Whither the Warrior-the Truth About Wartime
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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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