Richard Fernandez {op-ed, Dec. 18} said my characterization of the enlisted ranks of the Army as a cross section of lower-middle-class America was inaccurate. He cited studies by the Congressional Budget Office and the Department of Defense that purport to show that U.S. forces are representative of our youth population. Yet these studies do not address the central question -- which Americans will die in the Persian Gulf war?

Although ascertaining the social background of soldiers poses problems, we have good data on the education and race of recruits. I will focus on the Army, because it probably will suffer the most casualties in the war, and because it was the service that most heavily relied on the draft before conscription ended in 1973.

In 1970 the Gates Commission established the basis of the all-volunteer force, arguing that recruiting should be based on monetary inducement guided by the marketplace. A key premise was that young people with good prospects should not have to waste their time in the military.

The early years of the volunteer Army were a disaster. By the late 1970s, most recruits were either white high school dropouts or more educated minorities. The Army was wracked by crime, drugs and racial strife. Nevertheless, the DoD insisted the new Army represented American youth and that everything was fine.

At the beginning of the 1980s, Gen. Maxwell Thurman set in motion recruitment policies that included a new GI Bill and short enlistment options (both bitterly opposed by the DoD, because they upset marketplace principles). The quality of Army recruits improved dramatically. The result was far fewer discipline problems, giant strides in training and the best race relations in any American institution.

The number of blacks among the Army enlisted remains high. If casualties reflect these percentages, African Americans will account for about 26 percent of the deaths in the Gulf, double the black proportion in the general population. In contrast, blacks made up 12 percent of all deaths in the Vietnam War, a figure in proportion to both the number of blacks in the military and the youth population in general at that time.

What about educational levels, a reasonable measure of class background? By 1990 more than 90 percent of Army entrants were high school graduates, but only 3 percent had some college. In contrast, one out of two high school graduates goes directly on to college. During the draft of the Vietnam era, about one out of five Army entrants had some college.

Surely many of today's soldiers will go on to college, yet few are likely to become America's leaders. At Harvard, Yale and Princeton, the combined number of undergraduate veterans is nine. In the Princeton graduating class of 1956, some 200 of us were Army draftees.

Say what you will about the draft, it does ensure racial proportionality and some number of elite youth serving in the ranks.

Today's Army certainly has few bottom-of-the-barrel youth. But to hold that it is representative of upper-middle-class youth defies reality.

Those who benefit most in America will not die in the Persian Gulf. But that's what the marketplace military is all about, isn't it? -- Charles Moskos The writer is a professor of sociology at Northwestern University.