Sunday, November 26, 2006

The Draft Would Weaken the American Military

This weekend's "Hot Topic" over at the Wall Street Journal focused on the way forward in Iraq, and especially on troop levels. Should the U.S. withdraw? Should we boost the number of troops (as John McCain has proposed), or should we begin a drawdown? Also mentioned is the prospect of a military draft, which has gained immediate attention with Representative Charles Rangel's call for military conscription as a matter of fairness across class and racial lines.

Rangel is quoted as saying:

There's no question in my mind that this president and this administration would never have invaded Iraq...if indeed we had a draft and members of Congress and the administration thought that their kids from their communities would be placed in harm's way.
This is classic rhetoric from America's antiwar left, which sees the draft as impressment of the nation's poor at the service of American imperialism. Yet the paper's lead editorial provided a concise, empirical rebuttal to this leftist anti-military staple:

In this mythology, the military is overly reliant on uneducated dupes from poor communities because those from more affluent backgrounds don't want to serve. But the truth is closer to the opposite, according to a recent Heritage Foundation report on the demographic characteristics of the military. It's titled "Who Are the Recruits?" and Mr. Rangel, a Korean War veteran, might want to read it before implying that the military doesn't look like America.

According to the report, which analyzed the most recent Pentagon enlistee data, "the only group that is lowering its participation in the military is the poor. The percentage of recruits from the poorest American neighborhoods (with one-fifth of the U.S. population) declined from 18 percent in 1999 to 14.6 percent in 2003, 14.1 percent in 2004, and 13.7 percent in 2005." Put another way, if military burdens aren't spread more evenly among socio-economic groups in the U.S., it's because the poor are underrepresented.

Or consider education levels. In the general U.S. population, the high school graduation rate is a little under 80%. But among military recruits from 2003-2005, nearly 97% had high school diplomas. The academic quality of recruits has also been rising this decade. According to Heritage, the military defines a "high quality" recruit as someone who scores above the 50th percentile on the Armed Forces Qualifying Test and has a high school degree. The percentage of high quality recruits had climbed to 67% in 2004 and 64% in 2005, up from 57% in 2001.

And what about race? In 2004, about 76% of the U.S. population was white, which was only slightly above the 73% of military recruits (and 72% of Army recruits) who were white. Blacks made up 12.17% of the population in 2004, and made up 14.54% of recruits in 2004 and 13% in 2005. Hispanic Americans are also slightly overrepresented in the military compared to their share of the population, but also not to a degree that suggests some worrisome cultural chasm among the races.

The overall truth is that today's recruits come primarily from the middle class, and, more importantly, they come willingly. This makes them more amenable to training and more likely to adapt to the rigors of military culture. An Army of draftees would so expand the number of recruits that training resources would inevitably be stretched and standards watered down. Meanwhile, scarce resources would be devoted to tens of thousands of temporary soldiers who planned to leave as soon as their year or two of forced service was up.

It's true that such training would help to shape up more young Americans who could use a few weeks of Marine discipline at Parris Island, and if this is what Mr. Rangel has in mind he should say so. But the price would be a less effective fighting force, and precisely at a time when experience and technological mastery are more important than ever in a fighting force.

The draft would weaken our military. For more on this point, check out this piece by Michael O'Hanlon, who argues that an all-volunteer force is far superior to a conscript army. For a left-leaning argument in favor of the draft, check this Rolling Stone article, "The Return of the Draft."

Note also that it's not true that America's political leaders have shielded their kids from service in the military.
Phillip Baucus, the nephew of Senator Max Baucus of Montana, was killed in combat in Iraq. Also, check out my post on the New York Times article that discusses the history of miltary service among family members of our nation's political leaders.

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