Is an Economic Draft Already Here?

Friends Committee on National Legislation - Washington Newsletter , February 2005

With little prospect that combat in Afghanistan and Iraq will ebb significantly in 2005, it appears the U.S. will have to retain some 120,000-130,000 troops in these countries well into the year.

At the same time, the Pentagon seems headed for turbulent times as it strives to keep the all-volunteer force at full strength. Critics of these wars use phrases such as "over stretched" and "breaking point" to describe the strains on the force structure. While morale is said to be high in active duty units, increasing numbers of press articles describe morale declining among National Guard and Reserve units whose tours are involuntarily extended in the war zone or who face the prospect of being sent back on second and even third tours. Some are refusing to go back; others-more than 5,500-are said to have gone to Canada to escape even a first tour.

Beyond issuing "stop-loss" orders to keep soldiers in uniform, the Army is adding personnel and dollars to its recruiting effort. Retention rates for soldiers already in uniform remain high-for now-but the services reserve components are not meeting their new enlistee quotas. Complicating everything is the five-year "temporary" increase in active duty personnel-from 480,000 to 510,000-authorized by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

Recruiters Seek Likely Prospects

With recruiting costs rising to $15,000 per recruit, the Pentagon must employ its recruiters where they have the best prospect for success. A February 2001 study for the U.S. Army Research Institute for the Behavioral and Social Sciences reveals the recruiters' game plan. The study "suggested that categorizing potential recruits based on their career decision-making patterns and their parents' socioeconomic status may be useful for targeting recruiting strategies. For example,...more financially constrained, goal-oriented youth may respond more positively to the educational or financial benefits available through military service."

This focus on financially vulnerable youth in the "lower middle class" is a key part of recruiting efforts today. Technology in the form of computer-assisted tracking of teens in "financially constrained" urban areas, where unemployment is high and opportunities for advancement is limited, has become standard practice. But this is just the beginning: the pursuit goes well beyond electrons and beyond local high schools. It goes into shopping malls frequented by "financially restrained" families, to weekend events, and even into youth "hangouts."

Focus on Low Income Neighborhoods

Traditionally, "financially constrained" translated into minority enclaves where many regard the military as a way to improve one's prospects honorably. But when recruiters consciously target a neighborhood or school-or as the Boston Globe put it, "saturates life at ...a working class public school,"-the public issue shifts from the opportunities available to fulfill the aspirations of teens to the fairness of a system that intentionally exploits the economic aspirations of others.

Recruiting inducements include money for college (up to $70,000), scholarships, job training, and some very large-as much as $15,000-bonuses for enlisting. Once they sign a few new enlistees, recruiters know and play on two teen propensities to pull in more and more recruits: peer pressure to "join the herd" by doing what their friends do, and the inability to fully comprehend consequences in formulating long-term plans.

The fact that military recruiters are an insistent economic "presence" in carefully targeted locales gives credence to the charge that the Pentagon's tactics for filling the forces amounts to an "economic draft."

In a free society, individuals can volunteer to serve in the military for many reasons ranging from a sense of duty, to patriotism, personal responsibility, or economic advancement. But there is something quite amiss for a person to feel compelled to "volunteer" because no other avenues for self-advancement are apparent. Moreover, it is patently unjust to require those who complete their term of service to remain in uniform against their will. For these, the war becomes a modem form of potentially lethal, involuntary servitude.

The remedy for such injustice is not a universal draft but ending the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. This would allow for new budget priorities that promote equality of opportunity for all to advance economically and socially.

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