considered the combat arms branches. Those are the forces you can expect to be in direct combat with the frontline. All women are, however, trained to be infantry (to shoot a rifle, to do road marches, first aid, etc.), even though they won't serve in those branches. Every soldier gets that training. As the war in Iraq has shown us, even support forces are vulnerable.

Based on information supplied by the U.S. Army Public Affairs Media Relations Division