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Leave The Draft Where It Belongs: On History's Junk Heap


Economic Viewpoint

LEAVE THE DRAFT WHERE IT BELONGS: ON HISTORY'S JUNK HEAP

The resounding success of the U. S. military during the gulf conflict should silence for a while the many voices that called for reinstatement of the draft after the U. S. responded to Iraq's aggression.

The gulf conflict was dominated by highly sophisticated weapons with advanced computers and guidance systems. To use these weapons successfully, men and women in almost all military occupations, including the infantry, must be well-trained and experienced.

New recruits cannot operate complicated and expensive weapons with only a few months of training. This is why during even the height of the draft, highly skilled tasks were performed mostly by volunteers who made a longer commitment to military service. And occupations requiring lengthy training have proliferated as reliance on sophisticated weaponry has increased.

SUPERB MORALE. In the early 1980s, Congress voted a large pay increase for enlisted personnel as part of the Reagan-initiated military buildup. By paying better and offering attractive working conditions, the military managed during the ensuing decade to recruit remarkably well-qualified men and women with superb morale. Almost all are high school graduates, compared with less than 80% of civilian workers, and the military chooses graduates with better scores on aptitude tests. During the draft era, the military was forced to take many high school dropouts, since most college graduates and many high school graduates were able to avoid the draft. Drug use is much lower in the military than in the civilian sector, in sharp contrast with the Vietnam period.

The military has been criticized for relying too heavily on minorities and for not distributing the task of defending the country fairly among social classes and racial groups. It is true that blacks constitute over 20% of the armed forces compared with only 12% of the civilian work force. But the Army is not staffed mainly by the lower classes, as demonstrated by the preponderance of high school graduates and by the fact that almost half of all recruits come from families with above-average incomes.

I believe the military deserves praise rather than criticism for offering black men and women better work opportunities than they can find in the private sector. About a third of noncommissioned Army officers are blacks, as is the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In contrast, the number of blacks who head top corporations can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

Some critics of present recruitment policy want to use military service to help overcome illiteracy, to instill patriotism, and to guide confused young people toward finding themselves. Military service is ill-suited to accomplish these laudable goals.

They are inconsistent with the main purpose of a military force--to resist aggression successfully with a minimal loss ef lives and material. There is much evidence in all wars that disgruntled and low-quality recruits, let alone illiterates, do not perform very well.

SOCIAL PROBLEMS. The education system, like the military, has come under pressure to help solve intractable social problems. Once again, praiseworthy aims, such as achieving racial and social balance or serving as substitute parents, have little to do with the goals of education: teaching students to read, write, and analyze. Luckily, military leaders were more successful during the past decade in fending off well-meaning but diversionary pressures.

Critics of voluntary military service, such as former Navy Secretary James H. Webb Jr., see a populist advantage to the draft: It makes it harder to wage unpopular wars that would be resisted by potential draftees and their families. The Vietnam experience offers some support to that view. But the other side of the argument is that in pursuit of a popular cause, the draft may encourage war and even reckless sacrifice of life with its provision of cheap and ready manpower. Put crassly, this argument holds that commanders of volunteers will show greater concern for the lives of their troops, if only because volunteers are highly trained and were recruited with attractive pay and working conditions. For whatever reason, the top brass seemed more intent on minimizing coalition casualties in Desert Storm than it had been in Vietnam, where most troops were draftees, though sensitivity to criticism at home was also a factor.

The skills of a voluntary force are most needed in the early stages of blitzkrieg warfare, when the first few days--even hours--may be crucial. On the other hand, during a fully mobilized and protracted war such as World War II, millions of soldiers are needed. The high pay required to attract so many recruits voluntarily would sharply raise taxes and impose a serious strain on the budget. During that kind of mobilization, a draft eases the pressure on the budget and taxes by shifting much of the cost to young people.

The gulf war apparently has convinced some military reformers in the Soviet Union that a voluntary army may have higher morale and fight more efficiently than a conscripted one. It would be a paradox if that lesson was better learned by the Russians than by Americans eager to bring back the draft.GARY S. BECKER


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