The False Promises of a Draft
Why conscription won't improve the military.
In 2002 (the most recent year for which official data have been compiled), 182,000 people enlisted in the U.S. military. Of these recruits, 16 percent were African-American. By comparison, blacks constituted 14 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds in the U.S. population overall. In other words, black young men and women are only slightly over-represented among new enlistees. Hispanics, for their part, are under-represented, comprising just 11 percent of recruits, compared with 16 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds.
Looking at the military as a whole, not just at those who signed up in a single year, blacks do represent a disproportionate share—22 percent of all U.S. armed forces. By comparison, they make up 13 percent of 18-to-44-year-old civilians. The difference is that blacks re-enlist at a higher rate than whites. (Hispanics remain under-represented: 10 percent of all armed forces, as opposed to 14 percent of 18-to-44-year-old civilians.)
Still, the military's racial mix is more diverse than it used to be. In 1981, African-Americans made up 33 percent of the armed forces. So, over the past two decades, their share has diminished by one-third. This decline began in the mid-'80s, when the military decided no longer to accept re-enlistments from soldiers who scored low on the aptitude test.
As a result, the scores have risen since the '80s. More than that, the aptitude of U.S. military personnel now exceeds that of American civilians.
Scores are divided into five categories. Categories I and II score in the 65th to 99th percentiles. Category IIIs score in the 31st to 64th percentiles, Category IVs in the 10th to 30th percentiles, Category Vs in the bottom 10th percentile. Here's how the scores break down, for recent recruits and for civilians:
Category I & II
|Category III |
(31st to 64th percentiles)
|Category IV |
(10th to 30th percentiles)
On balance, by this measure, those who volunteer for the military are smarter than those who don't.
Other indicators confirm this impression. The average recruit has an 11th-grade reading level; the average civilian can read at a 10th-grade level. Nearly all recruits—97 percent of female, 94 percent of male—graduated from high school; 79 percent of civilians have high-school diplomas. Officers are better-educated still: All are now required to have college degrees.
In short, today's armed forces are not the downtrodden, ethnically lopsided social rejects that they tended to be after the Vietnam War, when the all-volunteer military came into being.
Bringing back the draft would lasso the social dregs along with the society elite. Would the net effect be a "more equitable representation of people making sacrifices," as Rangel put it? Maybe, maybe not. Even with a draft, not everyone would serve. About 11 million Americans are 20 to 26 years old. The military doesn't need 11 million people. A draft would have to involve some sort of lottery. If that's the way it goes, there should be no exemptions (except for the physically disabled, the mentally incompetent, convicted felons, and perhaps conscientious objectors). Still, unless a military draft was one component of a compulsory national-service program (the subject of another essay), only some would be called. It's a matter of chance whether the kids from the suburbs would be called more than the kids from the projects.
There is a still more basic question: What is the purpose of a military? Is it to spread the social burden—or to fight and win wars? The U.S. active-duty armed forces are more professional and disciplined than at any time in decades, perhaps ever. This is so because they are composed of people who passed comparatively stringent entrance exams—and, more important, people who want to be there or, if they no longer want to be there, know that they chose to be there in the first place. An Army of draftees would include many bright, capable, dedicated people; but it would also include many dumb, incompetent malcontents, who would wind up getting more of their fellow soldiers killed.
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter.
Illustration of Uncle Sam on Slate's home page by James Montgomery Flagg © Swim Ink/Corbis.