One does not casually disagree with Gen. Maxwell D. Taylor on military matters, but, after much thought, I must register my objection to his prescription [op-ed, May 12] for meeting our military manpower needs -- "a rapid return to some form of conscription."
Like President Reagan and Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, I am sworn to do what is best for the security of our nation. Also like them, I am philosophically disposed against the governmental intrusion into private lives that conscription would involve. This leads me to want to do everything we can to maintain a strong military through an All-Volunteer Force, a worthy concept that has not been given a fair chance.
Designed with the best of intentions about a decade ago and heralded with appropriate rhetoric about its importance and about the commitment to make it work, the All-Volunteer Force was short-changed and short-circuited, not all that long after it was introduced.
Potential recruits were enticed with the prospect of earning a living roughly comparable with that in the civilian world. The harsh reality, however, was that military compensation, in relation to that in the civilian sector, began declining shortly after the AVF was established; by 1979, compensation for our men and women in uniform had fallen about 7 percent behind that of their civilian counterparts. Not only that, but allowances for such things as housing and moving fell even further behind. Military families routinely spent thousands of dollars out of their own pockets for these things, and some 20,000 of them became eligible for food stamps. Only last fall did the gap begin to narrow and some semblance of equity return.
The American people were promised well-trained, professional military forces, yet training has declined in the services over the life of the AVF, in no small part because of budgetary restraints. By 1976, for example, Navy pilots flew 30 percent fewer hours per month than they had flown before the Vietnam War. In 1973, the Army reduced basic training from eight weeks to seven. Also, the average length of technical training in the Air Force dropped from 15 weeks to 11. The result, not surprisingly, is a force that is not as well trained and, therefore, not as ready to fight as it should be
The All-Volunteer Force was supposed to reestablish positive and mutually respectful relations between the military and the rest of our society, giving greater prestige to this most essential of careers and more satisfaction to those who volunteered for it. Yet, throughout most of the '70s, the pall of Vietnam hung over this founding experiment and respect for the military fell to a post-Warld War II low.
So my first conclusion is that it is premature to declare the AVF a failure. Our implementation of it may have been a failure, but that says little about the concept.
The Reagan administration's view is that we should give AVF a full and fair try, and we are committed to doing what is necessary to make that possible. To begin with, we are proposing a 5.3 percent real increase in pay to reestablish and then to maintain basic equity for those who serve in uniform. Second in our revised defense budget for FY 1982, we are proposing significant increases in training, averaging 5 percent for all the services -- and training, we must remember, correlates directly with readiness. Third, we are determined to restore the pride Americans once felt in their military personnel; by word and deed we are showing that it is a noble career, one that preserves the freedom and the security we all enjoy and cherish. Recruiting and retention data for the first half of FY 1981 show we are on the right track.
Gen. Taylor's concern about how long -- not how well -- our forces could fight is more a matter of sufficient ammunition, supplies and equipment to sustain combat, and our budget moves us in the right direction in that area as well. His worry that, once combat starts, casualties would discourage volunteers is somewhat misplaced: the premise of the AVF is that it is essentially a peacetime force; in time of a large-scale war, conscription would be resumed and we would not have to rely only on volunteers to fight the war.
My basic objection to his article, and my fundamental message here, is: let's give the All-Volunteer Force a real chance before we think about a return to the cumbersome bureaucracy, the coercive intrusion and the basic unfairness of conscripting only a small number of young people to man a peacetime military force.