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Tim Kane and James Jay Carafano

Army Magazine
May 2006

Tim Kane is an Air Force veteran, and James Jay Carafano is an Army veteran. Both are research fellows at The Heritage Foundation.

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Whither the Warrior-the Truth About Wartime Recruiting

As America's soldiers fight overseas, they are maligned back at home. Our wars, critics contend, are being fought on the backs of the poor, the non-white and the unqualified. They're wrong.

Many Americans believe that we have a mercenary Army made up of poor, ignorant farm boys, slum dwellers, school rejects and kids who can't find a decent job. They hear this in the media all the time. It is a subtle, constant campaign propagating the myth of the underprivileged soldier.

In the New York Times, Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY) published an opinion piece on Dec. 31, 2002, claiming that a "disproportionate number of the poor and members of minority groups make up the enlisted ranks of the military, while most privileged Americans are underrepresented or absent." He proposed legislation to reinstitute a draft, sparking fears among high school and college students.

Some writers in the New York Times, like Bob Herbert, don't bother to cite any statistics at all. He wrote in a 2005 article that "very few" of the soldiers fighting in Iraq "are coming from the privileged economic classes," and that there would be no war if rich kids had to fight. He makes this claim five times in the same short article.

On Sept. 24, 2005, the Los Angeles Times wrote that a Government Accountability Office (GAO) study "appears to support the contention that service in the military reserves is most attractive to young men living in low- or medium-income families in rural communities." The Times didn't note that the GAO study actually concluded that both "the wealthiest and the poorest segments of the applicable U.S. population are less likely than others to serve in the military."

The Washington Post's top story on Nov. 4, 2005, was the single clearest example of the media promoting the underprivileged soldier story as news, not opinion. The reporter, Ann Scott Tyson, wrote that modern enlistees are "financially strapped" and coming largely from poorer neighborhoods.

The article was built around a study of enlistee demographics by the National Priorities Project, but Tyson even goes far beyond the data offered in the National Priorities Project report when she concluded that current enlistees join the military service as "a choice of last resort."

The National Priorities Project report is, in fact, typical of the faulty analysis that is used to malign the quality and character of American soldiers. The National Priorities Project ranked U.S. counties in order of their recruit-to-population ratios, and drew most of its conclusions from an unrepresentative sample of the top 20. Statistically, this is biased towards extremely small counties, and sure enough, four of the top 20 counties they looked at had just four enlistees. Adding up all the recruits from the report's top 20 counties equals 275 human beings, less than two-tenths of one percent of all the recruits that year.

The truth is that the National Priorities Project, Rangel and newspaper pundits have not looked at the issue in anything more than the most superficial manner. For example, what about the "bottom" counties? More than 800 5-digit areas had zero recruits in both 1999 and 2003, and the average household income of these zip codes is lower than the national median. When ranked in terms of total population, the absolute bottom zip code is 02215, an urban neighborhood which abuts the "Harvard Bridge" in Boston and had zero recruits. Include the other 19 bottom zip codes, and the average household income is revealed to be $22,724. In other words, the 20 largest U.S. neighborhoods that are home to lowest possible number of enlistees have median incomes that are half the national median.

Furthermore, it turns out that the 02215 zip code isn't Harvard University after all. The main zip code for the university, 02138, is a few miles away and actually has an enlistment rate of 0.08 percent. By comparison, the national average is 1.52 percent. The highest rate is 78254, just outside San Antonio, Texas, where median income is $76,000. The patriotism of San Antonia is well known, but all these anecdotal statistics really show is the absurdity of the National Policy Project approach. The only way to fully assess the demographic characteristics of recruits is by analyzing all of them.

Looking at the data is really important. If the critics are even half right, if the all-volunteer force is failing, if America's Army no longer reflects the character and commitment of the nation, then the fundamental premise which has been used to raise and sustain the U.S. military for most of the country's history needs to be re-thought.

America's customary approach to filling the ranks calls for a citizen army drawn from volunteers or conscription. This tradition derives from the 17th-century British anti-standing army ideology that held that the maintenance of democracy required limited professional land forces composed of citizen-soldiers. The standing army would be the minimum needed to address security needs. These forces were to be supplemented by the general citizenry in times of national crisis. In U.S. history, conscription was never considered the preferred means to reinforce the professional army. In fact, in the 18th and 19th centuries, drafts were thought appropriate only under the direst circumstances. Peacetime conscription was considered an instrument of militarism and authoritarianism. Reliance on the colonial, and later the state, militias (and their descendants, the Army Reserve and National Guard) was the preferred method of supplementing manpower.

Even at the outbreak of the Cold War, Congress rejected mandatory universal military training and service for all young American males in favor of what was thought to be a temporary lesser evil-a mixed active and reserve force supplemented by a two-year draft.

During the Cold War, the Army soon became addicted to the draft. It was a cheap source of manpower, and since the size of the military was quite modest compared to the over 10 million in uniform needed to fight World War II, it was not much of a strain on American society. The period between the Korean War and Vietnam was the only era in American history where a draft was maintained in peacetime. America was lulled into complacency.

When President Johnson decided against large-scale mobilization of the reserve components to fight in Vietnam, the Army's dependence on the draft deepened. At the same time, the ranks of the military expanded not so much as during World War II, when conscription touched every town and family in America, but to a much greater extent than ever before. This had a double-negative affect. On the one hand, it motivated a good number of youths who did not have a propensity to serve, to join the antiwar movement. At the same time, it allowed for numerous draft deferrals for college education and other reasons, which created the perception of unfairness.

The shift to the post-Vietnam, all-volunteer force reflected a return to a normal structure for the military. The genesis of the all-volunteer force lay in President Richard Nixon's 1968 election-year promise to end the draft. In the wake of the North Vietnamese Tet Offensive and declining popular support for the war, promising to end conscription, Nixon reasoned, would remove a ready target for antiwar protestors and congressional opposition. Shortly after taking office, Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird recommended that Nixon appoint a commission to determine the most practical means for abolishing the draft while ensuring the United States could still meet its defense commitments. The commission, established by Nixon on March 27, 1969, and chaired by former Eisenhower Defense Secretary Thomas S. Gates Jr., concluded that an all-volunteer force could serve as a practical alternative to conscription. Delivered on Feb. 6, 1970, the Gates report served as the basis for subsequent reforms.

When the Army and other military services abandoned the draft in 1973, many argued that the military would become an unpatriotic band of mercenaries. But the complaint was unpersuasive, and was countered by thinkers like economist Milton Friedman who observed that policemen and teachers were similarly "mercenary."

In fact, the all-volunteer force worked, and spectacularly well, by using motivation instead of coercion, and changed the nature of the modern American military. Soldiers received better pay and benefits, which attracted high-quality young recruits. Indeed, the change was perfectly timed to coincide with a wave of new technology that honed warfighting entirely. It is difficult to conceive of modern combat using advanced weaponry and tactics without skilled, intelligent soldiers at every level.

The irony of a smaller military force that relies on high-quality troops is that fewer civilians have direct contact with them, and they are vulnerable to stereotypical views. Many experts anticipated failure for the all-volunteer force, so its success for more than 30 years is a genuine vindication of those military leaders who argued that the practice of arms is indeed a profession.

On reflection, almost no one in uniform today, some 33 years after the all-volunteer Army was introduced, knows any other way. That's why the criticisms raised by Rangel and others are so troubling-if the all-volunteer force is really failing in its first great test, America's military needs to know.

The all-volunteer force faces its greatest trial in the long war against transnational terrorism. Can the high quality of volunteers be sustained in an environment of multiple years of combat operations? The U.S. soldiers pitching in with hurricane relief along the Gulf Coast and those fighting and dying in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere decided, on their own, to serve their nation. This includes volunteers for the reserve components. The coming years will answer the questions of whether soldiers make the choice to stay. That's what we would like to believe.
Was the decision made so freely? Could it be that unscrupulous Pentagon recruiters dupe young enlistees, taking advantage of their poverty, their lack of education and the bleak futures they face as members of America's underclass?

Our research suggests that the all-volunteer force has proved highly resilient during the long war. Not only is reenlistment in the active and reserve components strong, but recruiting (once the Army replenished its ranks of recruiters and revamped its reenlistment programs) is proving adequate as well. Most important, the war is not being fought on the backs of the unwilling, underprivileged and unqualified. According to a comprehensive study of all enlistees for the years 1998-99 and 2003 conducted at The Heritage Foundation, the typical recruit in the all-volunteer force is wealthier, more educated and more rural than the average 18- to 24-year-old citizen.

In fact, there are 33 percent fewer recruits coming from the poorest neighborhoods than there are from the richest neighborhoods. Finally, a common sense of disbelief stems from the dual observations that recruits come disproportionately from rural areas, and also disproportionately from richer areas. Both points are true, and proportion is the key word. Urban and suburban areas still provide four out of every five enlistees. And while rural areas tend to be poorer, not all are. The logic that "military equals disproportionately rural equals poor" is no better than the logic that "military equals disproportionately black equals poor." Allegations that recruiters are disproportionately targeting blacks also don't hold water. First, whites make up 77 percent of the nation's population and 76 percent of its military volunteers.

More to the point, we explored the 100 three-digit ZIP code areas with the highest concentration of blacks, which range from 24 percent black to 69 percent. These areas, which account for 14.6 percent of the adult population, produced 16.6 percent of recruits in 1999 and only 14.1 percent in 2003. This hardly means that blacks aren't courageous. On the contrary, blacks serve in higher proportions in the military, but those who serve tend to be better educated and from wealthier neighborhoods than equivalent civilians.

Turning to education, 98 percent of enlistees join up with high-school diplomas or better. By comparison, 75 percent of the general population meets that standard. Among all three-digit ZIP code areas in the United States in 2003 (one can study larger areas by isolating just the first three digits of ZIP codes), not one had a higher graduation rate among civilians than among its recruits.

In fact, since the 9/11 attacks, more volunteers have emerged from the middle and upper classes and fewer from the lowest-income groups. In 1999, both the highest fifth of the nation in income and the lowest fifth were slightly underrepresented among military volunteers. Since 2001, enlistments have increased in the top two-fifths of income levels but have decreased among the lowest fifth.

There is one inescapable difference between the Iraq and Vietnam wars. The present conflict is being fought by an all-volunteer U.S. force. Consequently, the antiwar movement is not nearly as robust, because the youth who do not want to fight have far less motivation for protest than the 1960s generation had. And so the antiwar activists are faced with a dilemma: call for a renewed draft (which they despise) or admit that young soldiers have chosen this fight as their own and are not victims.

To justify calling for a draft, and creating a sense of hysteria among young men nationally, they have to manufacture the oxymoronic case that volunteers are coerced.

Further, they suggest that recruits join the service only because they lack other opportunities, while also saying those opportunities to join the military should be diminished. But playing fast and loose with the facts to motivate opposition to U.S. policies is just wrong, a disservice to the military, and threat to the all-volunteer force that is at the taproot of both the security and liberty of American society.

Maintaining the strength and size of our all-volunteer military isn't always easy. But Americans step up when their country needs them. To suggest the system is failing or exploiting citizens is wrong. And to make baseless and false claims about the nature of U.S. troops simply to discredit their mission ought to be politically out of bounds.

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