On January 26, a lead editorial in The New York Times suggested that the volunteer army had failed. The editorial refers to "the Pentagon's acknowledgment, in transition papers for the new Administration, of serious trouble in recruiting volunteers." Actually, that obscure six-inch stack of Pentagon Papers doesn't support the editorial's position.
It must first be conceded that it is indeed both cheaper and easier to shanghai sailors than to hire them, and there are doubtless plenty of well-paid officers and bureaucrats in the military who would favor such a policy. But neither the Times editorial nor the transition papers make any other case for conscription.
The only substantive points in the editorial are that the armed forces fell 19,000 below planned levels in October, and that the Army is supposedly asking for another $60 million in recruiting funds. It should be obvious that 19,000 is not a particularly awesome share of an active force level of 2.1 million, and that $60 million is not a very stiff price to pay to avoid selective servitude.
The Times complains that manpower costs "eat up 56 percent of the defense budget," compared with 42 percent in 1964. But the 1978 Budget (page 83) shows that manpower costs were 47.3 percent of the defense budget in 1964, and are estimated at 58.1 percent in 1977. Moreover, military pay and related outlays accounted for only one percentage point of that 11 percent rise. The big growth in military manpower costs has not been in total military pay (up 113 percent since 1964), but in civilian pay (up 145 percent) and military pensions (up 583 percent). Some of the increase in pensions and civilian pay could conceivably have been indirectly related to the abolition of the draft, through substitution of civilian for military personnel or substitution of future pensions for present pay, but the trend of soaring civilian and pension costs was evident long before the draft was abolished.
The Times is worried that our soldiers are getting too rich: "An E-2 enlisted man, the second lowest grade, now gets $7,300 a year." Actually, that figure, which includes food and housing allowances, isn't a whole lot of money for such a risky job (e.g., compare it with police salaries). It is less than the 1975 poverty income for a family of six, and some 38,000 of these supposedly overpaid army service personnel are currently receiving food stamps. Civilian employees in the Navy average $14,485, and even the liberals' beloved "public service jobs" pay $7,700.
The Pentagon's transition papers figure that lowering the bottom three pay grades to the $2.30 minimum wage, and figuring food and housing as part of that wage, would have saved $1.7 billion. But Congressional Budget Office officials testified that returning to a draft would save a mere $500 million a year (the Feds probably misplace more than that in a week or two). Lowering wages in Health, Education and Welfare to $2.30 would surely save much more. Or maybe we could draft Congressmen and save a fortune.
The Times claims that "the quality of Army recruits keeps slipping." Yet the only apparent evidence provided is that "the proportion of blacks in the Army has risen by half since 1971 to 21.9 percent." One can imagine what sort of editorial the Times would write if the head of a large corporation implied that the quality of its labor force was slipping because there were "too many" blacks. It is easy to forget that the Navy accepted no blacks at all from World War I until 1932, when it began accepting them only for kitchen jobs. The Army had only two black combat officers in 1940, and there were no blacks at all in the Marine Corps during World War II. Now, blacks in the Army account for 14.8 percent of the top enlisted grade (up from 8.2 percent in fiscal 1972), and 5.3 percent of the officers. That is progress—not slippage.
One Pentagon transition paper, the supposed source for the remark about slipping quality, says: "The transition to our all-volunteer force has been a dynamic process with the military achieving their objective in terms of quality and quantity, thereby sustaining a strong volunteer peacetime force." Another paper says "the Army made considerable quality gains." In terms of mental test scores, there was a larger proportion in the lowest category (IV) under the last draft than under the volunteer army. The percentage of military recruits who are high school graduates rose from 58 percent in fiscal 1974 to 65 percent in 1976, and the future objective is 68-90 percent depending on the branch. That is pretty strict, since 42 percent of those unemployed in 1976 had less than a high school education, and the unemployment rate among young high school dropouts is double that of graduates.
This is not to say that the transition papers do not complain of recruiting problems. The Marine memo notes that "reductions in recruit advertising (down $4.5 million), recruiting support (down $800,000) and recruiting personnel (down by 255 people) were directed by Congress in Fiscal Year 1977." The Army paper observed "a reduction of over $50 million and some 800 people in Fiscal Year 1976 and the transition quarter recruiting resources." The volunteer army hasn't failed, it has been sabotaged.
Reenlistment efforts have also been weak. The services plan to enlist 400,000-430,000 a year to sustain a force level of 2.1 million—a very high turnover rate. First term attrition has risen from 25 to 37 percent in the last four years. If we continue to push experienced servicemen out the door with "marginal performer" discharges (estimated at 40,000 per year for 1977-82) and with pensions that look better than salaries, it will indeed require a large recruiting effort to replace them.
The Times editorial ends up endorsing an extremely costly "form of universal service, civilian and military, without exemptions. In theory, this could seek to reduce teenage unemployment." Yes, and putting the kids in jail would also take them out of the civilian labor force. If unemployed teenagers would rather be in the army, they can enlist. If taxpayers really want to hire more unemployed teenagers, they are free to drop the educational barriers that keep most unemployed teens out of the armed services. None of this requires mandatory work at low pay, which is what the flowery phrase of "universal service" really means.
One of the Pentagon's transition papers predicted that "recruiting prospects for Fiscal Year 1977 are expected to become a media issue by March 1977." It was very obliging of the New York Times to help publicize this contrived issue a month before schedule.
Alan Reynolds is a vice president of the First National Bank of Chicago and editor of its First Chicago World Report. His Viewpoint appears in this column every third month.