July 8, 2004
By James Jay Carafano, Ph.D.
In 1977, I was commissioned into one of the worst armies in
American history. The United States left Vietnam with a
demoralized, poorly trained, ineptly led and over-stretched
Over the next decade, however, I participated in a remarkable
transition. America abandoned the draft and began fielding a
professional, well-equipped, all-volunteer force.
In my 25-year career, I saw the worst of times become the best of
times. It is inconceivable that anyone could suggest that America
abandon a winning formula. But that, in effect, is what advocates
of a new draft are suggesting.
One of the cornerstones of our all-volunteer force is the Reserves
-- men and women called to active duty only for training or
deployments. Otherwise, they pursue their civilian careers --
part-time soldiers fully committed to serving the nation. When not
deployed, the cost of retaining Reserve forces is a fraction of the
expense of full-time, active-duty troops. Maintaining a large
Reserve, about 47 percent of the total military, allowed the
Pentagon to pour more resources into buying new equipment and
The results speak for themselves. Today, we have the best military
on the planet.
Most important, the Reserve force allows for the rapid expansion of
force in times of trouble. The War on Terror has presented us with
one of those troubled moments. Reserves have been called to serve
in numbers unprecedented since World War II. The latest call-up
began July 6, when the Army started notifying about 5,600 Americans
to get ready to go. They are drawn from a pool of about 100,000 men
and women called the Individual Ready Reserve, or IRR.
The IRR makes up a small part of the approximately 1.3 million that
make up the military's Reserve. They are individuals who still have
an obligation to military service but are not assigned to specific
units and do not conduct periodic training. Mostly, they are
individuals with special skills now in high demand.
Announcement of the IRR mobilization prompted shrill criticisms
that the military is overstretched, as well as ill-considered
recommendations to bring back the draft to increase the size of the
Army permanently. But we are using our Reserves exactly like we're
supposed to -- calling on them when the nation truly needs
Yes, calling Reserves to active duty often results in hardship and
sacrifice. That is the nature of volunteer service -- a tradition
that dates back to the first colonial militias. Volunteer military
service is a reminder that citizenship carries both privileges and
responsibilities and that in a free society we depend on the people
to determine how and when to meet their obligations. In the
American tradition, conscription is appropriate only in moments of
extreme national crisis, such as World War II, when the nation
needed 10 million men in uniform.
A draft today, moreover, likely would be as socially divisive as
Vietnam-era conscription. It would result in a less well-trained
and more costly military; new conscripts would have to be trained
every year to replace those who leave. And it wouldn't provide the
critical skills we need -- skills that require long years of
training and experience.
Equally wrongheaded are congressional efforts to permanently
increase "end-strength," the number of troops the Pentagon is
required to have in the active force at the end of each fiscal
year. Permanent increases would be extraordinarily expensive and
make it harder to modernize and transform the force. The result
would resemble the "hollow Army" of the 1970s. Besides, by the time
we could ramp up new forces (probably about two years), the need
for additional troops in Iraq likely will subside.
The Pentagon has the right answer: relying on the Reserves and
extending the tours and service of soldiers for the good of the
The real problem isn't a shortage of troops. It's that our current
force isn't structured for today's missions. After all, something's
wrong when the armed services can't sustain 150,000 troops in Iraq
and Afghanistan with more than 3 million in uniform.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is committed to reshaping the
force so that America can put more and more of the right kinds of
troops in the field -- where we need them and when we need them.
Congress should put more of its energies behind supporting the
Pentagon's initiatives -- and spend less time trying to revive the
draft and saddle the military with forces it can't afford.
James Jay Carafano is a senior research fellow for defense and
homeland security at The Heritage Foundation
Distributed nationally on the Knight-Ridder Tribune wire
In 1977, I was commissioned into one of the worst armies in American history. The United States left Vietnam with a demoralized, poorly trained, ineptly led and over-stretched military.
James Jay Carafano, Ph.D.
Vice President, Foreign and Defense Policy Studies, E. W. Richardson Fellow, and Director
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