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Sunday, 30 March 2008

Soldiering on: The Third Way

It's Getting Drafty

By Richard Carreño

As part of the 'Hell-No-We-Won't-Go' Vietnam-War generation, I never thought that there would ever be the right time to re-establish the draft. I do now. With 4,000 deaths (a grisly benchmark reached this week) and more than 29,000 wounded in our woe-begotten military disaster in Iraq, now on the cusp of its sixth year, the need for universal conscription has never been clearer.

But should the debate about conscription only be starkly drawn, as is normally the case, between those who favor all-volunteerism (the Pentagon) and a universal draft (say, liberals like US Rep Charles Rangel, the New York Democrat)? I think not. Nor is civilian national service, often the suggested alternative, the answer.

How about a third way? In fact, a way that to joins the strengths of all-volunteerism (zeal and personal and career motivation) and universal conscription (a more equitable distribution of hardship)? Even more novel, how about a third way that harnesses the Army's institutional structure for radical social change and the draft itself as a vehicle for peace?
Conventional wisdom tells us the Iraq War draws its recruits unfairly and disproportionately from white rural poor and underprivileged urban blacks. Conventional wisdom, unfortunately, is less than nuanced.

True, recruiting of African-Americans was successful in the initial stages of the war. But since then, enlistments have flagged. In 2000, new black recruits represented almost 24 percent of all new enlistees. By 2006, that figure dropped to 13 percent -- and there's every reason to believe (witness the phenomenal support by African-Americans of Barack Obama's anti-war stance) that black enlistment has even further eroded in subsequent years.

Conventional wisdom is also largely wrong about who gets targeted among whites. Not the poor -- at least not the down-beat poor. Pentagon data show that most white recruits are those struggling to make ends meet in dead-end jobs (often two such jobs), burdened with heavy debt, and often without medical insurance. For these underclass 'achievers,' the military is their meal ticket to post-service careers (often in law enforcement), education (soldiers are eligible to $73,836 in tuition credits and the repayment of up to $65,000 in student loans), and -- no small thing in a country without universal health care -- free medical care through the Veterans Administration.

Conventional wisdom is, of course, right about middle and upper class Americans getting a pass, and it's because of this bias that a third way to military recruitment makes the most sense now.

Under this recruitment plan, everyone through a certain age -- including young women -- would be exposed to military service. But with an important opt-out catch: Those who don't want serve in combat could choose alternative, non-hazardous support service. As significant, the draft would only be imposed during time of conventional war, or ongoing hostilities like those in Iraq and Afghanistan.

As of now, the Pentagon is quite pleased with our all-volunteer military. As well as with individual $20,000-to-$40,000 sign-up bonuses that, to me, smack more of entrapment money than pavings stones in career development.

And herein lies the ever-nagging rub: Who serves in the military and why? Should only a small minority of our citizens shoulder a national burden, especially when that burden is as wrongheaded and deadly as our presence in Iraq has become?

The answer is clearly 'no' -- both for strategic and social reasons.

First, unless we drastically change now how our forces recruit -- and the military is now facing its worst manpower shortage ever -- the US's ability to react to world crises throughout the world will continue to be compromised.

Lowering standards in response to enlistment shortfalls is also hardly the answer. An ever-increasingly technological military needs the best-educated recruits it can find. In 2003, nearly all recruits had a high school diploma. Four years later,only three-quarters did. 'Moral waivers' -- that is, ignoring brushes with the law -- are also up -- not a good sign. Unless the sign says, 'Slackers wanted!'

And there's the social cost. The current 'solution' to manpower woes -- imposing second, even third tours on enlistees -- is no solution at all. Morale drops. Families disintegrate.

If third-way recruitment is adopted, the military can have it both ways. It's combat mission will be fulfilled by those most willing to be exposed to hazardous duty -- and be appropriately compensated for it.

Liberals can also assuage themselves in knowing the burden of duty would be more equitably shared in time of war. That is, if there's war at all. (Support for war diminishes, as our experience in Vietnam showed, when the conscription of the middle and upper classes -- those least in need for the Army's financial and career benefits -- increases).

As important, third-way recruitment would encourage the military to continue its largely ignored -- even unrecognized -- mission as a transformative social agent. Despite what conservative commentators might want to believe -- the military has become largest vehicle -- and model -- of socialized welfare (career training, education, medical) in the United States.

In the short term, more economically marginalized young Americans need access to that support. In the long term, all Americans do.