With the crisis in the Persian Gulf and the deployment of nearly half a million American service personnel has come a call by some people to reinstate the draft. The idea is to avoid the situation we had during the Vietnam War, when a greater proportion of minorities and people from lower income levels ended up on the front lines. A draft, they say, would ensure that we have a more representative cross section of men and women in our military. I sympathize with that goal, but we don't need to go back to the draft to do it. The all- volunteer force is preferable for a number of reasons.
We have the best and brightest young men and women in the armed forces today that we have had at any time in the 35 years I have been associated with the military. The pay and educational benefits we have provided over the past 10 years have helped the armed forces draw more motivated, middle-class Americans into the services.
The cash bonuses, specific skills training, assignment-of-choice option and the new GI education bill have enabled the Pentagon to recruit from segments of the population that could not be tapped by a draft. During the draft era, the mind-set of potential recruits was to avoid it. To a large degree, the higher- and middle-income draft eligibles were able to do so because they got education deferments. The only groups not able to avoid Uncle Sam were minorities and those in the lower-income range.
In the all-volunteer force, the services have used these improved incentives to reach out to that same group of people in middle America that had previously not been included in the draft. By providing them the means to attain their goal of higher education through the GI Bill, we have been able to attract a wider range of young Americans. They are now proudly serving their country with the knowledge that money is being set aside to continue their education after they leave the military.
What has the volunteer system produced? It has filled the ranks with people who want to be there. They are better motivated and easier to train. They are career- and goal-oriented and present fewer discipline problems. All of the above characteristics would be lacking in a force assembled from conscription.
Ask any commander today about the discipline problems in his unit under the all-volunteer force as compared to a group of recruits from the draft era. He will likely tell you that he spent a lot of his time handling disciplinary matters with the draftees. In the volunteer force that time is spent training a more willing and brighter recruit.
In 1973, under the draft, only 66 percent of new recruits had a high school diploma. Today that figure is 98 percent, compared with only 75 percent in the general population of the same age group. That is another direct result of the incentives we have offered young Americans to join the all-volunteer force. The military has been better able to compete with the private sector for brighter and more motivated individuals, something that was not possible under the draft.
The draft tended to funnel minorities and lower-income recruits to the lesser technical skill areas, such as combat arms on the front lines. By contrast, the volunteer system offers more opportunities for its minority recruits to advance and to compete across the board for all skill positions.
In addition, the dropout rate from training is much less with the all-volunteer system. Today, recruits serve for longer periods of time, almost four years on the average. In the draft, it is generally two years and out. These factors mean we are achieving substantial savings in training costs under the volunteer system and getting better soldiers. This system also provides for more continuity.
The bottom line is that we have a more representative sample of middle America in the volunteer force in 1990 than can be achieved in any draft, and we don't have the morale and discipline problems that accompany conscripts through their two-year hitches.
We have achieved this by providing educational and cash incentives, which are where the focus should be in 1990. This has proved to be a successful formula, one we should expand on. We ought to be considering raising the GI Bill benefits from $300 a month to $400 a month for active-duty participants and from $140 to $200 a month for those in the National Guard and for reservists. That would help us maintain the high-quality personnel level we have today.
The writer, a Democratic representative from Mississippi, is chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee.