Saturday, June 18, 2005

Draft Pick

The New Republic Online

Draft Pick
by Michelle Cottle
Post date: 06.17.05

I've never been comfortable with the idea of a military draft--considerably less so since I became a mom. For all the arguments in favor of sharing the burden of national defense, I shudder at the thought that some day my sweet son could be shipped off to fight in a foreign conflict that turns out to be as poorly planned, dishonestly sold, and abysmally mismanaged as the current bloody mess in Iraq.

But opposing a draft on purely selfish grounds doesn't exactly make one glow with pride or patriotism. As such, I've always taken great comfort in the fact that military professionals are generally opposed to conscription, too, but for pragmatic, performance-based reasons. These are, after all, the people presumably in the best position to know what serves the needs of our armed forces. Among the most compelling and commonly cited of their objections are the deep personal commitment and higher quality of recruits provided by an all-volunteer force--with the latter advantage becoming ever more vital as our military becomes ever more reliant on high-tech weapons systems that require bright, well-trained personnel to operate.

Unfortunately, since the late 1990s, the military--particularly the Army--has been having trouble meeting its recruiting goals, leading to a decline in the quality of recruits. As noted by The Washington Monthly (for which resurrecting the draft has long been a pet cause) between 1992 and 1999 the percentage of enlistees deemed "high quality" dropped from 74 percent to 59 percent. Thanks to the nightmare in Iraq, that situation has grown dramatically worse in recent months. As revealed both by independent media reports and the military's own recruiting data, the Army in particular is being forced to use some pretty desperate tactics to come anywhere close to meeting its (already scaled back) recruiting targets. In the process, the service is undercutting many of the arguments against a draft and highlighting some of the most troubling features of our all-volunteer force.

First and most importantly, the quality of our troops is in jeopardy. The news of late has been filled with accounts of how stressed-out Army recruiters have been breaking all the rules in order to meet their monthly quotas. Reported violations have included Colorado recruiters coaching a prospective enlistee on how to fake a high school diploma and cheat on his drug test; a Houston recruiter threatening to have a prospect arrested if he didn't show up at the recruiting station; and an Ohio recruiter signing up a young man with a documented history of mental illness. According to The New York Times, the Army's own stats show that substantiated cases of recruiting improprieties rose more than 60 percent between 1999 and 2004. Confronted with this new round of abuse charges, the service actually suspended recruitment for a day in order to reinstruct its personnel on the ethical dos and don'ts of enlistment.

Just as troubling as the anecdotal evidence of misconduct by recruiters is the general lowering of standards. This year the number of Army enlistees without a high school diploma rose from 8 to 10 percent, the maximum level allowed. Similarly, the number of enlistees scoring in the lowest acceptable category on the military's vocational aptitude test also has risen to meet the Army's upper limit of 2 percent of recruits.

But the Army has been compelled to do more than just stretch its quality standards to the limit. Now, rather than a 2-year minimum enlistment, recruits are being offered a shortened stint of only 15 months. This abbreviated enlistment, experts warn, means an abbreviated training period and less-prepared troops being shipped off to combat. Of course, these days the Army is increasingly employing its "stop loss" program, which involuntarily keeps soldiers on active duty beyond their agreed-upon enlistment period. So it's entirely possible that these less well-trained soldiers will wind up spending a full two years in the service anyway, regardless of what their recruiters promised them.

These sorts of shenanigans do not seem to be helping. May was the fourth consecutive month in which the Army missed its recruitment target (by a full 25 percent this time), even after having lowered its monthly goal from 8,050 to 6,700. The Army National Guard and Reserve are having similar problems despite upping the eligible enrollment age from 35 to 39.

Its back against the wall, the Army has resorted to that most reliable of incentives: money. Just recently, the service doubled its signing bonus to $40,000. From a certain perspective, this could be cheered as recognition of the invaluable service our recruits are providing their country. The less rosy view is that the Army is dangling increasingly irresistible bribes in front of cash-strapped young people--intensifying the existing inequity of a military where the non-wealthy do the dangerous job of safeguarding the freedoms of the more privileged, who in turn have the luxury of not volunteering to get their asses blown up. The creation of a mercenary fighting force, many of whose members signed on because they had few other life options, cannot be what military professionals have in mind when they sing the praises of an all-volunteer corps.

With the military's operational objections to the draft being eroded by its own policies, all those soaring, idealistic arguments in favor of national service start to gain ground: the fundamental justness of expecting all Americans to share in the greatest of citizenship burdens; the need to foster a shared sense of national purpose among young people from all walks of life; the need for the nation's elites to better understand the military, if only to make well-informed decisions about its structure and function. And when you check out the sorts of draft proposals that have been floated in recent years--which include assigning most conscripts (as opposed to volunteer recruits) to support jobs rather than combat posts or combining the draft with a mandatory national service program that makes military service just one of several options--the idea starts to look frighteningly sensible.

Indeed, if the military's manpower crisis continues apace, and the lower quality and quantity of recruits starts to undermine our national security, basically the only argument that will soon be left against the draft is that it is politically infeasible. But this would require effectively admitting that we are determined to let an unrepresentative slice of America shoulder our defense burden (and inadequately at that) just to avoid pissing off affluent, politically potent soccer moms--like me. I'm not sure how long even our utterly politically self-serving congressmen could compromise our collective security on such shaky grounds--especially with no end in sight to the war in Iraq, much less the broader war on terror. And my own maternal fears notwithstanding, I'm not sure how long I would want them to.