04/10/2014 06:24 pm ET Updated Jun 10, 2014

The Unforeseen Consequences of the Volunteer Army


Recent episodes of random violence at U.S. Army bases, the latest at Fort Hood in Texas, have underscored one of the little-recognized and heartrending consequences of our reliance on a volunteer military to defend our country.

I spent most of my career at U.S. Army bases. I have found them populated by dedicated servicemen and women who embody our finest values of patriotism and devotion to duty. I believe that in terms of their comportment and citizenship, they set an exemplary standard that the rest of our society would do well to emulate.

But the unprecedented demands we are putting upon our voluntary military today is taking a fearsome toll that frequently leads to psychological breakdowns. In World War II, Korea and Vietnam, our people suffered terribly. Many were killed or returned horribly maimed. But their trials by fire were of limited duration. World War II lasted only about three and a half years, and Korea less. Vietnam went on for several years, but few enlisted personnel were required to serve more than a year in combat zones.

Such is not the case today. Our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have continued for more than 10 years, and the fighting in Afghanistan is still going on. This continuing conflict puts extraordinary pressure on the small number of people in uniform, many of whom are rotated in and out of the combat zones eight, 10 or 12 times, sometimes more.

Human beings are not built for that. There is a limit to how much people can take. I fought in Korea and Vietnam and have firsthand knowledge of the demands of the battlefield. I have seen many brave men break down under the drumbeat of cannon fire, adverse living conditions and constant danger, and none of them were called upon to endure it indefinitely.

It is a positive thing that our medical corps can save many gravely wounded soldiers today who would have died in earlier wars, but physical injuries are only one part of the story. A great many of our returning veterans today are afflicted with traumatic brain injuries or post- traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which our physicians are only now beginning to grapple with. Many veterans are unable to hold down jobs and return to civilian life. They experience high rates of drug and alcohol abuse, divorce, violence and suicide. And it should come as no surprise that a few of these individuals erupt with acts of random violence.

Some of our veterans, even those without obvious physical wounds, will require care for their lifetimes. Our political leaders must come to grips with the limitations of the volunteer military. We have powerful weapons, but they depend on the men and women who use them, and there are limits to human endurance.

Lt. Gen. Clarence E. "Mac" McKnight Jr. (USA-Ret) is the author of From Pigeons to Tweets: A General Who Led Dramatic Change in Military Communications, published by the History Publishing Company.