Lately the Left has been puzzled to the point of frustration about the lack of a peace movement. For some reason, protesters are not closing down college campuses, and they cannot raise a decent-enough riot to make the nightly news. So in an effort to revitalize antiwar feeling and resurrect the spirit of the Sixties, Representatives Charles Rangel (D., N.Y.) and John Conyers (D., Mich.) have come up with a great idea — bring back the draft. By reinstituting conscription we could alienate a new generation of American youth and get back to the kind of civil unrest the Left has been yearning for. At least that is the only sense I can make of it.
President Nixon instituted the All-Volunteer Force (AVF) in July 1973, and after a shaky start during the post-Vietnam malaise, it has evolved into the finest fighting force in the world. Conservatives were in the philosophical vanguard of the movement to do away with conscription. After all, nothing says “Big Government” quite like forced servitude to the state. Barry Goldwater shot a prophetic campaign commercial in 1964 in which he laid out his opposition to the “wasteful and unfair” draft, and called for a new volunteer military, “a good professional core which has real pride in its service to the cause of peace and freedom.” Goldwater predicted what we have since come to know as fact, namely that a smaller military comprised of volunteers serving under a long-serving professional officer corps will be a more-effective, more-spirited, and better fighting force. In the three decades since its inception, the AVF has produced an impressive group of committed professionals who have established a habit of winning.
Proponents of a new draft should be asked: Would a conscripted military be more able to fight and win this country’s wars? Would it be less expensive? Would it be easier to train, to equip, to clothe, and feed? Would it have better morale? Does the military leadership even want a draft? In each case the answer is no. Even a superficial examination of the issue leads one to conclude that, excepting grave national emergencies, conscription is counterproductive. But the congressmen’s proposal is not intended to build a more-effective military; their objective is social equity, an armed force that looks like America, that shares sacrifices, and casualties. The premise is that the burden of military service falls to an unfair degree on minority groups and the poor, and that the only way to correct this is to force everyone to serve.
But is this true? Not exactly. A comprehensive study of ethnicity in the military is available in the annual DOD report, “Population Representation in the Military Services.” The latest edition shows that DOD-wide, African Americans are certainly over-represented, making up 22.4% of the enlisted population, compared to 12.4% of the cohort of 18-44 year old civilians. Whites, in the majority with 62.5% of enlisted personnel, are underrepresented compared to the 69.5% of the general population. Hispanics are also underrepresented at 9.0% versus 13.1%, and other groups come in at 6.0% versus 5.0%. But within the services, the picture grows more complex. The Army has the highest percentage of enlisted African Americans (29.1%), followed by the Navy (20.6%). The Air Force has the largest percentage of enlisted Whites (72.8%, which is over-representative of society), and the Marine Corps comes very close to mirroring America’s ethnic makeup. Among officers, the variance is extremely small: African Americans make up 8.1% DOD-wide, compared to 7.9% of the comparable college educated 21-35 year old civilian population. Hispanics and other groups are slightly underrepresented, and whites slightly over-represented. Thus, it is not true that the armed services are predominately minority, or that their ethnic distributions are all wildly unrepresentative of the United States as a whole. What differences exist are either minor or explicable, and no one argues that they have had a negative effect on combat effectiveness.
Furthermore, the prospect for disproportionate minority casualties in time of war is also overstated. The DOD examined three major deployments in the year 2000 (to the Persian Gulf, Bosnia, Kosovo) and found that when data are broken down by those who actually go overseas,
among enlisted personnel, the racial/ethnic mix of deployed personnel duplicated that of all enlisted personnel. … For officers, there was a small, but consistent overrepresentation of Whites among deployed officers, and a corresponding under-representation of minority officers. Nearly 84 percent of deployed officers were White, as were active duty officers. Among minority officers, the greatest degree of underrepresentation occurred for Blacks.
The reason for this is that ethnic groups are not distributed equally among military specialties. The report states that “whites [were] more prevalent in the occupational area that was most likely to deploy, tactical operations, while minority group members were somewhat more common in less frequently deploying occupations, such as medical and dental care, administration, and supply.”
A conscripted military would not be more just; it would simply universalize injustice by removing individual choice from the equation. At least one of the proponents of the new draft seems to have understood this — last year Rep. Conyers was a cosponsor of HC 368, introduced by Rep. Ron Paul (R., Tex.), who has perennially put forward legislation to do away with the Selective Service system. The resolution expressed the “sense of Congress that reinstating the military draft or implementing any other form of compulsory military service in the United States would be detrimental to the long-term military interests of the United States, volatile of individual liberties protected by the Constitution, and inconsistent with the values underlying a free society as expressed in the Declaration of Independence.” The current military is made up of people who serve because they choose to, and they win our country’s wars. The AVF requires no compromise between principle and pragmatism.
The proponents of neo-conscription know they have no chance of succeeding, and perhaps they do not even want to. The proposal is essentially a form of political theater, a means of using the legislative process to recast protest against the war effort on racial and class lines. It is also a clever means of slipping in a program of mandatory national non-military service, if you read the fine print. They further argue that conscription would force the children of members of Congress to serve, thus our elected officials would be less willing to authorize the use of force and place their families at risk. This is similar to Pericles’s belief that only citizens with children should decide if Athens went to war. But why should the United States destroy the world’s most-effective armed force, delay promising careers of young people who can contribute more to society in the civilian workplace, and establish a mammoth public-service bureaucracy, just to encourage our elected officials to deliberate more soberly about issues of war and peace? If that is the problem, a much-easier way to achieve the same result is to draft better candidates for Congress. Or maybe just have a lottery.
— James S. Robbins is a national-security analyst & NRO contributor.