The (almost) all-volunteer expeditionary force of 425,000 men and women flung into battle in the Persian Gulf is the best paid, best qualified, best trained, best equipped fighting machine in the nation's history. It is also the proud product of one of the more successful social experiments of our era.
If the war against Iraq turns out to be a long one, the United States out of necessity may have to revert to conscription to obtain the manpower and, presumably, the womanpower required. But if initial successes lead to a quickly terminated conflict, it would hardly justify bringing back the draft at this time. Most of those calling for such a policy are using it to dramatize their opposition to the U.S. military involvement in the Middle East. Reinstitution of the draft would vastly expand the ranks of the anti-war movement.
The usual argument against an all-volunteer force is that it attracts a disproportionate number of blacks whose lives and limbs are then at risk if the nation gets into a shooting war. Blacks make up 12 percent of the overall population and 23 percent of the enlisted personnel in all four services. Therefore, the present system is flawed, it is contended, because in fairness all Americans should face equal obligations to serve their country.
Though well-meaning, this approach ignores certain realities. One is the higher component of whites not only in officer ranks but in the National Guard and Reserves, both of which have been called to duty in considerable numbers under the Pentagon's "Total Force" concept. Another is the likelihood that almost any kind of draft system -- even one supposedly based on a pure lottery and no deferments -- could be dodged in one way of another. That has been the case in previous wars.
People claiming to be gay would be ineligible; people fleeing the country could avoid service; the conscientious objector problem has never been solved. With the armed forces budgeted to shrink in size during most of this decade, the draft pool would be huge compared to the numbers taken.
Then we come to the matter of motivation and qualification. Most of those serving in an all-volunteer force are doing so because they want to, not because they are forced to. They are not the poorest of the poor. More than 90 percent are high school graduates, a huge increase in the education level over the conscript armies of the past. Enlistees can use their military service to go on to college.
Granted, many of the men and women now on the front lines in the Persian Gulf did not expect to be there. Granted, too, that those whose tours of duty have been involuntarily extended may have a gripe. But for the 19 years since the involuntary draft gave way to the volunteer army, hundreds of thousands of Americans have found military service not only a better-paying deal than ever before but one serving as a jumping off place for rewarding careers in civilian life.
A system that worked so well in peacetime now has a chance to prove itself in wartime.