The issue of social class inequities haunts the current debate over whether to restart the military draft. Few sons of the affluent served on the front lines in Vietnam, and thus, argue some, conscription policies favored the rich over the poor. Yet equally few men from wealthy backgrounds are volunteering for service now, leading others also to conclude that the absence of a draft is a policy favoring the rich over the poor.
Both viewpoints are correct, for social class is inextricably bound up with whatever system of military recruitment is utilized. A return to conscription would thus not necessarily bring any greater equity in who serves the country.
Consider our most recent experience with conscription. The United States relied on both the draft and voluntary recruitment to fight the Vietnam War: half the army battle deaths were draftees, half volunteers. But however the men were recruited, the burden of fighting and dying was not shared equally by all social classes.
Young men were deferred from induction if they failed to meet minimum mental standards, primarily measured by their performance on the Armed Forces Qualifying Test (AFQT). Men from less affluent backgrounds scored worse on the test, and this disproportionately disqualified the poor. Occupational deferments, on the other hand, more often exempted the affluent. Deferred occupations, among them astronomer, mathematician, and linguist, generally required a college degree, and the affluent far more often completed college than the poor.
Student deferments had the same effect. Two-thirds of the men enrolled in higher education held such deferments, thus excluding 2 million registrants from induction. The social class differences were striking: of those from the poorest fifth of the nation's families, 18 percent were so deferred; 26 percent of the sons of the middle fifth were deferred; but 51 percent of those from the richest fifth held the student deferment.
With student and occupational deferments limiting the number of draftees from up-scale homes, and mental standards restricting the number from down-scale homes, conscripts most often came from the middle of the spectrum. But the same was true for volunteers during the Vietnam era. The poor tended to be disqualified for similar reasons, and the affluent tended to disqualify themselves. As a result, those who did serve--conscripts and volunteers combined--came disproportionately from middle-income families. The rate of military service among men aged 21 at the height of the Vietnam War rose from 36 percent of the poorest-fifth men to 40 percent of the middle-fifth men, but then dropped to 23 percent of the richest- fifth men.
Since 1973 the United States has relied on purely voluntary means of recruitment. With unemployment high for poor youth and well-paying job opportunities low, the peacetime Army has become an especially attractive employer. But with superior civilian opportunities still available for more affluent youth, the military remains a much less attractive option. Not surprisingly, then, the rate of volunteering is inversely related to social class. However, since volunteers must meet minimum mental standards, as during the Vietnam period, and since underprivileged background is correlated with substandard performance on the AFQT, rejection rates are also inversely related to social class. Consequently, the resulting class profile now of those who enter the armed forces is weighted toward the middle.
This is evident in figures on the AFQT scores of men who joined the military compared with AFQT scores obtained from a cross-section of all young men in 1980. The Department of Defense divided the men into five levels of ability. Of male volunteers, 47 percent fell in the middle ability level, far more than the 29 percent of the full population who scored that way; 33 percent of the volunteers were in the top two levels, compared with 40 percent of the population; and 20 percent of the volunteers were in the bottom two categories, compared with 31 percent of the population. Since AFQT scores are strongly related to socioeconomic origins, the all-volunteer system now in practice generates class inequities very similar to those produced by the conscription-volunteer system used in the 1960s.
Critics of the all-volunteer forces often claim that new recruits have education levels and mental capacities far below those of the youth population --and that a return to lottery-based conscription would overcome this problem. During the late 1970s there was some validity to at least the first part of this claim, but at present there is none for either. Today the average male recruit is identical or superior in ability and schooling to the cohort from which he is drawn. For example, 54 percent of new male military recruits in 1980 scored 50 or above on the AFQT, and 54 percent of a cross-section of all male youth did as well. Moreover, 84 percent of new male military recruits in 1980 had at least completed high school, compared with only 72 percent of their age group. Thus, if anything, the introduction of a draft conforming to even the most random choice principles would at the present actually lower the education level of new entrants.
Both the draft-voluntary and purely voluntary systems over-recruit from middle-income families. Consequently, revival of the draft now would not necessarily broaden the class composition of those who serve, nor would it raise their average level of education and ability. Moreover, a return to conscription could actually exacerbate other inequities. In 1973, 2 percent of enlisted personnel were women; under the all-volunteer system it had reached 9 percent by 1981. Bringing back the all-male military draft would thus close the new service opportunities for which increasing numbers of women are now volunteering. On equity grounds the draft has nothing to recommend it over the all-volunteer system.