The Thirty Years’ War

March 1, 2003

Over the decades, the nation’s all-volunteer force has absorbed its share of criticisms, carping, and complaints. The early post-draft years featured worries about drugs and morale. Then came complaints about cost. In the 1970s and early 1980s the force had trouble recruiting enough high-quality troops. Critics at various times claimed the services were “too black” or too poor.

Or too unreliable. In June 1976, Military Review published a piece entitled, “The American Volunteer Soldier: Will He Fight?” Desert Storm in 1991 demolished all lingering doubts.

Recently, the Triangle Institute for Strategic Studies voiced concern about a gap between civilian and military societies in their outlook on major issues. Others say civilian leaders have lost control of a headstrong professional warrior class.

The force persevered, achieving successes that few expected in 1973 when the draft ended. Evidently, success isn’t enough. As it nears its 30th birthday on July 1, the volunteer military finds itself in an all-too-familiar spot—under political fire.

In January, Rep. Charles Rangel (D–N.Y.) called for reinstating a draft in the name of “shared sacrifice.” According to Rangel, the US needs to scrap the all-volunteer concept because it does not equitably distribute the burden of service to the rich as well as the poor and middle classes.

Some charged that Rangel’s motive was political; a foe of war with Iraq, he hoped to embarrass pro-war lawmakers by noting their own children would not be in the line of fire.

Even so, Rangel’s move has generated a surprising amount of commentary, much of it favorable. It is worth taking stock of the implications of what he proposes. Even leaving aside the draft’s complex moral issues, there is quite a lot to ponder.

The first thing to say is that a draft would bring the US no strictly military benefits and might cause harm. One great virtue of a draft is that it quickly produces large numbers of troops. Today’s armed forces are at their authorized troop levels, however.

Military leaders note that the past three decades brought into being a different force—smaller, faster, and equipped with fewer but more effective weapons. “The systems have been designed and procured with the [all-volunteer force] in mind, and that design is not compatible with a conscripted force,” said a recent Pentagon paper.

With more troops serving shorter tours of duty, training costs in a conscript force would soar, siphoning funds from other needs.

Second, the draft would pose vast practical problems. As the US population has grown to 281 million, the armed forces have shrunk to 1.4 million active troops. Today’s cohort of draft-age youth would simply swamp the armed forces. Each year, about two million American men turn 18. From that annual pool, the services need at most 200,000—or 1 in 10.

This marks a dramatic departure from pre–Vietnam drafts, when most young men served. The new ratio immediately raises the question, “Who serves when not all serve?” Inequities such as this helped destroy the Vietnam draft, analysts note.

There is another inconvenient question: What about all of the volunteers, both those serving and those who will wish to serve? Does DOD force them aside to make room for unwilling draftees

It appears that Rangel has misconstrued the magnitude of the problem for which he prescribes the draft. “Most enlistees,” he said, “are low-income people, of all races.” This is not true.

A recent Columbia University study measured recruit status in four ways—family socioeconomic status, verbal and quantitative skills, educational achievement, and work orientation. It states flatly that today’s recruits “do not come from the more-marginal groups on any of four dimensions.”

DOD agrees. Its data show the general socioeconomic status of new recruits is roughly the same as that of the overall population.

To Rangel’s credit, he did put his finger on a real problem—wealthy, influential families are not well-represented in the volunteer force.

Charles Moskos, a military personnel expert at Northwestern University and a draft supporter, puts it this way: “The problem with the all-volunteer force is that the children of America’s elite are not serving. It’s not good for the military, and it’s not good for the nation.”

Most would like to see the privileged take a larger role in national defense. The question is how to make it happen.

John F. Lehman Jr., President Reagan’s Navy Secretary, argues that the problem is no longer “elitist disdain” for the uniform but often the roadblocks put up by recruiting bureaucracies. “Students from the best campuses all over the country are applying to the services in large numbers,” Lehman wrote in the Washington Post, “but … they are finding that they are not particularly welcome. … The real answer is to take recruiting policy away from the green-eyeshade bureaucrats who want only ‘lifers.’ ”

Lehman said such students might be lured by shorter periods of active service, followed by a reserve duty.

One thing seems clear: There won’t be a draft anytime soon. A recent Gallup Poll shows Americans oppose the draft by nearly 3-to-1. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld declared, “We’re not going to reimplement a draft. There is no need for it at all.”

The volunteer force probably will surmount this new flash of criticism as it has all others for the past 30 years. As British military historian John Keegan has written, “The Anglo–American system of small, highly trained, well-paid professionals is now accepted as the model for any military establishment which wishes to remain viable and credible.”