When Uncle Sam calls, it's usually the poor who serve

It's not just the military record of its new vice-presidential nominee, but an old, old American skeleton that jumped out of the closet to startle an otherwise placid 1988 Republican National Convention. In the American Revolution, writes Robert Wright Jr. of the Army's Center of Military History, ``The long-term Continentals tended to come from the poorer, rootless elements of American society - a sizable minority were hired substitutes....''

The shunting of the poor into the most onerous and dangerous military tasks is traced further into our history by Lt. Col. Marvin A. Kreidberg and 1st Lt. Merton Henry of the Department of the Army Staff in their ``History of Military Mobilization in the United States Army, 1775-1945.''

In one form or another, as described by Colonel Kreidberg and Lieutenant Henry, economic incentives were the basis for American military recruitment until World War I. In its most direct form this was the payment of bonuses for voluntary enlistment, relatively small amounts of money that appealed only to the poorer elements of society.

By far the most insidious form of economic pressure was the hiring of substitutes. That is, someone subject to compulsory military service either through the state-run militia or a nationally mandated draft legally could hire a substitute.

Thus, from the Revolution through the Spanish-American War, Americans could buy their way out of military service if they chose to do so. Many, of course, did not and served with distinction.

But at least as many wealthy Americans chose to hire substitutes. Major fortunes and family dynasties were created by men who both escaped the physical hazards of war and were left free to devote their energies to educational and economic pursuits.

The inequities of this system and the major draft riots they had produced during the Civil War led to the more equitable draft systems of the world wars. A major aspect of that perception of greater equality, however, derived from the total nature of both wars, thereby requiring a near total involvement of the national population. When, with the onset of the cold war, the draft was continued to support much smaller military forces, a new question arose: Who shall serve when not all shall serve?

It is that problem that led directly to the controversy in which Sen. Dan Quayle is now involved.

Through the 1950s and 1960s, the late Lt. Gen. Lewis Hershey, long-time director of Selective Service, solved his problem of excess manpower by going along with exclusion of sizable parts of the male population from the draft process, notably students.

Also, on the assumption that they would be mobilized early in any future conflict, more and more liberal exemptions were granted to men who joined the state-run National Guard, successor to the militia, or the federally-run Reserve forces. It was when President Johnson decided not to mobilize the National Guard and Reserve to fight in Vietnam, but to continue the draft exemptions in those forces, that the Guard and Reserve became reasonably safe havens.

Pressures for opportunities to enlist became enormous, leading to extensive waiting lists. Since in both the federal and state systems the local units are open to influence by prominent persons, the conditions for abuse are rife.

In Pennsylvania, for instance, according to Maj. Gen. Gerald Sajer, the present state adjutant general, an entire National Guard infantry battalion was set aside as a nesting place for graduates of a posh military school whose superintendent was prominent both in the Republican Party and in the Association of the US Army, the Army's Washington lobby.

Thus all of the old inequities were resurrected. The draft became politically insupportable, and that led to a presidential commission on an all-volunteer armed force. In its report, published in 1970, the commission addressed for the first time the economic inequities that have plagued the American military system throughout its history. It concluded that enforced military service, particularly in time of war, is a form of ``taxation'' so onerous that most of those called upon to pay it can never catch up with those who stay home.

The solution proposed by the commission, and adopted, was the all-volunteer force now in place, based entirely on economic incentives that again appeal mostly to the poorest and most disadvantaged in American society.

Concerned over the inequities perpetuated by the volunteer system and the social and political dangers inherent in disproportionate minority casualties in any future conflict, Sen. Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, has proposed a system of national service that would link federal student grants and loans for higher education to completion of a period of military or civilian public service. This proposal could be the beginning of a process that might lead to creation of a national service. If the civilian alternatives did not create broad new loopholes, this could entail a reversal of the historic reliance on the poor to fight America's wars.

Until the controversy over Senator Quayle's National Guard service emerged, it did not appear that the national service idea would get much attention. That may now have changed.

William V. Kennedy is a journalist specializing in military affairs.

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