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THE PROSPECT of a major war in the Persian Gulf calls into question the wisdom of President Nixon's decision to replace the draft army with the present All-Volunteer Force. His decision was part and parcel of a 1968 electoral stratgegy designed to make his presidency more appealing to American youth and to deflate strong and often violent campus protest against the Vietnam War.

Unfortunately, though the suspension of draft calls in 1972 and creation of the volunteer force the next year succeeded in silencing the college anti-war movement, the moves were not accompanied by any serious consideration of the long-term strategic and political implications of reliance on such a military establishment. The endorsement of the idea by the Gates Commission, appointed by Mr. Nixon in 1969 to "study" the matter, was a foregone conclusion, and the predominance of domestic political considerations in terminating the draft was glaringly apparent in its report.

The commission blithely assumed, among other things, that a volunteer force (1) could attract enough people to maintain a military establishment about the size of the pre-Vietnam (1964) conscripted force, (2) would be attended by a robust stand-by draft system as a hedge against a large or protracted war, (3) would be socially representative, and (4) would not undermine the civic virtue and patriotism of young Americans because it would not, so the commission argued, weaken the traditional belief that each citizen has an obligation to serve his country.

The commission rejected liberal worries that a volunteer force would be soldiered disproportinately by minorities and other disadvantaged elements of society; it also dismissed conservative concerns that such an army would be less effective in meeting U.S. military requirements than a larger conscripted force.

Most of the major Gates Commission assumptions provefallacious. The volunteers have never come close to matching pre-Vietnam U.S. force lvels; active-duty U.S. military personnel in 1964 totaled 2,688,000, compared to an average from 1973 to 1990 of 2,120,000 -- and the numbers would have been significantly smaller had it not been for a development unanticipated by the commission: a huge influx of women.

As for the volunteer force's social representativeness, the figures speak for themselves. Blacks constitute 13 percent of the American population, but they account for 20 percent of all U.S. military personnel, 30 percent of the Army, and almost 29 percent of Army forces on duty today in the Persian Gulf. And the fact that only two of 535 senators and congressional representatives have offspring now serving in the Gulf testifies to the almost complete absence in the military's ranks of the country's privileged classes.

Moreover, the volunteer force has contributed, in conjunction with a decade of officially encouraged self-serving material greed, to an erosion of the individual's sense of obligation to the commonwealth. It replaced traditional recruiting appeals based on service to one's country with entreaties based on economic self-interest ("Be All That You Can Be," "The Army Wants to Join YOU," etc.).

The Army in particular sold itself as little more than an Armed Job Corps, with the predictable result that many Americans came to lose sight of the military's real business of fighting. It is no coincidence that the Army's success in recruiting desired numbers of volunteers has plummeted sharply since the prospect of war in the Gulf became a real one.

A major conflict in the Gulf, especially if protracted, will severely test both the strategic and domestic political stamina of the new armed forces. Though a shot has yet to be fired, the magnitude of forces now in the region and on the way has already compelled the Pentagon not only to ransack active-duty forces from important defense commitments elsewhere, but also to order the first significant involuntary reserve mobilization since the Korean War. A war involving heavy American casualties could dictate a reinstitution of conscription.

Strategically, the volunteer force has always been a peacetime organization, perfectly adequate to deal with such comic-opera military challenges as Grenada and Panama, but lacking the staying power for the kind of war in which we may soon find ourselves in the Persian Gulf.

Casualties in such a conflict could also fatally undermine domestic political support for the war effort, since the military today is, at least in terms of the ever sensitive matter of race, far more unrepresentative of the national population than the Vietnam-era draft army it replaced. During the Vietnam War blacks, for example, accounted for almost 11 percent of the population and 12 percent of all U.S. battle deaths; in contrast, should war come to the Persian Gulf, blacks are likely to account for about 30 percent of all American casualties, prompting a political firestorm at home.

The fact that every soldier, sailor, airman and Marine recruited since 1973 is a volunteer has limited salience; all too many of those who "volunteered" were in reality driven into military service by inequitable social and economic conditions that left them without attractive alternatives in life. The relative dearth of body bags containing the sons and daughters of cabinet officials, congressmen, stockbrokers, lawyers, doctors, corporate CEOs, real estate speculators, quick-buck S & L artists, and Harvard and Hollywood "liberals" will simply underscore the volunteer force's real function in American society: to excuse its most privileged members from having to defend their country.

The integrity, courage and skill of Americans now in uniform is beyond question. But the all-volunteer force was a bad idea.

Jeffrey Record comments on military affairs for The Sun.

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