In November, Selective Service Director Thomas Turnage announced that nearly 25 percent of the nation's 18-year-olds had failed to register for the draft in 1981. That announcement came as the Military Manpower Task Force was completing its interim report to the president, scheduled for delivery early in December. President Reagan will then have to decide what to do about draft registration and the draft.
No observer of the debate can ignore the fact that our armed forces are plagued by serious problems—of recruitment, retention, and mobilization. While the raw numbers of recruits have come close to meeting military requirements, serious questions have been raised about the composition of the resulting armed forces. Many of the objections are ideological—that disproportionate numbers of minorities are enlisting, for example—and need not concern us. Of far more importance are questions of military effectiveness.
Although it is not the case that mercenary armies are poor fighters, as some have alleged, thoughtful observers nevertheless point out that a military force works best when it contains a mix of class and educational levels. The Gates Commission (which made the case for the All Volunteer Force) tended to neglect such factors. But manpower experts such as Charles Moskos and Jerald Bachman make a strong case that the absence of middle-class, college-educated (or college-bound) "citizen soldiers" from today's AVF seriously reduces its effectiveness—even though under the draft such persons only served two-year hitches and departed.
At least equally serious is the military's failure to retain its skilled technical personnel—electronics technicians, petty officers, etc. In an increasingly technological military, such personnel are absolutely critical. Yet in some disciplines the retention rate is as low as 30 to 40 percent.
The third problem is that of mobilization. In time of war the standing army must be backed up by large numbers of reservists. But, as is well known, the reserves are presently short 350,000 members—a 20 percent deficit. Sen. Sam Nunn, for one, has advocated a draft specifically for the reserves.
All of these problems are laid at the doorstep of the AVF. Yet the fact is that the shift from coercion to voluntarism, itself, is not responsible for any of them. What has occurred over the past decade amounts to the sabotage of the AVF by a combination of three developments.
To begin with, military pay has been cut sharply. That's right, cut. Since the last draft call in December 1972, entry-level basic military pay, corrected for inflation, has decreased by more than 20 percent. A similar decline has occurred in total military compensation at all pay grades. So it's no wonder that the AVF has had increasing difficulty recruiting any but low-skill, low-education-level people and retaining skilled personnel.
A second factor that has helped to sabotage the AVF has been the gutting of educational benefits. After creating the AVF in 1972, Congress proceeded to abolish the GI Bill, substituting a minuscule ($100 million) Veterans Educational Assistance Program. At the same time, Congress vastly expanded federal aid to civilians—Guaranteed Student Loans, Basic Educational Opportunity Grants, National Direct Student Loans, etc., totaling $6 billion in 1981. As Charles Moskos puts it, "Congress has created a system of educational benefits which offers more to those who do not serve their country than those who do."
Finally, it is Congress and the Pentagon that must bear the responsibility for the atrophy of the Individual Ready Reserve. As noted in Michael Hinz's article in these pages last month, the military does not even keep up-to-date records of IRR members' addresses, nor does it spend anything on periodic retraining of these reservists. With that kind of neglect, it's no wonder people are concerned about mobilization.
The answer to the AVF's problems does not lie in a return to conscription. It lies, rather, in repairing the decade of sabotage by restructuring incentives across the board. The first step would be to make federal higher-education assistance conditional on some form of military obligation. This could include payments for college prior to service (to help attract citizen-soldier college graduates), a revived GI Bill for veterans of service, sabbatical leave for skilled technicians to obtain advanced skills, and IRR enlistment grants. (Incidentally, far less than the present $6 billion would be needed, permitting some net reductions in federal spending.)
Second, the entire military compensation system needs restructuring, on a two-track basis: one track stressing longterm incentives for career military personnel and another specifically focused on the two-year citizen-soldier enlistee. Bachman, Blair, and Segal in The All-Volunteer Force, Charles Moskos in various articles (for example, "Saving the All-Volunteer Force," The Public Interest, Fall 1980), and Roger Nils Folsom ("Can Conscription Work?" Cato Institute, May 15, 1981) have all made proposals along these lines. Such a system would restore a healthy mix of attitudes and experiences and increase the esprit de corps of the military.
Finally, as Michael Hinz recommends, voluntary registration for the reserves should be set up, based on suitable incentives, to restore the IRR to an effective mobilization resource. Military studies estimate that forced registration would save only 7 to 15 days of the seven months to prepare a draftee for war. How much better to develop first-rate reserves using recruitment and training incentives.
The geopolitical rationale of those urging a new draft is that it would send a signal to friend and foe alike that the United States is "serious" about a strong defense. But what kind of message are we sending if we must resort to coercion to get people to defend us? How much stronger a signal it would be for the world to see a strong, robust, proud military force peopled entirely by those who believe in what they're doing. That a free people are willing to defend themselves conveys more of what this country is all about than a draft ever could.