How We Got Here
With the government and the military both discredited in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, we abolished the draft. An all-volunteer military rose from the ashes and, throughout a decade punctuated by progress as well as missteps, began to flex its muscles. This force successfully safeguarded the developed world's access to vital commodities and international markets, stood toe-to-toe with the Soviet Union, and responded with increasing effectiveness to threats confronting U.S. citizens and U.S. interests abroad.
Just as this professional force began its numerical decline, Soviet influence began to wane. After the Gulf War, our political leadership grew increasingly predisposed to use the armed forces to demonstrate U.S. commitment in response to regional crises, even in cases where U.S. interests were not readily identifiable. In the space of a single generation, our missions, our composition, and our perceived value to society changed radically. Our grandfathers fought to save the world from despotism; we interject ourselves between factions locked in intractable conflicts in places that many Americans can neither find on a map nor pronounce. Our fathers fought to vanquish an evil ideology spreading into Southeast Asia; we underwrite an unprecedented standard of living that many of our countrymen take for granted.
As a result of these changes, we have drifted away from the civilian community that formerly nurtured and understood us, and we find ourselves alienated from our civilian chain of command. Forty years ago, when Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) units were not the quaint relics and collegiate pariahs that they have become, we still were the proud progeny of the Minutemen, patriots culled from almost every family, our sacrifices destined to preserve America, her citizens, their most precious beliefs, and their way of life. Now we are the hired help—blue-collar functionaries, trained in locations where our presence will not offend, toiling at the behest of international institutions in support of causes that many of our countrymen do not understand, bearing burdens largely unknown to the men and women who sign our paychecks.
A little more than a generation ago, every American male of age served in the military, avoided serving in the military, or was excused from serving in the military. Those who did not serve, or could not serve, had brothers, cousins, uncles, and friends who did. Military service was, for one reason or another, very much on the minds of America's youth. Clearly, such is not the case today. Two years ago, a senior admiral paid a visit to Harvard University to participate in a seminar on U.S. foreign policy. Wearing Service Dress Blue, a uniform that has been a Hollywood icon for more than half a century, he cut quite a figure as he crossed the storied campus. An inquisitive student boldly approached the admiral, evidently eager to speak with him. But instead of the questions that one learns to anticipate—What kind of aircraft have you flown? Were you in Desert Storm? What do those ribbons represent?—the student said, with sincere admiration, "What great clothes! What do you do?"
Facilitated by military correspondents who cannot tell the difference between a destroyer and a battleship, as illustrated during each serial crisis in the Arabian Gulf, our crawl toward oblivion will only accelerate, because we are losing older veterans much faster than we are creating new ones.
A New Concept of Citizenship
Throughout our military engagement in Vietnam, many of America's wealthier and better-educated young citizens—political persuasion notwithstanding—actively avoided serving in the armed forces. Former Secretary of the Navy James Webb discussed this situation and its ramifications in his recent article in Proceedings . 3 As Secretary Webb noted, those Americans who came of age while resisting or avoiding U.S. involvement in Vietnam have reached their professional apogee, and will wield extraordinary influence in the public sector for the next 20 years. Relationships between the armed forces and their civilian leaders, already mechanical and chilly, stand little chance of improving. We are "they." Noblesse oblige—or, as American patriots described it in 1776, the willingness to "pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor"—was the foundation on which this country was built. This notion appears to lack its former appeal.
The inspiration behind the founding of the volunteer military a quarter-century ago was the belief that volunteers would restore the professionalism that conscription had tarnished—and this force subsequently has acquitted itself extraordinarily well. Nevertheless, like its conscripted predecessor of 30 years ago, it is not representative of the general population from which it derives. Notably absent are the sons and daughters of industry, academia, media, and government.
Perhaps coincidentally, the establishment of the volunteer military formally relieved the privileged of the requirement to sacrifice themselves on the altar of U.S. intervention. The volunteer force did not create this double standard; it merely transformed it from one that caused consternation—through the pursuit of college deferrals, medical waivers, and extraterritorial excursions—to one excised of the last vestiges of guilt and obligation. While affirmative action mandated greater access to the American Dream, the all-volunteer force all but guaranteed that facing hardship and danger abroad would remain the responsibilities of the underclass.
No Longer Making Our Quota
Whether the cause be economic prosperity, a growing disdain of military service, or a diminishing familiarity with the uniform, we are failing to attract the qualified young men and women that we need. Last year alone, the Navy was approximately 7,000 recruits shy of its goal. 4 This shortfall will only exacerbate the existing shortage of fleet sailors, a tally that now stands at nearly 20,000. When one considers how much our manpower requirements have declined over the past 14 years as we have reduced the size of the fleet and closed numerous naval installations, one can appreciate the enormity of the gulf separating us from our target audience.
One of our greatest challenges is that those young men and women who are both willing and able to sign an enlistment contract represent only a small percentage of America's youth. They generally are high school graduates who lack the financial resources, academic credentials, or athletic skills needed to pursue some form of higher education. They are young people, many from single-parent or dysfunctional families, who have managed to avoid the emotional traumas and disqualifying temptations that have claimed so many of their contemporaries. They are, truly, the very best of the lesser privileged. The good news is that most of them complete their enlistments and serve their country honorably. Many enjoy productive and rewarding careers in uniform, often in military occupations that demand significant training, strong leadership skills, and great technical expertise. The bad news is that we cannot attract enough of them.
We have dangled one carrot after another, only to find that young America doesn't want carrots. We have overhauled our advertising and unleashed a stronger recruiting force. We have offered moderately larger signing, reenlistment, and career incentive bonuses. We continually reinvent the GI Bill. We provide some of the finest technical training available anywhere in the world. Congress has initiated action to realign the three disparate retirement systems now in effect. What has been called a significant pay raise looms on the horizon. Administrative hurdles notwithstanding, we provide one of the finest healthcare programs available. Still, they do not come. If we cannot successfully man 325 ships now, what chance do we have to man 400? Or 500? Those who bemoan the current and projected state of the Navy's force structure, but limit their entreaties to the need for more hulls and airframes, ignore the human side of the equation. Our technology does not yet let us man a cruiser with a crew of 50.
The draft, as last implemented, will not solve our problems. That process was flawed from the outset because it gave Americans pursuing higher education an all-too-convenient parachute. In addition, that draft excluded women, who now are allowed to serve in many front-line combat units. Although women can fill more than 80% of all jobs and 90% of all career fields in the military, 5 they still are not required to register with the Selective Service. This construct—opportunity without obligation—is not likely to change anytime soon, according to Lewis C. Brodsky, director of public and congressional affairs for the Selective Service. In a May 1996 American Forces Information Service News article, he stated:
Our country has never drafted women, ever. The President asked that it [requiring women to register] be looked at about a year and a half ago. They [the Department of Defense] looked at it and say they've reached no conclusion. Certainly, the role of women is changing in the military. We may have to look at it more as the role of women continues to evolve. But right now, they feel that volunteers are all that are needed, in terms of women.
For the draft to be truly impartial, it must be blind. This is not to say that there should be no provisions for people in special circumstances; rather, such allowances must not shield any particular subset of the general population from the requirement to serve. If America has decided that women shall die in combat, even if only under relatively bounded circumstances, then they should be afforded unimpeded access to the arena with their male counterparts.
What Selective Service Will Accomplish
The draft will allow us to meet our manpower requirements; we will draft to fill the gaps. We will augment the volunteer force, not replace it.
Second, it will allow us to make modest reductions in our recruiting infrastructure, because the draft will reduce to some extent the recruiter's need to pound the pavement to generate contacts.
Third, it will tend to bring in more single servicemen and women, generating savings on housing, medical care, and related costs.
Fourth, it will cast a net that includes more of America's better-educated young men and women.
Most important, though less tangible, is the final advantage: the draft will tend to make the military look more like the general population. We will restore the veneer of universality.
The Obvious Hurdles
Major obstacles stand in the way of reviving even a limited form of the draft. Few would relish a congressional debate over whose blood—rich or poor, male or female, educated or uneducated, willing or reluctant—ought to be spilled in defense of our way of life. Though Congress would not necessarily be monolithically opposed to restoring the draft, the prospect is daunting. As Representative Norman Sisisky (D-VA) lamented: "The worst nightmare for a Congressman is to have to vote for Selective Service." 6 Yet one wonders if an abundant supply of cheap energy would seem so indispensable to America's well-being if safeguarding that supply were to risk the lives of the graduating class from Andover and Phillips Exeter. Likewise, it is hard to say how much enthusiasm there would be for initiating open-ended police actions if graduates from Smith and Mount Holyoke were required to dodge bullets in such places as Somalia, Haiti, and Bosnia.
Second, raising the possibility of resurrecting the draft would lead a heretofore lethargic populace to demand that our national security hierarchy address, in an open and systematic manner, questions that have been confined largely to the policy laboratory:
- What are our interests, as opposed to our preferences? What are the threats to those interests and how significant are those threats? If our force structure is "rightsized" to counter specific threats in specific scenarios, will it be sufficiently strong to achieve all of our objectives?
- Under what rubric do we place U.S. service personnel at risk when there is no clear threat to U.S. political, economic, or military interests? At what point do the pleas of nongovernmental organizations and international institutions supersede U.S. interests?
- Who determines what roles and missions are appropriate for America's armed forces? What now constitutes posse comitatus? Should U.S. service members provide direct support to both nonprofit and for-profit endeavors, such as by driving buses in Atlanta during the 1996 Olympic Games, or by helping the U.S. arms industry advertise and sell its wares overseas?
Third, a major impediment to reviving the draft is our own institutional reluctance to acknowledge that the all-volunteer force no longer is meeting our needs. The services (especially the Army, which tends to absorb a disproportionately large share of draftees) do not have fond memories of Selective Service, and no doubt wish to preserve the system that has served America well for the past 25 years. The Navy will be tempted to see its recent shortfall as an anomaly, rather than as a harbinger of looming challenges. We will redouble our efforts to make recruiting more successful, and probably will be rewarded by modest increases in the number of candidates walking through the door over the next year or two.
In response to our recruiting woes, the Navy recently announced a plan to target high school dropouts, a group that seems particularly ill-equipped to participate in the high-tech revolution transforming today's fleet. Those who follow such developments may see this initiative as a shot directly across conscription's bow. But how many talented recruiters will we cripple professionally when we still find ourselves unable to achieve our goals? How many additional resources will we need to allocate each year to compensate for another one- or two-point decrease in the propensity to enlist? What we euphemistically describe as a "fiscal year recruiting shortfall" translates, one year later, into undeniable hardship at sea, particularly for our most junior sailors, who make up the difference with their sweat and blood. These are the same sailors who are leaving the Navy in droves at the end of their initial enlistments.
The greatest hindrance to restoring the draft will be the preemptive logic of the market analyst, who will explain that the volunteer military permits society to allocate its resources in the most efficient manner. Those who have the financial wherewithal and academic talent to pursue careers in government, industry, academia, medicine, finance, or the media are not penalized by having to bear arms. Nor, then, is society at large, which can retain the valuable, specialized services that these people have to offer. The men and women who volunteer to serve in the armed forces have examined their options, and believe military service to be the best fit for their capabilities and resources. The market, left to its own devices, has determined the outcome. So if military recruiting falls short of expectations, the services should make marginal increases in their financial incentives until they meet their targets. This process will ensure that the armed forces attract enough volunteers, and will obviate the need for the gifted and talented (e.g., aspiring market analysts) to wear their country's uniform.
Where We Go from Here
Reviving the draft would not be cheap, smooth, or transparent. The Selective Service System would have to grow to meet its added responsibilities, expanding at a time when many government agencies are heading in the opposite direction. Second, the U.S. military is not prepared to deal with a large influx of young Americans. Our receiving, screening, and processing bureaucracies would require significant retooling. Third, with the draft would come service members who might express their displeasure by winding up on the wrong side of the disciplinary process—the unpleasant aspects of the 1960s and 1970s revisited. It is impossible to know what percentage might choose this course, but random drug testing, untried until the 1980s, might help to keep some of the more reluctant draftees on track for the duration of their enlistments. Similarly, the threat of an adverse discharge or outstanding arrest warrant may keep many of the upwardly mobile, college-bound recruits in the fold. Negative reinforcement, perhaps, but reinforcement nonetheless.
We must recognize that maintaining the volunteer force risks permanently dividing America's citizenry into three camps: the masters, the martyrs, and the spectators. This paradigm, unspoken but unchallenged, does not portend well for our long-term survival. Sending one's own children into harm's way, even under the most compelling of circumstances, is gut-wrenching. The dispatching of gladiators, while never undertaken frivolously, appears to be somewhat more palatable. No bone in the guise of a $1.33 per day increase in hazardous duty incentive pay or an $.83 per day increase in family separation allowance (items that were touted in the Department of Defense's 1998 annual report) can compensate for second-class citizenship.
The events of the past 30 years suggest that many persons in the highest echelons of both the public and private sectors will be keenly interested in keeping any incarnation of the draft off the table. Such persons may yet be able to preserve the volunteer military, and the regrettable social contract that it represents, through the simple act of increasing military compensation. The price that America will be willing to pay to maintain the status quo probably will vary directly with the amount of urgency behind the armed forces' plea to revive Selective Service. If the new financial incentives are sufficiently attractive, more of our young fence-sitters will commit; once in uniform, more of them will stay. Several such initiatives are now being reviewed by the armed forces and by Congress.
But no amount of money will resolve the more pressing and problematic issue of caste. It will, in fact, harden lines of demarcation that already are well delineated and understood by all of the players involved. Unfortunately, given our disinclination to address candidly and publicly those issues that might upset existing systems of cultural spoils, it is safe to assume that we will continue filling the wine barrel by ourselves.
Lieutenant Commander Harris is commanding officer of the Ardent (MCM-12)/MCM Rotational Crew Bravo.
1. LGen. Samuel V. Wilson, USA (Ret.), address to the Sons of the Revolution in the State of Virginia, 28 February 1993, Richmond, Virginia. back to article
2. 1999 Department of Defense Annual Report to the President and the Congress , chapter 9. back to article
3. James H. Webb Jr., " The Silence of the Admirals  ," U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings , January 1999, pp. 29-34. back to article
4. Laura Myers (AP), "Military Draft May Be Renewed," The Daily Camera , 26 September 1998. back to article
5. 1998 Department of Defense Annual Report to the President and the Congress , chapter 10. back to article
6. Myers, "Military Draft May Be Renewed." back to article