WASHINGTON — In recent weeks, motivated partly by a looming war in Iraq, a debate has again begun about whether the United States should adopt military conscription to replace its all-volunteer force. While the motivation behind this debate is understandable, it would be a very bad idea — the equivalent of replacing the New York Yankees with a bunch of middle-aged weekend softball players in a sports event.
We do need to consider new ways to bring people into today’s armed forces, which increasingly involve only certain strata of the American population. But the draft is not the answer.
First, today’s U.S. military is outstanding, and one should be careful to fix things that aren’t broken. In fact, today’s U.S. military is the best in world history. Thirty years after conscription ended, it has completed the transition to a truly professional force. Most military personnel today are well-educated, experienced in their jobs, disciplined and highly motivated. A trove of data back up this claim; one particularly telling fact is that today’s soldier, sailor, airman/woman and marine has served an average of more than 5 years in the armed forces, the most ever. The U.S. has won its last two wars, Afghanistan and Kosovo, with a total of less than two dozen Americans killed in action, and the 1991 Persian Gulf War remains one of the great mismatches of military history.
Second, the excellence of the U.S. military is apparent in many types of missions. This is true not only in traditional combat, but in peacekeeping missions in the Balkans and in war-fighting missions like Afghanistan that required remarkable coordination with local allies. Today’s American troops are excellent warriors; they are also excellent diplomats, trainers and, yes, nation builders.
Third, there is no recruiting or retention crisis. There were numerous shortfalls a few years ago, when the economy was so strong and military compensation had atrophied a bit. In particular, the services often missed their recruiting goals by 1 or 2 percent a year in the late 1990s. But recent generous pay raises, better recruiting advertisements and other factors have essentially solved the problem. There are still specific shortfalls in certain technical areas, but they should be resolvable through standard management tools such as targeted pay increases.
Fourth, there is not an excessive representation of minorities in today’s armed forces. Yes, African Americans make up a larger share of the Army than of the population as a whole, for example. But the U.S. military is one of the best integrated and most equitable institutions in the country. The country’s top officers have recently included an African American, a Polish American and a Japanese American. As a recent excellent article in USA Today showed, minorities do not make up a disproportionate share of frontline combat forces either. If anything, it is the rural white man, not the minority individual, who holds that latter job.
Fifth, the U.S. military provides good opportunities and good training for minorities and for disadvantaged members of society. We should not take that opportunity away from those who really want it in an effort to somehow make the armed forces more diverse. The recruiting ads don’t lie — the military is a fantastic place to learn computer skills, electronic skills, mechanics and other technical skills, as well as leadership and teamwork.
Sixth, it is not true that having a professional military, supposedly divorced culturally and geographically from much of society, has made the U.S. too quick to reach for the trigger. In fact, the problem just a few years ago seemed to be that we were too casualty-averse for our own good.
Whether one agrees with President George W. Bush’s decision to risk war in Iraq or not, there are understandable reasons for his policy, it has been developed patiently, and it is likely to be the only major war of his presidency.
Adopting the draft would risk returning us to the days of the so-called “hollow Army” in the 1970s, when discipline problems were rife, morale low and military performance less than optimal. Even if such dire results did not ensue, returning to the draft would go against the grain of virtually all major countries of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, who have recognized in recent years that the draft does not produce a top-caliber force. They are right to follow our lead on this matter; we would be wrong to reverse course.
It does make sense to offer a shorter tour of duty for certain types of jobs in today’s military; that might appeal to young Americans who want to serve their country without making the armed forces a career. But such tours should not be used to fill the country’s most critical and most demanding combat positions. The Yankees are the right team for the World Series, and professionals are the right people for the extremely demanding jobs asked of today’s U.S. armed forces.
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