WASHINGTON, Dec. 11 (UPI) — Should the United States bring back the military draft? That question was thrust onto front pages and TV news programs around the nation after Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., recently renewed his call for a return to the draft.
Charging that the war in Iraq is being fought disproportionately by the poor and minorities, Rangel said: "Why should a privileged body of people benefit from national security, benefit from economic gains with no risk? Another group takes all the risk and gets the least benefit."
Judging by the opposition voiced to the Rangel plan by both Republicans and Democrats in Congress — including incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. — the proposal to resume the draft is dead on arrival. On top of the congressional opposition, leaders in the military and the Bush administration also oppose a return to military conscription, which ended in 1973, because experience has shown that volunteers perform better and stay in the military far longer than draftees.
I've examined the issue of the draft closely as director of selective service in the Carter administration, under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness in the Clinton administration, and in researching my new RAND Corp. book, "I Want You, The Evolution of the All-Volunteer Force."
All the evidence shows that the draft is not needed by the nation and not wanted by the majority of Americans.
Rangel's argument is reminiscent of the debate that surrounded the establishment of the All-Volunteer Force, or AVF, in the late 1960s and early 1970s. When last seriously debated, conservatives and liberals found themselves on both sides of the issue on both philosophical and pragmatic grounds.
In 1966, the late Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman declared the draft "inconsistent with a free society."
Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., then the Senate's leading expert on military personnel issues, saw it differently. He said the AVF was "to a large extent a political child of the draft card burning, campus riots, and violent protest demonstrations of the late 1960s and early 1970s."
Back then, many opponents of the AVF argued it would lead to military adventurism by politicians and generals unconcerned with draft protests. The same claim is heard today by some critics of the AVF, despite the fact that the war in Vietnam commenced under a draft and involved far more troops and caused far more casualties than the war in Iraq.
Those who argue in favor of conscription are correct that today few children of members of Congress are serving in the U.S. armed forces. It has not, however, been established how this might affect the actions of Congress.
The norm throughout American history has been voluntary military service. The problem with conscription has been, and still is best summed up in the title of the critical report on draft reform from the 1960's, "Who Serves, When Not All Serve."
Today, if America was to return to a draft it would use the lottery system that was put in place to correct the inequities of the previous system of conscription. But even under a lottery system sacrifice would not be equal or universal.
Giving everyone in the lottery pool an equal chance of being called can be considered equitable. But given the manpower needs of the armed forces and the large number of draft-age young men eligible to serve, most young men would not need to be drafted. As a result, the burden of military service would not fall equally on all young men — it would be borne only by draftees and men and women who chose to volunteer.
While it has been suggested that the AVF is unfair in that it is made up of the poor and members of minority groups, the facts don't support this. Even in the early years of the AVF, when it was struggling to get started, the congressionally established Defense Manpower Commission examined and rejected this contention.
Each year the Defense Department publishes a report on the social representation of the armed forces. It has been true for years that the AVF represents the broad middle of American society.
Moreover, the AVF is an avenue for minority high school graduates to overcome the vestiges of discrimination that still exist in the private sector, but which have been largely eliminated in the armed forces. The military, more than any other institution in American society, is an "equal opportunity employer."
Since the advent of the AVF in the United States, nation after nation has worked to emulate the American military and move to an all-volunteer force. As world affairs and military technology have changed, fewer young people are needed to staff the military in countries around the world.
The quality of today's U.S. armed forces is unmatched in world history. Unlike the pervious mixed force of volunteer and conscripted soldiers, today's recruits are almost all high school graduates and have tested in the upper half of the "quality" range. Once recruited, the military retains so many that even the most optimistic early supporters of the AVF would be astonished at the size of the career force.
Former U.S. Secretary of Defense William Cohen summed it up best. "On countless occasions I've been asked by foreign leaders: 'How can our military be more like America's?' … We have the finest military on Earth because we have the finest people on Earth, because we recruit and we retain the best that America has to offer."
© 2006 United Press International
Bernard Rostker is a senior fellow at the Rand Corp., a non-profit research organization.
This commentary originally appeared in United Press International on December 11, 2006.