MILITARY EXPERIENCE ONE NATION, UNDERSERVED In years since the draft
was abolished, Americans have lost a common bond.
In the three decades
since President Richard Nixon began disconnecting the nation from any
concept of universal military service, a realization now grows: A unifying
national experience is gone. Sure, we witness unifying experiences.
The tragedies of Oklahoma City and Columbine are among them. We share
common attachments to the Atlanta Braves or Tommy Hilfiger or Coca-Cola.
Our exposure to music, entertainment and television gives us conversational
familiarity. And yet, something' s missing.
ranging from Rob Newell, a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy at
the Great Lakes Naval Training Center, to LBJ aide Joseph Califano Jr.
and former U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn and Lt. Gen. (Ret.) M. Collier Ross of
Atlanta see it. Newell, briefly an Atlantan, remembers it. As recently
as two decades ago, everybody had a parent, brother, uncle or friend
who had served in the military. It was the place where men, and some
women, of all races, classes and religions learned to live together.
Now the 36-year-old Auburn University graduate looks out over the Great
Lakes center, where 50,000 recruits per year are trained, and realizes
the world is changed. Not more than 10 percent of the nation, and only
a third of Congress, shares that bonding experience. "My father-in-law
was in the military for a couple of years during Korea and he still
talks about the guys he met and the experiences he had. The military
is, or was, like a melting pot: Everybody comes from all different walks
of life, all backgrounds and you are thrown together and have to learn
to get along and work to a common objective or goal. When my parents
were growing up, the military was like a social vehicle to do that.
Now not as many people experience that. There is something that we're
losing as a nation."
sell for recruiters
A generation after the draft was abruptly ended by Nixon in 1973, the
absences of uncles and brothers and fathers with military experience
has real consequences.
shows up in recruiting.
All of the services are having difficulty meeting their needs for 200,000
new recruits per year. The Army and Air Force are having their worst
recruiting year in two decades. The Army expects to fall 8 percent short
of its goal, the Air Force, 10 percent. The Navy's shortfall is worse:
12 percent. Only the Marine Corps is meeting its goals. It's a tough
sell for the military. Unemployment in May hit a 29-year low of 4.2
percent. A good economy is bad for recruiters. Increasingly, the military
is a job option, competing on pay and perks with "Help Wanted" signs
across America. The edge it once had as a patriotic imperative has diminished
with the elimination of the draft a generation ago. Nunn, the former
Democratic senator from Georgia and defense expert, thinks that absent
a war, the nation may simply have to accept the reality that the size
of its military will fluctuate with the economy. "You can keep raising
salaries and bonuses to a point where you can't afford a large enough
force," he says. The recruiting difficulties, though, are only a part
of it. Califano, special assistant for domestic affairs during the Vietnam-era
administration of Lyndon B. Johnson, thinks an all-volunteer army makes
it too tempting for Congress and the president to use military force
carelessly. "The most momentous decision a president or a Congress can
make is to send its young men to war," Califano writes in The Washington
Post. "An all-volunteer army, especially one that pays at the minimum
level needed to get young people to enlist, relieves affluent, vocal,
voting Americans of the concern that their children will be at risk
of going into combat. "That makes it too easy for politicians to embark
on dangerous foreign adventures without thinking through every downside
and facing, up front, nagging questions from articulate, skeptical citizens."
Nunn agrees: "I think the fact that we have an all-volunteer force does
make it easier for a president to commit military forces without stirring
up huge opposition at home, because the more active and assertive middle-
and upper-income America doesn't have the same stake in it. That point
is valid." His greater concern, though, is not that the all-volunteer
military tempts a president to act imprudently, but that technological
advances in weaponry allow "the president to fight a lethal conflict
with little risk to American life." Air power and remote-launched weapons
tempt the president "to get involved without Congress or the nation
or our vital interests to be involved, and we seem to be doing that
more and more in the last six to eight years," he says. "There's no
question we are getting involved in areas marginal to U.S. interests.
"We are very reluctant still to commit ground forces and there is still
a keen sensitivity to the loss of American lives. The main reason the
sensitivity is so high is that it is pretty apparent to the country
that the nation doesn't have a vital interest there."
The development of stand-off tools to wage war and the consequences
of having moved a generation beyond the concept of universal service
do pose a serious national risk, Nunn says. "You have a Congress and
leaders largely who have never served a day in (the) military, and that's
true in both parties, and in that case you tend to get people who have
rather extreme and naive views about how to use the military. They range
from people who think the military can't do anything to those who think
the military can do everything. We're now in the mood where we think
the military should be called on every time there's something going
on that's bad in the world, whether it's in our vital interest or not,
and that will eventually lead to some real serious problems." There's
no question that Nunn's observation about congressional military experience
is correct. When the draft was ended, 77 percent of the members of Congress
were veterans. Now it is 33 percent. Only three of the top six House
and Senate leaders have served in the military. The number of veterans
in Congress is at its lowest point since World War II, according to
the Retired Officers Association. M. Collier Ross of Atlanta was an
Army lieutenant general who served almost 40 years, before heart surgery
forced his retirement in 1983. He agrees with Califano that it is dangerous
for the nation to populate its armed forces with "mercenaries." "This
could be our Achilles' heel," he says. "Recruiting for this mercenary
armed force has become more and more difficult of late. My question
is, why shouldn't these shortfalls exist? For a minimum salary and benefits
that can be changed almost instantaneously, why would a young man or
woman enlist to fight undeclared wars or enforce a hostile peace in
areas not of vital interest to our nation? "If these kinds of situations
are going to be the norm on into the 21st century, our elected national
representatives must re-examine the very unpopular issues of the draft
or of universal military service. "If the tree of liberty must now and
then be watered with the blood of its citizens, each should have an
equal opportunity to do so --- not just those we have hired. Our armed
forces must be representative of our total population."
U.S. Rep. Nick Smith (R-Mich.) has proposed that all young Americans
be required to complete six months to a year of national service in
the military or in the community. Nunn's solution, which he thinks requires
presidential campaign discussion it won't get, would be to subject substantial
numbers of young people to three to six months of military training,
after which they would go into the National Guard and reserves. Some
reservists would be blended with a national service corps, such as Americorps,
so that there is meaningful civic commitment during peacetime. Nunn
doesn't favor a return of the draft because the high-tech military can
make use of only a small portion of the manpower that would be available.
Choosing which ones, maybe one in five, would lead to " all the inequities
you had before," he believes. Absent an extended national emergency,
it's unlikely the nation would support a return to the draft. But unquestionably
the passing of a national bonding experience, when people of diverse
backgrounds and different classes united to share common experiences
and values and purpose, makes it all the more difficult to forge national
identity. The loss is not that military jobs will go unfilled. It is
that the nation and its leaders never share a vital national experience
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