As American troops sit poised for war, we once again hear the cries of draft protesters. This time, however, they're not saying "End the draft!" but "Bring it back!"
They say the volunteer Army is too black, too poor, too "unrepresentative." Writes Newsweek's Richard Lacayo, "The prospect of fighting is causing the fairness question, which dominated the congressional debate on taxes…to return in a new form: Will the U.S. be asking its poor and working classes to do most of its fighting and dying?" A draft, critics suggest, would be fairer.
This attitude is based on a false image of U.S. forces and a misguided understanding of fairness.
It is true that the U.S. military does not perfectly mirror the population. It represents not some demographic map—an affirmative-action officer's ideal—but a combination of military needs and individual recruits' choices. It is too young, too healthy, too male, and too educated (94 percent high school graduates versus a 75 percent graduation rate generally).
It draws few recruits from the upper end of the money-and-education distribution, but it also gets few from the bottom. Contrary to the Princeton student who gushed at a teach-in that people like him shouldn't "shirk responsibilities to the people who are there, who are underprivileged, who have no means, who have no way out, who are going to die for me," the volunteer military is not a bunch of losers with nowhere else to turn.
In fact, the military draws primarily from upwardly mobile working-class people—the same sort of people who become firefighters and police officers. An analysis of recruits from 1979 (a year in which improper norming of aptitude tests permitted less-qualified enlistees) found that they came from higher socioeconomic groups than did full-time civilian workers of the same age.
As study author Sue Berryman of Columbia University writes, "The military profile is that of a classically upwardly mobile group. Its members come disproportionately from the racially, ethnically, or socio-economically less enfranchised subgroups in the population." In these respects, Berryman says, today's military resembles the 19th-century enlisted force, of which immigrants made up as much as 70 percent. Throughout American history, she notes, military service has been a vehicle for both economic and social advancement.
Draft advocates see Berryman's results as proof that there's something wrong with U.S. armed forces. "They are not the children of the affluent," says Charles Moskos of Northwestern University. "Whites from the suburbs—you just don't find them."
But is this a problem? Consider the constant harping on the Army's racial composition. We are frequently reminded that blacks make up 20 percent of the military but only 12 percent of the U.S. population. This "disproportionate" representation is hardly surprising.
In recent decades, the military has been the single fairest employer of blacks, offering them an essentially meritocratic system in which race is neither a handicap nor an advantage. And since the military relies heavily on on-the-job training, it has also reduced the educational disadvantages that hinder many blacks in civilian life. It makes perfect sense that blacks have joined the military in large numbers, have reenlisted, and have excelled.
Still, guilt-stricken pundits insist on seeing black soldiers as victims. Instead of according them respect—or trying to determine what the military knows about equal opportunity that civilian employers could emulate—draft advocates just want to get more white bodies into uniform.
In part, draft advocates want more people to feel the sting of military action. Without a draft, they fear, the public, particularly college students, will not rise up to protest military intervention. "If the U.S. military were truly representative of the country, you would have people going through the roof right now," says former Navy Secretary James Webb, a prominent draft advocate.
An all-volunteer force unquestionably makes some kinds of military action easier politically. Decision makers don't need a grand moral crusade to justify sending volunteers into action; the national interest will do. The all-volunteer force gives the president great freedom to commit U.S. troops.
But it also exercises a powerful check on military action. If a war is unpopular, there is immediate feedback at the recruiting centers: Volunteers just don't show up. The government is forced to raise pay (spreading the cost to the public at large), cut troop levels, or both. There is no way to fight a long, drawn-out, no-win war like Vietnam without a guaranteed supply of conscripts. A volunteer military, however "unrepresentative," is extremely democratic. Potential soldiers can vote with their feet.
Which brings us to the heart of the matter: the meaning of fairness. The philosophical communitarians who advocate universal service have no qualms about involuntary servitude, provided it is equally distributed. They believe we all owe some portion of our lives to the state, so those who don't give their due enjoy an unfair advantage. Group representation becomes, in this scheme, a leading indicator of fairness.
But what about fairness to the individual? To pluck someone from his home, to subject him to military discipline and military law, to endanger his life and thrust him into combat—to do all this without his consent—is the grossest betrayal of American ideals, regardless of how egalitarian this invasion is. Our standard of fairness should be how well we preserve each person's control over his or her own life.
The all-volunteer force bears witness to that standard. It leaves the choice to serve to the individual. It does not enslave the young to further the goals of the old. And it asks the rest of society to pay explicitly, through taxation, for the service it demands.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "What's Fair in War?".