Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Why We Don't Need a Draft

Give Lance Corporal Mark Finelli his due: when America called, he responded. A former investment advisor for Morgan Stanley, he was in the South Tower of the World Trade Center on 9-11. After surviving that horrific day, he served in the Marine Corps, and fought in the battle to retake Fallujah in 2005. He's been in his share of tough spots, and as a combat veteran, deserves our thanks and gratitude.

But that doesn't make him an expert on all things military, or grant him the "absolute moral authority," once ascribed to Mother Sheehan That's why Lance Corporal Finelli is dead wrong in his Newsweek op-ed, advocating a return of the draft because "the children of privilege" no longer serve.

According to the Pentagon, no service personnel have died in an MRAP. So why isn’t every Marine or soldier in Iraq riding in one? Simple economics. An MRAP costs five times more than even the most up-armored Humvee. People need a personal, vested, blood-or-money interest to maximize potential. That is why capitalism has trumped communism time and again, but it is also why private contractors in Iraq have MRAPs while Marines don’t. Because in actuality, America isn’t practicing the basic tenet of capitalism on the battlefield with an all-volunteer military, and won’t be until the reinstitution of the draft. Because until the wealthy have that vested interest, until it’s the sons of senators and the wealthy upper classes sitting in those trucks—it takes more than the McCain boy or the son of Sen. Jim Webb—the best gear won’t get paid for on an infantryman’s timetable


It’s not hard to figure out who suffers. The 160,000 servicemen and women in Iraq are the latest generation of Americans to represent their country on the field of battle. And like their predecessors, they are abundantly unrepresented in the halls of power. As a result, they’ve adopted what I find to be a disturbing outlook on their situation: many don’t want the draft because they believe it will ruin the military, which they consider their own blue-collar fraternity. They have heard the horror stories from their dads and granddads about “spoiled” rich officers. Have no doubt: there is a distinct disdain for networked America among the fighting class of this country.


President Bush was determined to keep the lives of nonuniformed America—the wealthiest Americans, like himself—uninterrupted by the war. Consequently, we have a severe talent deficiency in the military, which the draft would remedy immediately. While America’s bravest are in the military, America’s brightest are not. Allow me to build a squad of the five brightest students from MIT and Caltech and promise them patrols on the highways connecting Baghdad and Fallujah, and I’ll bet that in six months they could render IED’s about as effective as a “Just Say No” campaign at a Grateful Dead show.

Let's begin with Finelli's arguments about MRAPs. According to his logic, the IED-resistant vehicles have been slow to reach the troops because their ranks don't include the sons and daughters of wealth and power. It sounds convincing, but the facts prove otherwise. MRAP has been the Pentagon's top acquisition priority for over a year, dating back to the days of Don Rumsfeld (another guy who supposedly didn't care about the grunts in harm's way).

In fact, the biggest reason that MRAPs haven't reached the field is not bureaucratic indifference--it's the military acquisition system. Unlike a private contractor, DoD can't simply pick up the phone and order 7,000 mine-resistant vehicles and demand delivery next week. Even in a "crash" program, prototypes have to be evaluated and competitive bids solicited before production can begin. And, if a manufacturer doesn't have sufficient capacity--as was the case with one MRAP producer--then the process takes even longer. Getting better equipment to the battlefield requires a streamlined acquisition process and higher production rates, not bureaucrats and politicians who "care more."

For what it's worth, the equipment issues that Finelli witnessed in Iraq are nothing new. Consider what happened during World War II, when everyone served and the country was united in its effort to defeat facism. We entered World War II with fighters (P-39, P-40, F4F) that were decidedly inferior to their German and Japanese counterparts. A lot of American pilots paid the price for their poor equipment, trying to match the turn and climb capabilities of Japanese Zeros, or German ME-109s. In time, we developed fighters that were more than a match for the enemy aircraft--most notably, the P-51 Mustang and F6F Hellcat, but they didn't arrive in sufficient numbers until late 1943 and early 1944--more than two years into the war.

On the ground, our "main" battle tank (the M4 Sherman) was no match for the more heavily armored and better-gunned Panthers and Tigers of Hitler's Panzer divisions. Losses in tank crews and equipment were appalling; between D-Day and V-E Day, the Army's 3rd Armored Division had a cumulative loss rate of 600% among its Shermans, with thousands of tankers killed or wounded. At one point during the Battle of the Bulge, the Army was assigning recently-arrived infantry replacements as tank crews, and sending them into battle with only one day of training in a Sherman. And remember: this was during a war when politicians and bureaucrats supposedly had a vested interest in providing the best equipment and training for our "boys."

As for Finelli's contention that a draft would "improve" the military, various studies and analyses reach the opposite conclusion. In today's, all-volunteer force, a recruit typically stays in uniform two years longer than his (or her) counter-part in the conscription-based military of the early 1970s. Lower turnover results in a more experienced and motivated force, with higher performance and reduced training costs.

Additionally, today's volunteers--as evidenced by their willingness to serve--are more likely to meet qualifications for military service. And that becomes a critical consideration when only 28% of the military's primary recruiting target (men between the ages of 17-24) meet the basic criteria for serving in the armed forces. The vast majority of American youth--including potential draftees--do not qualify for the armed services, the result of issues including obesity, poor academic performance, past criminal behavior, and the use of psychotropic drugs for legitimate medical conditions. Prospective conscripts are beset by these same problems--and perhaps in greater numbers than volunteers-- meaning the military would spend more money on screening and drafting personnel, to find those who can actually serve.

And, contrary to Finelli's claims of a "talent deficiency," today's military volunteers are demonstrably brighter than their civilian counterparts. In the enlisted ranks, over 90% are high school graduates (in the Air Force and Navy, that number is over 95%), compared to only 70% in the general population. Among officers, virtually all have college degrees, and in the mid-level and senior grades (O-4 and above) over half have completed graduate school. As with the enlisted force, the education level of our military officers is significantly higher than civilian population. In fact, given the disparity in education between today's volunteer force and corresponding, civilian demographic groups, a draft would actually lower education levels in the military.

Finally, Finelli's belief that a squad of "draftees" from MIT and CalTech could solve the IED problem in six months is pure fantasy. If defeating roadside bombs and suicide attacks was simply an engineering problem or technology exercise, we would have neutralized those threats long ago. Unfortunately, there is no single "silver bullet" for the problem. Taking down bomber networks requires a multi-faceted approach, involving everyone from Marines and soldiers on patrol, to the airman who operates the UAV sensors that monitor suspicious locations, the spooks who assemble bits and pieces of the intel puzzle, and of course, the EOD techs--all volunteers, and mostly junior enlisted and NCOs--who actually disable the IEDs.

Today's U.S. military is the brightest and best-trained fighting force this nation has ever fielded. Certainly, the demands of simultaneous conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have overtaxed ground units, and at some point, we won't be able to sustain current deployment levels. But there isn't a troop shortage because Jenna Bush, Chelsea Clinton and the Kerry Kids took a pass on military service. It's because successive administrations in the 1980s and 1990s, acting on the advice of senior military officers, decided we could get by with fewer soldiers and Marines. As a result, we deleted eight divisions (160,000 troops) from the Army, and reduced the Corps to pre-Vietnam levels.

Don Rumsfeld was right about one thing: you go to war with the Army you've got, not the one you want. The template for today's armed forces was established long before George W. Bush entered the White House, and many of the equipment decisions date back a decade--or longer. Overcoming past mistakes takes time, as evidenced by efforts to expand the Army, and get badly-need MRAPs to the troops. But, to their credit, the politicians and military planners who shaped today's military got one thing right, by sticking with an all-volunteer force, and providing the pay, benefits and other incentives to keep them in uniform.

While we commend Lance Corporal Fenelli for his service, his notions about a draft are simply misguided. Bringing back conscription might expand the ranks--at a significantly higher cost--but there's no evidence that the draft would improve the quality (and performance) of those who serve.


Mitch Miller said...

Dear Spook:

I agree with you about the draft, except in one respect: the draft fuels ROTC, and it's ROTC officers who come up with the out-of-box thinking, the latest ideas, badly needed expertise in languages, anthropology, technology, etc., and most importantly, the non-CYA attitude that the military always needs (at least it certainly did when I was in) to counteract, not the good officers, but the many, many, careerist ticket-punchers. If some other way could be found to increase ROTC enrollment, maybe more and bigger scholarships, I suppose that could work as well, but I don’t know if there’s the money.

Mitch Miller

P.S. I may have raised this before, but I’m still gonna keep beating this horse. Why can I go for a half-hour drive from my home in Los Angeles and find hundreds, and in some cases thousands, of native speakers of Farsi, Arabic, Tagalog, and every other language on the face of the earth – but the armed forces and intelligence community can’t? Couldn’t they send some sharp people with similar backgrounds – Gen. Shalikashvili comes to mind – to these communities and say, “Look, America has been wonderful to you. We need you to give back a little by loaning us a few of your sons and daughters for a few years?”

Unknown said...

Mitch--ROTC is alive and well; I spent three years as an instructor at an SEC school in the mid-90s. My only substantive criticism of the program (at least the Air Force version) is its pre-occupation with engineering and technical degrees. The primary function of any commissioning program is to produce military leaders. If they can understand electrical engineering or quantum physics, that's a bonus. However, leadership isn't defined by a technical degree, and a 1500 SAT isn't always an accurate predictor of leadership potential.

The services would also do well to send their best and brightest to ROTC duty. Before I went, I was told that it would be a career killer, and in some respects it was. But, on the other hand, I trained kids who will likely be general officers in the year 2025, so the long-term impact of ROTC is dramatic and telling. If I helped produce some genuine leaders for the military two decades out, it was worth it. Besides, as a former enlisted troop, I can't complain about my career and my monthly retirement check.

As to why the military can't recruit some of the ethnic groups you mentioned, the reasons are two-fold: first, for many years, the services made no effort to reach out to them. And, in some cases, there were cultural barriers that we failed to understand. The recruiting approach we use for a "typical" American kid (white, black or Hispanic) may not work with other groups; they might find the hard sell offensive.

In other cases, immigrants who've fled from oppressive regimes may be suspicious of anyone in uniform, and lobby against their kids joining up--despite the fact that they've become U.S. citizens.

Finally, kids from some of these groups have the same problems as other American teenagers--you know, the 72% that don't qualify for military service right off the bat, due to medical problems, criminal behavior, etc.

Andrewdb said...

We have trouble recruiting in immigrant communities because of our outmoded rules about security clearances (see Heft of the Shaft's comments on this).

The only reason for a draft, IMHO, is because of the growing divide between the military and the civilian communities. We seem hellbent on not having adequate interaction between the two (BRAC continues to reduced the visiblitity and footprint of the military in the country).

And finally, I agree that we go to war with the army, etc. we have, but it is how many years into this, and we are still having problems?

Mike said...

I couldn't agree more on the comments made about ROTC. I was punished by the Air Force for wanting to get an education in something other than engineering; they took away my scholarship when I changed majors from Engineering to Political Science. I'm currently studying Chinese. Still no scholarship.

As for the instructors, it has always boggled my mind that ROTC instruction is a career killer and not looked highly upon. The services should be sending some of their best and brightest to train the future, and doing so should be a boost to ones career. They do it right on active duty; just look at who is chosen to be instructor pilots or instructors at the various schools. Should be able to apply the same principle to ROTC.

Mitch Miller said...

Spook -

Glad to know that about ROTC. Do you know, or is there a way to find out, how many spaces there are authorized for ROTC lieutenants/ensigns and how many are being filled?

As to recruiting among ethnic/immigrant communities, this has been done in the past and could be restarted today. We have a huge advertising budget for recruiting, it doesn't all have to be spent on TV spots on the Superbowl. Well-placed ads in ethnic media and visits to appropriate high schools by some of the superlative officers we have today could work wonders.

I think we underestimate our youth if we think we can't recruit in large cities where most immigrants live. San Francisco's JROTC program was closed down over the objection of the parents of the members.

Can't be sure if it still would work today, but I think there are always adventerous youth like the ones Shackleton recruited with his famous ad:
"Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in event of success."

Mitch Miller

Unknown said...

Please refer to me as CORPORAL Finelli, sir.

I am a NCO, and proud of it.

I remain, Semper Fidelis,

Mark Finelli