|Cato Foreign Policy Briefing No. 6||January 8, 1991|
by Doug Bandow
Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a nationally syndicated columnist. The author of Human Resources and Defense Manpower, a National Defense University textbook, he served as a special assistant to President Reagan and worked with the Military Manpower Task Force.
When the United States was founded more than 200 years ago, conscription was not an issue. Indeed, had the Constitution authorized a draft, there would have been no union. Observes historian Jack Franklin Leach, "It is quite likely that had the delegates at Philadelphia extended the power 'to raise and support armies' by adding the phrase, 'by voluntary means, and if necessary by draft upon the male population,' they would have generated insurmountable opposition throughout the country and in state ratifying conventions."(1) Today, however, many federal powers that would once have been inconceivable seem natural, including conscription.
The first U.S. draft occurred during the Civil War; thereafter, the only major conflict Washington fought without compulsory military service was the Spanish American War. In 1940 Congress approved the first peacetime draft, and conscription continued, with one brief break, until 1973. At that time President Richard Nixon inaugurated the All-Volunteer Force (AVF), in part to help dissipate social conflict over the Vietnam War.
There is no doubt that the volunteer system has succeeded in peacetime. The military has had no trouble filling its ranks with top-quality people--young men and woman who are, in fact, better educated and brighter than their civilian counterparts. During the first half of Fiscal Year 1990, for instance, 91 percent of new recruits had graduated from high school, compared with 75 percent of all 18-to 24-year-olds; 96 percent of enlistees scored in the top three (of five) categories of the Armed Forces Qualification Test (AFQT), compared with just 69 percent of civilian youth. The military achieved comparable results throughout the 1980s, despite predictions that continued economic growth would make recruiting difficult (see Appendix 1).
The volunteer military has not been seriously tested in combat, and now that hostilities in the Persian Gulf are a real possibility, a number of observers are advocating a return to the draft. Some say that the falloff in new enlistments since the start of Operation Desert Shield demonstrates that the AVF is failing to meet its first serious challenge.(2) Other critics worry that volunteerism will not provide enough replacements should war come. Many long-time advocates of conscription complain that the AFV is "unfairly" placing the burden of defense on poor minorities. Finally, some people contend that the AVF has made it too easy for the president to intervene in the gulf because the policymaking elite has no contact with anyone in the military rank and file.
Do We Need Conscription to Reverse the Drop in Enlistments?
Newspapers have recently been filled with stories about young men who are reluctant to enlist because of the possibility of war in the gulf. The real stumbling block, however, may be their parents. "When it comes time to get parental consent, the interview stops," says a Milwaukee recruiter.(3) Despite the newspaper anecdotes, the magnitude of any falloff is unclear. In a widely noted story, the Washington Post contended that enlistments had dropped sharply since August.(4) But the Post counted only so-called contract recruits, principally people who sign up under the Delayed Entry Program (DEP) and agree to report within the coming year, rather than accessions, people who actually report for training. Although a drop in the number of DEP recruits could theoretically leave the military short-handed next year, the Army already has signed up enough people to meet 51 percent of its entire FY 1991 accession requirement.(5) And people who hesitate to commit themselves in advance may, nevertheless, decide to enlist next June.
More critical for the functioning of the military is the number of present accessions. According to the Pentagon, the military came closer to attaining its monthly recruiting goal in August 1990 than it did the previous year (97 percent compared with 94 percent). In September the services significantly exceeded their monthly recruiting objectives, achieving 111 percent overall and 125 percent for the Army. The October numbers were down to 93 percent and 85 percent, respectively, largely because the services had accelerated the induction of some DEP recruits in September. The November figures are not yet available (see Appendix 2). Given past fluctuations in recruiting, it is obviously too soon to assess the long-term trend.
Whether enlistments have declined or not, getting enough recruits is unlikely to ever be a problem. Says Martin Binkin of the Brookings Institution, "It's unfair to leave the impression that they can't get warm bodies to join."(6) To quickly increase new accessions, the military would only have to lower its standards slightly and accept a few more people who score in Category IV of the AFQT and are not high school graduates. A draft would not help maintain existing standards because the services are currently attracting recruits who are far above average in intelligence and educational attainment. On the contrary, a truly "representative" draft would result in an inferior force, which would include, for instance, the 10 percent of youths in the bottom AFQT category (V), who are currently not allowed to join.
Moreover, experience proves that young Americans are willing to fight for their nation when they believe its future is at stake. Tens of thousands of young men came forward during the first month after the declarations of war against Spain in 1898, Germany in 1917, and Japan and Germany in 1941.(7) The problem today is not the volunteer military but the fact that the president has not made a convincing case that America's vital interests are at stake or that "liberating" Kuwait is worth dying for. The administration's case so far seems to come down to such slogans as "Make the world safe for monarchy" and "Keep gas cheap," sentiments that are not likely to bring out people's patriotism. In short, sluggish recruiting should be seen as a signal that those with the most to lose think Washington is preparing to sacrifice lives for less than convincing reasons, which should cause the administration to rethink its Persian Gulf policy rather than consider conscription.
Do We Need a Draft to Fight a Persian Gulf War?
Military analyst Edward Luttwak told the Senate Armed Services Committee that "you must indeed consider the draft for good and substantial reasons."(8) New York governor Mario Cuomo contends that "you can't ask soldiers to fling their bodies in front of tanks and say, 'We'll take our chances on reinforcements.'"(9) Former Navy secretary James Webb and columnist Mike Royko have made similar arguments.
Even the worst-case scenarios do not predict a lengthy conflict that would require a massive U.S. force, as did World War II during which total military personnel reached 12 million, that might be severely affected by a refusal of young people to volunteer. For instance, the Center for Defense Information, a group critical of Operation Desert Shield, estimates that the United States could, with roughly 300,000 troops--less than the number now stationed in gulf-- conquer Iraq in about three months. Total casualties would be approximately 45,000.(10) Even if the conflict proved to be longer and more expensive, the United States has significant active-duty units elsewhere in the world as well as additional reserve units that could be called upon. Moreover, America's "allies" could contribute far more forces if they truly believed a war to crush Saddam Hussein was worth fighting.
The United States also has a special reserve force whose sole purpose is to provide combat replacements. The Individual Ready Reserve (IRR) is made up of nearly a half million former active-duty soldiers (plus a very few volunteer reservists brought in as part of a short-lived experimental program) who have some time remaining on their military service obligation (see Appendix 3). IRR members are available to be called up to fill in for casualties. Not only have they been through boot camp, they have also served and trained in military units, which makes them better replacements than green conscripts.
In any case, new draftees would be unlikely to get into the field before a Persian Gulf war was over. Although the Selective Service System maintains a list of registrants that theoretically allows the agency to begin conscription at the drop of a hat, not all 18-year-olds register and virtually none send in address changes, which makes the list questionable at best.(11) Thus, the agency might have to hold a new registration to produce an accurate list. Even after Selective Service began its call-up, young people would have to be given at least a week to settle their affairs before being inducted, and inductees would go to boot camp, not the field. Training of Army recruits takes eight weeks, followed by specialized-skill training to prepare new soldiers for their specific jobs. It takes the Army 13 weeks to graduate an infantryman from its One-Station Unit Training program, in which about one-third of its accessions participate. The same courses average about four weeks longer in the regular, non-OSUT program,(12) and training for other military occupational specialties takes even more time. Thus, once Congress approved conscription, a process that itself could be lengthy, it would be at least four months before the first draftee emerged from training and weeks more before large numbers of conscripts made it into combat.
Once the war was over, the draft would probably be dismantled because the Pentagon would need fewer new accessions in coming years. Before the Persian Gulf crisis, Congress voted to cut total troop strength by 425,000 over the next five years; a war with Iraq may extend the timing but is not likely to change the magnitude of the planned reductions. The Army alone has been told to pare its ranks from its current 730,000 to 520,000 by the end of FY 1995.
Of particular significance is the fact that the Pentagon disclaims any interest in resurrecting conscription. Those closest to a prospective war recognize that a draft would be of little value and result in potentially enormous costs: increased personnel turnover, more disciplinary problems, an entire force geared to getting out of rather than staying in the military, and unpredictable social turmoil.(13) Moreover, the president almost certainly understands that a proposal to institute conscription, by introducing political dynamite to the debate over the Persian Gulf, would greatly complicate his efforts to maintain public support for his policies. That realization alone probably caused him to state that he believed the AVF to be "as strong as it can be" and that he did not support a draft.(14)
Is It "Unfair" to Rely on Poor and Nonwhite Volunteers to Fight America's Wars?
For years critics of the AVF have been charging that the United States has an army of the poor, and those voices are now growing louder. John Kenneth Galbraith recently declared, "Deployed on the sands of Saudi Arabia and facing possible extinction, are young men and women drawn, in the main, from the poorer families of our republic."(15) Governor Cuomo raised the same issue by telling columnist William Safire in an interview on the Persian Gulf that "I'm not going to raise the fairness question" about a poor man's army, "but I'd like to hear what the President has to say about that."(16)
Unfortunately, that argument is not supported by the facts. Throughout the 1980s military recruits were smarter and better educated than their civilian counterparts. Ten percent of young people scored in the bottom AFQT category (V); the military took none of them. Twenty-one percent scored in Category IV, but the military drew just 4 percent of recruits from that group in the first half of 1990.(17) An Ohio State University study found that recruits have greater educational aspirations than their civilian counterparts. In short, contrary to the conventional wisdom, the services are not the last refuge of society's dregs.
If the officer corps is excluded, the military is not quite equal in social status to the civilian world, but the differences are small. According to a 1989 Pentagon survey, the family backgrounds of recruits were slightly more blue collar than those of youth generally. Parents of recruits had roughly the same rates of college attendance as did parents of civilian youth. Enlistees' fathers are relatively more likely to be skilled production workers than professionals or executives.(18) Similarly, a 1989 Congressional Budget Office study found that young men from families with incomes 20 percent below average were only marginally more likely to join the military than were those from families with incomes 20 percent above average.(19)
The percentage of "rich kids" in the military is below their proportion of society, but they are there. A Rand Corporation study, conducted in 1977, a difficult recruiting year, concluded that "military service apparently continues to be viewed as an alternative employment option for a very broad cross section of American society, from the wealthiest to the poorest."(20) Similarly, Sue Berryman of Columbia University argues that "the data show incontestably that enlistees . . . do not come from the more marginal groups on any of four dimensions: family socioeconomic status, measured verbal and quantitative abilities, educational achievement, and work orientation."(21)
Blacks, who make up about one-fifth of total personnel, are somewhat overrepresented in the military. During the first half of 1990, 21 percent of new recruits were black, compared with 14 percent of civilian youth. Army personnel sent to the gulf as of mid-November were 28.7 percent black. Although allegations of racism most often come from white pundits, one black U.S. Naval Reserve medic complained to a reporter, "I think it's wrong to have so many black men out there." The soldier's father, a firefighter, said he felt his son was being penalized because he could not afford to send him to college. "That's the unfairness I don't like."(22)
The problem with that argument is twofold. First, the injustice is in the lack of opportunities for many blacks and other minorities in American society, not in the opportunities the military offers for upward mobility. There is nothing unfair in allowing people to decide, on the basis of a number of factors ranging from economics to patriotism, that military service is their best option. What would be wrong would be to create a military made up of those who did not want to serve, which would close off yet another avenue to well-qualified minorities. In fact, a draft would make everyone worse off: blacks who did not want to serve but who were drafted and blacks who wanted to serve but were not able to join because conscripts filled the first-term slots, as well as similarly situated whites.
Second, a draft would do little to change the racial composition of the armed forces. At most, assuming that all voluntary enlistments were barred (an obviously ludicrous policy) and that an equal proportion of all racial groups was conscripted (which is highly unlikely), at today's force levels a draft would bring something under 300,000 new people a year. Of them, 42,000 would be black, compared with 63,000 blacks among 300,000 volunteers. Conscripts serve two years, so those 21,000 extra whites coming in every year would boost the share of whites in our force of 2.1 million by just 2 percent. Moreover, unless pay were cut sharply, a difficult political task since a draft would be so selective--taking at most fewer than one out of five 18-year-old males--a draft could easily account for fewer than 100,000 new accessions. Then the total impact on the racial composition of the mili- tary would be less than two-thirds of 1 percent.
The point that supporters of a racially based draft ignore is that blacks will remain overrepresented as long as they are allowed not only to enlist but also to reenlist. When asked about the overrepresentation of blacks in the military, Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, answered, "If it were unfair--and I don't accept that--the only way to correct that unfairness would be for somebody to instruct me to set a limit--I won't say quota--on the number of blacks allowed to enlist."(23) Yet it is inconceivable that the United States would ever tell blacks that, because of their race, they could not serve or reenlist.
Similarly, conscription will have no impact on the duties to which blacks are assigned. A black conscript who has not graduated from high school would be far more likely to end up in an Army combat unit than a white graduate of Harvard, whether or not the latter was drafted. Such channeling occurred even in World War II, which is frequently pointed to as the conflict during which a draft was the great equalizer.(24)
Could a Draft Prevent Foolish Intervention Abroad?
Coming barely two decades after conscription made it possible for two presidents to prosecute an increasingly unpopular war, the argument that a draft would prevent foreign interventionism is curious. A variant of the "unfairness" critique, it suggests that irrespective of the overall composition of the AVF, the problem is that the nation's opinion-making elite, the "leadership class," in columnist Stephen Rosenfeld's words, is not serving.(25) Only two congressmen have children stationed in the gulf, according to Roll Call magazine. As a result, explains former Navy secretary James Webb, "What I worry about is that today the people who are making policy are totally dislocated, in a human way, from the people who are out there."(26) Journalist James Fallows makes a similar point. "The people who are making this decision can't imagine they are going to pay any human cost for it."(27)
That charge is simple to make but hard to prove. Neither Webb nor Fallows has presented any evidence that President Bush is prepared to send thousands of people to their deaths because his own children, or those of his friends, are not at risk. William F. Buckley, Jr., argues that the complaint that we have an army of the poor
does not justify the suggestion that decisions affecting the risk of combat will be made by men indifferent to their fate because they are themselves sons of power and affluence. A reader of Ronald Reagan's memoirs will know the agony he experienced when the 241 Marines were killed in Lebanon. The sons (and daughters) of influential Americans are regularly spotted trying to gain admission to West Point or Annapolis. The notion that the President or Congress is indifferent to the life & limb of our armed forces in virtue of having ascertained that they are substantially made up of children of the working class is bizarre as a generality, contemptible as presumptive consideration of an American Commander-in-Chief contemplating the question of war and peace.(28)
In any case, a draft that affected between 1 of 5 and 1 of 15 young men would not bring in many sons of congressmen.(29)
Fewer still would end up in combat units in the Persian Gulf. It is simply an illusion to think that the children of power and privilege will not be able to manipulate a draft system. Even Webb acknowledges that the elite were able to avoid military service during the Vietnam War.
Moreover, writes Rosenfeld, "I think one can observe among the public a distinct reluctance to regard our professional soldiers as paid 'mercenaries' and therefore dispensable." People are, he adds, "treating them not as cannon fodder but as fellow citizens whose fate must find its place in the policy equation." Indeed, he argues, parents without children in the gulf seem to be identifying with parents of soldiers at risk by believing that "they should not support a policy they believe is pointed toward war unless they would be prepared to see their own sons fight." As a result, concludes Rosenfeld, "Far from making Americans more warlike, the absence of a draft turns some of them more toward peace."(30)
That pervasive recognition of the real stakes of war, even among the governing elite, is heightened by the fact that officers, who are more likely to come from upper socioeconomic groups, also die in conflict. Moreover, the reserve call-ups have caused ripple effects throughout society. Construction workers, firefighters, prison guards, electricians, students, farmers, coaches, and teachers have all been sent to the gulf. So too have doctors, nurses, pilots, and lawyers. Some small towns have been particularly hard hit, but even Washington, D.C., a community usually insulated from reality, has felt the impact of departing reservists. The law firm of Coyne Savits & Lopata, for instance, has so far lost 4 of 57 attorneys.(31) The departure of reservists, who by and large have more political clout than the average 18- year-old draftee, affects not only families and friends but also business associates, clients, and many others. For ylegislators and the president to carelessly send those people into war risks serious retaliation at the polls.
In fact, the complaint that enlistments have fallen off belies the argument that a volunteer military allows the government to intervene more easily abroad. If the president does not make a solid case that vital American interests are at stake, the age groups most affected can simply say no to military service. In contrast, a draft ensures a steady stream of new accessions irrespective of public sentiment. Although Webb contends that the president would not have deployed troops to the Persian Gulf if he had had to rely on a conscript military, initial polls show that Bush's action was widely supported; it was only the president's November decision to double American troop strength in preparation for attacking Iraq that raised significant popular doubts. Moreover, the draft did not deter Lyndon Johnson from sending more than 500,000 soldiers to Vietnam. Although public dissatisfaction eventually ended American involvement in Vietnam, it took years for political opposition to build, a period during which tens of thousands of Americans died needlessly. An AVF might have ended the war far sooner, since young people would simply have stopped volunteering.
It has been 18 years since the Pentagon issued its last draft call, and for 18 years some people have been pushing for a return to conscription. The possibility of a Persian Gulf war is merely their latest excuse. But volunteerism has worked, and worked well. The AVF has delivered soldiers who are not only of above average intelligence but willing war- riors, patriots ready to fight for their country. Our prob- lem today is not a military filled with those who want to be there but a political leadership willing to risk war for peripheral interests. A draft cannot change that. If it could, we would not have had to construct a memorial to 58,000 people who died in a purposeless war two decades ago.
Military Recruiting Results (Percentage)
|Objective Met||High School Graduates||AFQT Categories I through III|
Secretary of Defense, Force Management and Personnel.
aFirst half of FY 1990, October 1, 1990, to March 31,1991.
|Enlisted Accessions, June 1989 through November 1990
Total Accessions (Thousand)
|Recruiting Objective (Thousand)|
|Percentage of Objective Met|
|Total Accessions (Thousand)|
|Recruiting Objective (Thousand)|
|Percentage of Objective Met|
Source: Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense, Public Affairs. Note: NA = data not available.
Individual Ready Reserve, FY 1990
|Army National Guard||11,036|
|Marine Corps Reserve||36,825|
|Air Force Reserve||68,714|
|Coast Guard Reserve||5,109|
Source: Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Reserve Affairs.
(1) Jack Franklin Leach, Conscription in the United States: Historical Background (Rutland, Vt.: Tuttle Publishing Co., 1952), p. 12.
(2) Columnist Mark Shields argues that the volunteer military is no longer voluntary because the Army has frozen departures. "The End of the All-Volunteer Army," Washington Post, December 1, 1990, p. A19. However, sticking around in the face of imminent hostilities is an implicit part of a volunteer's bargain. No military could fight if essential servicemen departed in the midst of a fire fight. The basic point is, every soldier now in uniform chose to serve.
(3) Bill Turque, "Not Just an Adventure," Newsweek, December 10, 1990, p. 39.
(4) George Wilson and Mary Jordan, "Fewer Are Rallying round the Flag," Washington Post, November 28, 1990, pp. A1, A30.
(5) Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense, Public Affairs.
(7) Doug Bandow, "Replace Registration with the Reserve Volunteer Force," The Anthropo Factor in Warfare: Conscripts, Volunteers, and Reserves, ed. Lee Austin (Washington: National Defense University, 1988), p. 338.
(8) "Military Men Bash Buildup in Gulf," Washington Times, November 30, 1990, p. A3.
(9) William Safire, "Cuomo on Iraq," New York Times, November 26, 1990, p. A19.
(10) Center for Defense Information, "U.S. Invasion of Iraq: Appraising the Option," Defense Monitor 19, no. 8 (1990).
(11) See, for example, Bandow, pp. 342-45.
(12) Doug Bandow, Human Resources and Defense Manpower (Washington: National Defense University, 1990), pp. 141-43.
(13) See, for example, G.V. (Sonny) Montgomery, "The Last Thing We Need Now Is to Go Back to the Military Draft," Wash ington Post, December 4, 1990, p. A17; Casper Weinberger, "America's Best Defense--Its All-Volunteer Force," Forbes, January 7, 1991, p. 29.
(14) Susan Rasky, "House Leaders Tell President Not to Call Special Iraq Session," New York Times, November 30, 1990, p. A11.
(15) John Kenneth Galbraith, "(Class) War in the Gulf," New York Times, November 7, 1990, p. A31.
(17) The overall Army enlisted force does not score as well as new recruits, since the brightest people are more likely either to become officers or to return to civilian life, but a draft only brings in first-term soldiers. Moreover, con scription would cause reenlistments to fall, since few draftees want to remain in the service, and actually exacer bate the long-term problem of "representativeness."
(18) Directorate for Accession Policy, Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Force Management and Personnel, Population Representation in the Military Services: Fiscal Year 1989 (Washington: DoD, July 1990).
(19) Richard Fernandez, Social Representation in the U.S. Military (Washington: Congressional Budget Office, October 1989).
(20) Richard Cooper, Military Manpower and the All-Volunteer Force (Santa Monica, Calif.: The Rand Corporation, 1977), p. 231.
(21) Sue Berryman, Who Serves? The Persistent Myth of the Underclass Army (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1988), p. 4.
(22) Lynne Duke, "For Many Blacks, Call to Duty Rings of In equality," Washington Post, November 28, 1990, pp. A1, A30.
(23) Lynne Duke, "Gen. Powell Notes Military Enlistment Re mains Matter of Individual Choice," Washington Post, Novem ber 28, 1990, p. A30.
(24) Doug Bandow, "An Involuntary Military: Paying More for Less," in The Anthropo Factor in Warfare, p. 261.
(25) Stephen Rosenfeld, "President, Army, People," Washington Post, November 23, 1990, p. A31.
(26) Cathryn Donohoe, "Who's in the Army Now," Washington Times, November 21, 1990, p. E1.
(27) Quoted in Jason DeParle, "War, Class Divisions and Burden of Service," New York Times, November 13, 1990, p. A14.
(28) William F. Buckley, "Wartime?" National Review, December 3, 1990, p. 62.
(29) Columnist Mike Royko proposes as a "fair" draft one that conscripts not only the children of government officials, business executives, and the wealthy but also Vice President Dan Quayle and anyone who wrote a column, editorial, or let ter to the editor urging war. Mike Royko, "Reviving the Draft with Justice," Washington Times, December 5, 1990, p. C4.
(31) "Jordan, Coyne Reservists Stand Ready to Serve," Wash ington Lawyer, November/December 1990, p. 20; Larry Witham, "Gulf Call-ups Get Lawyers into Uniform," Washington Times, December 6, 1990, p. B2.
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