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THE 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.

Thoughtful people 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."

Tough 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.

One 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."

National risk posed
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."

Service plans suggested
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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