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Our Nation's Dependence on the All-Volunteer Force

Recent years have seen the beginnings of another national debate over the military draft. Since 1973, the United States government has had the luxury of selecting those in our population who meet certain standards for military service. Prior to this, President Nixon was weighed down by the social turmoil and disapproval over the Vietnam War.

  • James Derek Mason (1st Lt.),
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Recent years have seen the beginnings of another national debate over the military draft. Since 1973, the United States government has had the luxury of selecting those in our population who meet certain standards for military service. Prior to this, President Nixon was weighed down by the social turmoil and disapproval over the Vietnam War. Now, almost twenty-five years since its inception, we can look back at our progress as a nation and as a people and see the success of the All Volunteer Force (AVF). In the past quarter century, society has drastically changed its view of the military and its many missions. We observe the public backing of today's volunteer military after witnessing the many welcoming receptions held for our soldiers after Desert Storm in 1991.

Critics of the AVF argue that it forces the uneducated and minorities into service. But this is false. Not only does a professional army attract intelligent members of society, it attracts enough people to fill the ranks if war should break out and it offers economic benefits the draft could not provide. The AVF has given competent service to this nation in its times of need. This system may have started with problems, but, over the years, it has created a diversified, intelligent, and very motivated force.

My father, Chief Warrant Officer 4 James W. Mason, served as a troop commander after flying as a helicopter pilot in the Vietnam War for two years. During this time, he was responsible for over two hundred U. S. soldiers, many of whom were drafted. He recalls a command time challenged by enlistees entering the military with prior drug addictions and morale and disciplinary problems. Men were being drafted into service without consideration of narcotic dependency or intelligence levels. The Army of the early 1970s was not the educated, motivated, and disciplined force it is today. Soldiers viewed discipline in a different light during the early 1970s; after breaking regulations, many challenged, "What are you going to do, put me in the Army?" Leaders had difficulties administering regulations to soldiers who found it more important to get out of the armed forces than to accomplish the mission. Officers of the late 1960s devoted much of their time to dealing with many conflicts that arose within their commands. If dilemmas could not be handled at the unit level, there was only one option: the stockade. One of the clearest differences in today's armed forces is that soldiers can be fired from their jobs or quit their assignments. This increases group loyalty and unit cohesion. Under this system, more emphasis is placed on being a team player and working towards a common goal.

During peacetime, the volunteer military has undoubtedly succeeded in producing the number of soldiers adequate to sustain operations. Some argue that the AFV does not produce the quantity of soldiers necessary. This is not true at present. If ever we faced this problem, various methods could be followed to increase enlistment levels. One would be to lower current standards. According to Doug Bandow, "to quickly increase new accessions, the military would only have to lower its standards slightly and accept a few more people who score in Category IV of the AFQT and are not high school graduates" (Bandlow, 1991, 2). To revert to the draft would not help put us on a war footing because the military has long been attracting enlistees far above the civilian average in intelligence. If a draft were to be reinstituted, the services would find themselves flooded with recruits lacking in the requisite intelligence.

Another method to increase the number of recruits would be to activate the Inactive Ready Reserve (IRR). Former active duty and National Guard personnel who are trained in a specialty and have served in military units comprise the IRR. Currently, it is composed of more than a half million former soldiers. As an officer, my life under a draft would mean increased time spent training subordinates, dealing with morale and disciplinary problems, and eventually encouraging soldiers to reenlist. As time and money are spent on individuals who have not volunteered to serve, turnover rates will increase rapidly. Of course, a small percentage would choose to lead the military life and continue their service, but far more would decide to leave once their initial enlistment time is completed. To civilians, reinstituting the draft would bring an enormous increase in taxes and social turmoil reflective of the late 1960s.

For years, critics of the AVF have charged that current enlistees are not intelligent enough to operate the complex weapon systems of a modern arsenal. But, as Gary Becker demonstrates, "[M]ore than 90% of the young men and women enlisting during the past few years graduated from high school" (Becker, 1988, 14). On average, these numbers greatly exceed the percentage posted by civilian youth.1 This also exceeds the percentage of high school graduates among the 1970s youth population. In part, this explains why we have not been frustrated by a long lasting war such as Vietnam. With higher education levels among new enlistees, leadership effectiveness is improved. Another benefit of a more intelligent force is its ability to learn new skills and retain them. As an officer in the National Guard, I can verify that a better-educated force only offers benefits. Subordinates are able to qualify on weapon systems more quickly, and this allows additional time to be devoted to other training and responsibilities. This also enables soldiers to engage in civilian education in off time. Currently, officers are required to obtain a bachelors degree before being promoted to the rank of Captain. Stiffening educational standards is possible because of the increased intelligence of soldiers. Many enlistees are also acquiring bachelors or even masters degrees. The AVF has attracted soldiers with above average intelligence. This will enable them to attain and retain training more efficiently.

Black service members find their chances of reaching upper management in the military better than in the civilian work force. This is based in part on the discrimination problem in the latter.

The volunteer system has been criticized for relying heavily on minorities to fill the ranks of the armed forces. Some claim that sons and daughters of the affluent white family never serve, placing the burden on defending the country on the lower classes, and minorities. According to Becker (1991, 14), "It is true that blacks constitute over 20% of the armed forces compared to only 12% of the civilian work force. But the Army is not staffed mainly by the lower classes, as demonstrated by the preponderance of high school graduates and by the fact that almost half of all recruits come from families with above average incomes."

Many Americans look with approval on the growth of minority participation in the service since it often provides greater educational and financial opportunities than civilian life.2 To critics, if those young minorities feel they are being burdened with the defense of the nation, why do they re-enlist in higher numbers than whites? Relying on a draft would do little to change the racial distribution in the services in any case. A social imbalance would still exist due to the fact that blacks re-enlist in higher proportions than their white counterparts.3 Black service members find their chances of reaching upper management in the military better than in the civilian work force. This is based in part on the discrimination problem in the latter. The military, composed of human beings, is, of course, not free of discrimination; but hard working team players, no matter the color of their skin, fare well in this arena.4

Perhaps the most significant problem with a return to the draft is economic. Consider opportunity cost; e.g., paying an employee to mow a lawn entails foregoing whatever else could be done with that money or with that time. Its relevance to the AVF cannot be overestimated. A great opportunity cost must be paid when our young people are pulled from civilian society to serve their nation. On average, initial enlistments of new recruits run two years and include an average monthly salary of $700. To the eighteen-year-old draftee earning $1,000 a month, this means a pay cut. Their opportunity cost per month is $300. To the eighteen-year-old who is planning to attend college and become a doctor, there are many more opportunity costs incurred. And when a NBA player is forced to clean latrines instead of dunking the ball, he, along with the nation, can lose many millions of dollars a year. Wouldn't our country be better off allowing its youth to decide what their aspirations are? People being inducted into the armed forces because of the draft would not have the choice of entering college to further their education or to serve their country.5

Only by allowing our youth to go to college, enter the work force, gain experience, and make a difference within their area of expertise will our technological growth be maximized. Those who are not able to enter college after graduating high school have the opportunity to enter the military and learn a trade or profession. Once the initial enlistment is reached, the soldier can enter the work force, enter college, or continue in the military. The volunteer system addresses the needs of our nation and the economic well-being of each of us.

The national debate over our current All Volunteer Force should be drawn to its success. Has the volunteer system been successful since its inception in 1973? Does the current system cater to the uneducated? The answer is no; the intelligence levels of recent high school graduates within the armed forces are higher than their peers who reside in the civilian world. The services attract educated individuals who have a sense of patriotism. As Bandow (1991, 9) explains, "The AVF has delivered soldiers who are not only of above average intelligence but willing warriors, patriots ready to fight for their country." To the critics who chastise the military's current system because of a presumed sense of reliance on minorities: what is wrong with minorities learning a trade or saving for college? A sense of pride and self-reliance is obtained through military service. As for the numbers needed to fight our future conflicts, the IRR could support any action that we deem necessary. We could also increase our quantity through the reduction of military entrance standards. Most importantly, the return to the draft would only increase our nation's opportunity cost. Why ask our youth to serve a mandatory service obligation when they have already chosen a future? We should continue our democratic system where citizens have the right to choose. The continuation of the voluntary system holds only benefits. The volunteer force has proven itself to be effective over the past 25 years. Let's not allow bureaucracy to ruin an effective system.

Works Cited

Bandow, Doug, "National Service: The Enduring Panacea," Policy Analysis, March 22, 1990, 15.
"The Volunteer Military: Better than a Draft," Foreign Policy Briefing, No. 6, January 8, 1991, 1, 2, 6.
Becker, Gary, "Why a Draft Would Only Damage the Army," Business Week, Feb. 8, 1988, 14.
Becker, Gary, "Leave the Draft Where It Belongs: On History's Junk Heap," Business Week, March 25, 1991, 14.


1. According to Bandlow (1991, 1), the military has had no trouble filling its ranks with qualified soldiers. During the first half of Fiscal Year 1990, "90 percent of new recruits had graduated from high school, compared with 75 percent of all 18 to 24 year olds" in the country.

2. David R. Segal explains that volunteering for military service is a rational economic move. Not only will minorities have increased opportunities while they are in the military, but once they leave the service they will do better in the civilian labor force than their peers who did not learn the sense of discipline and time management by serving in the armed forces. David R. Segal, "Conscripts and Volunteers," 1983, 11.

3. Bandow (1991, 6) argues that a draft would actually make everyone worse off: blacks who wanted to enlist could not because conscripts would fill the slots and blacks and whites who do not want to enlist are drafted.

4. Maskos argues that black soldiers perform significantly better than whites in their initial enlistment. Since 1978 about one white male in three has been prematurely discharged from the military for various reasons. But only about one in four black soldiers has been discharged prematurely for the same reasons. Even among soldiers of similar backgrounds, a higher percentage of blacks complete their enlistments. Charles C. Maskos, "Success Story: Blacks in the Military," May 1986, 5.

5. Bandow explains the opportunity costs of the draft by asking if service would make participants, "whether pre-med or the marginal student who drops out," better people? He answers yes - as long as they serve voluntarily. Doug Bandow, "National Service: The Enduring Panacea," March 22, 1990, 15.

  • James Derek Mason (1st Lt.)
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