In calling for a new look at resurrecting the draft, Rep. Charles Rangel raises a very good point. Our all-volunteer force, for all its many virtues, is not representative of American society. The privileged are largely absent from it. Thus the burdens of defense and the perils of combat do not fall even close to fairly across all of our society.
But the disparity is not one of race. The representation of minorities differs only slightly from that in the population at large. A black Ivy League graduate is as unlikely to serve as a white graduate. Nor is the problem today one of elitist disdain for the uniform. The cause of this very serious problem is instead found in the bureaucracies that encrust our fighting forces.
In the three decades since the draft was abolished, the characteristics of our forces have changed enormously under the hand of the recruiting bureaucracies. Using tools of the behavioral scientists, they have given top priority to finding candidates who above all will stay for a full career. This screening is producing a force of broad racial and gender diversity but of a boring sameness in other respects.
There is, for instance, surprisingly little social, economic or political diversity. Eighty percent identify themselves as Republicans. Nearly a third of the cadets and midshipmen at the service academies come from career military families. A force made up overwhelmingly of career professionals has become more and more separate from civilian culture, with housing, schooling, worship, shopping, recreation and health care all provided within securely guarded bases.
This is a fine culture built on service and patriotism, but a culture of orthodoxy, resistant to and isolated from change. More important, as Rangel has said, it does not represent a cross section of the United States.
This is not a new phenomenon. It has been a characteristic of service life between all our major wars. In each period the onset of war brought in a tide of citizen-soldiers and sailors from every social stratum -- disruptive, irreverent, unorthodox and renewing. In every era they brought new ideas and attitudes and were a catalyst for innovation and transformation. It is the need for this creative leavening of large numbers of non-career enlisted personnel and officers drawn from every neighborhood that attracts people to the idea of resuming the draft.
An important source of this leavening should be our top universities, where admission is based not on money but on merit. Edward Gibbon wrote in "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" that Rome fell when the most talented and well-educated young Romans no longer served their time in the Roman cavalry.
A similar trend has emerged in the United States these past decades, and nowhere more than in the Navy. In the World War II Navy, 95 percent of the officers were reservists from civilian universities, with the Ivies prominent: Six of the last nine presidents were among them. Such people are now very scarce in the service.
Recruiters have long blamed the elite campuses for harboring an anti-military bias, but that is no longer a valid excuse. Students from the best campuses all over the country are applying to the services in large numbers, but except for the now very rare ROTC units, they are finding that they are not particularly welcome. As an associate fellow at Yale, and an overseer at the University of Pennsylvania, I am frequently asked for help by outstanding students who have gotten a cold shoulder from recruiters. If they are given any encouragement at all they are offered Officer Candidate School class dates a year or more off.
Rich and poor, these are kids who are genuinely motivated by a sense of duty and love of country, though they would never put it quite that way. Yet they find they get a very cool reception from Navy recruiters. Priority is now reserved for career enlisted candidates whom the Navy pays to put through college. A fine program in itself, it has been greatly expanded because the recruiting bureaucrats believe commissioned former enlisted sailors are certain to stay for at least 20 years, whereas Joe College is more likely to serve the minimum obligated service and then defect to the reserves. (In fact, OCS graduates from civilian universities have the same retention rates as Annapolis graduates.)
To further deter such candidates, the minimum active-duty requirement has been considerably lengthened. A candidate who wants to fly, for example, must agree to a minimum of 10 years on active duty. Thus the lively ready-room mix of academy graduates, Ivy Leaguers and small-college and ex-enlisted graduates is gone. Today's mix is very different and the culture more conservative, career-conscious and orthodox.
Another important source of diversity used to be the "six by six" program, still used sparingly by the National Guard. Such programs attracted college-bound kids to take a gap year by enlisting for six months of active duty and then six years in the drilling reserves.
Rangel is right. We have a real problem, and the draft in concept is an appealing answer. But it is not a practical answer in the United States, where the services could take only one out of 30 eligible 18-year-olds, thus replacing one kind of unfairness with another.
The real answer is to take recruiting policy away from the green-eyeshade bureaucrats who want only "lifers" and restore common sense. We should actively seek to attract the most talented from all backgrounds with service options that allow them to serve their country and experience the character-building unique to military service without having to commit to six to 10 years' active duty. Under present policies, naval and military service is being, in Gibbon's words, "degraded into a trade."
John Lehman, who was secretary of the Navy in the Reagan administration, is a member of the 9/11 Commission.