IT has been nearly a century - the Spanish American War in 1898 - since the United States last fought a real war with a volunteer military. And during the buildup in the Persian Gulf some observers argued that we should consider reinstating the draft. ``You cannot escape the question,'' said potential presidential aspirant Mario Cuomo. There is no doubt that the All-Volunteer Force (AVF) has worked well in peacetime. Created in 1973, the AVF helped Richard Nixon reduce domestic unrest over the Vietnam war. Despite a rocky start, in part because of inadequate pay and a then-faulty Armed Forces Qualification Test (AFQT), since 1982 the performance of the AVF has been superlative. Virtually all new recruits are high-school graduates and score in the top three categories of the AFQT; contrary to popular opinion, it is virtually impossible for ill-educated inner city kids to join the service.
But can volunteerism meet the military's needs in war? Mr. Cuomo, for instance, argues that, ``You can't ask soldiers to fling their bodies in front of tanks and say, `We'll take our chances on reinforcements.''' He's right, but the primary source of combat replacements is the nearly 500,000-man Individual Ready Reserve, not new recruits.
Moreover, a draft doesn't create soldiers overnight. The army, for instance, takes 13 weeks to train an infantryman even with accelerated training. Conscription is designed for a long, massive conflict, such as World War II, when the US fought for four years and fielded a force of 12 million. The war with Iraq, in contrast, will likely be over before the first untested draftee could be deployed.
Another attack on the AVF is that it is ``unfair'' since one-fifth of the military is black. Minorities make up an even higher percentage of army combat units, and therefore are likely to bear a disproportionate share of the casualties.
This fact should make policymakers extra cautious in intervening abroad, but it is no cause for a draft. Unless blacks are prevented from freely enlisting - and reenlisting - they would be overrepresented even in a conscript military. In fact, young blacks, who face relatively poor economic prospects, might make up a larger proportion of the thousands who would continue to volunteer. Moreover, a draft would not prevent minorities from being assigned disproportionately to combat arms, as they were in Vietnam. A lack of civilian choices for blacks is no reason to foreclose the military as an option for them, nor does it justify forcing other people to serve.
The most persistent attack on the AVF is that it more easily allows policymakers to use force abroad. Were the sons of the elite at risk, goes the argument, officials would have been less ready to send soldiers to fight in the Saudi desert.
Yet history disproves this argument. Presidents Johnson and Nixon were able to sustain US involvement in Vietnam only because conscription provided the military with a constant flow of soldiers even after the conflict became unpopular. Had the Pentagon had to rely on volunteers, young people would have simply refused to sign up, depriving the government of the means to prosecute the war.
Anyway, it is illusion to think that a draft would send scores of sons of congressmen to the Gulf. Fewer than 10 percent of the nearly 2 million men who turn 18 every year would likely be conscripted annually even if the current force did not shrink sharply in coming years. Moreover, the children of influence and privilege will always have an advantage in avoiding service and avoiding combat if forced to serve.
Further, the Reserves are bringing the potential costs of war home to all Americans. Communities across the country have seen doctors, nurses, construction workers, pilots, government employees, policemen, rescue workers, and others transported to the Middle East. The lack of a draft cannot shield the well-off from the consequences of foreign involvement when their neighbors and colleagues are being called up.
The critics of the AVF raise important issues, but their argument should be with a president who is willing to risk war for what appear to be less than vital interests than with a military that relies on patriotism rather than the threat of jail to fill its ranks. The AVF has succeeded in peace; it is reportedly performing well now that war has come to the Persian Gulf.