Should Uncle Sam Want You?


Feb 9, 2003

This commentary originally appeared in Boston Globe on February 9, 2003.

The all-volunteer army is working well

What a difference a generation makes. Thirty-five years ago, antiwar protesters were demonstrating against the draft, burning their draft cards, and refusing to serve in the Vietnam War. Today, some Americans are eager to reinstitute a military draft, claiming it is a fairer and less discriminatory way to fill the ranks of the armed forces.

Many in the armed forces disagree, including Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who opposes any new draft. The current, all-volunteer military, they contend, is more motivated, more experienced, more educated, and less costly than a draft force of the same size. Nor is the draft a particularly fair way of selecting those who should serve in the military. Perhaps a look at America's experience with conscription versus an all-volunteer service can help shed some light on this debate.

The first draft laws were passed by both the North and South during the Civil War, requiring that each state hold its own draft lottery. The first national draft was held during World War I, when the United States tried to limit exemptions and to conscript equitably by using a lottery system.

But under draft laws, many young men still avoided service because only a small fraction of those eligible were actually needed by the military. During the Vietnam conflict, for example, only 12 percent of males ages 18 to 39 were drafted. During World War II, the 10 million men who were drafted into the armed forces (joining 6.4 million volunteers) represented only 34 percent of the male population between 18 and 45. So under conscription, even with a lottery, some bear the burden of military service while others are free of it.

It is true that African-Americans are overrepresented in today's military -- they make up 22 percent of the enlisted ranks but only 12 percent of civilians between the ages of 18 and 44. But this does not mean that African-Americans in the military are more likely to be in harm's way. In fact, white members of the armed forces have a slightly higher deployment rate, and a larger fraction of whites are in combat-arms and other deployment-intensive fields -- 40 percent of whites compared with 27 percent of blacks.

There's no question that draftees have served and fought bravely in America's wars and have made enormous contributions and sacrifices -- some laying down their lives on our nation's behalf.

But by a number of historical measures, the all-volunteer force has advantages over a military filled with large numbers of draftees. According to estimates made by Clemson University professor John Warner, the average recruit today stays in the military about two years longer than did the average recruit in the early 1970s. Lower turnover results in a more experienced career force. Such experience is increasingly important as military operations become more high-tech.

Volunteers are also more likely to seek advancement, and so are likely to be more motivated than draftees. In addition, because volunteers are paid more and cannot be replaced at will, there is a stronger incentive to use them economically, with an emphasis on high-aptitude personnel.

Today's volunteer force is therefore more educated than the general population -- more than 90 percent of new recruits have a high school diploma, compared with only 75 percent of the youth population. And about 67 percent of new members of the military score high on the aptitude test used for recruitment, compared with only 50 percent of the general population. These attributes have translated into faster training times and higher performance.

A volunteer force is also less costly than a draft force of the same size. A volunteer force with its lower turnover rate requires fewer replacements, thus enabling the military to reduce training costs while reaping a greater return on expensive training. In 1988, the General Accounting Office concluded that an all-volunteer force is cheaper than a draft force by more than $2.5 billon -- an amount that would be more than $4 billion in today's dollars.

Conscription makes sense when huge numbers of recruits are needed, relative to the population. But in the last two decades, military recruits were, at most, only 15 percent of the 18-year-old population. Although the pace of military operations has increased, the manpower needed to conduct a given type of operation has declined owing to technological improvements. On top of this, the youth population is growing. Thus, there is no reason the military will need a large portion of American youth to serve in the foreseeable future.

Critics of a draft also say it is unfair economically, for two reasons. First, it levies an implicit tax on labor by forcing some individuals to serve rather than pursue their better civilian opportunities. Because volunteers view military service as their best opportunity, there is no implicit tax. Second, it would deprive those now serving of the military's competitive pay and benefits. The average level of US military pay currently exceeds the level that similar individuals might earn in the civilian economy. This was not always so. In 1970, three years before the draft ended, entry-level military pay was about half of civilian pay.

The US military has shown over the past 30 years that is capable of filling its ranks by relying solely on volunteers. The volunteers have performed well and today make up the most powerful and most effective fighting force in the world. And no one is being forced into the military against his will.

Beth Asch is a senior economist at RAND, a nonprofit research and policy analysis institution.

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