United States Department of Defense United States Department of Defense

News Transcript

Press Operations Bookmark and Share


Background Briefing on the All Volunteer Force

Presenter: Senior Defense Official
January 13, 2003

Staff: I'm sure there will probably be a few more joining us this morning, but welcome to those of you that are here, and those of you that might be listening to us, and certainly those of you will be reading the transcript later.

This summer marks the 30th anniversary of the all-volunteer force. The all-volunteer force has been in the news recently, so we thought it might be helpful for you to get some of the facts about the all-volunteer force and how it has served the country in the past and how it is serving the country today. To do that, I have a renowned expert on the all-volunteer force with us, known to you and your readers as a "senior defense official." But I think all of you know the gentlemen that's off to my left here, and to your right.

And with that, let's just go ahead and get started. I think we have probably about 30 minutes, 20-30 minutes. But if you run out of questions, we can end it early too.

Senior Defense Officer: Thank you, Bryan.

Good morning, everyone. It's a pleasure to be with you. And I'm delighted at the chance to chat, answer your questions about the volunteer force.

Let me put, if I may, our discussion in a larger perspective, a perspective that I think is motivated by the department's and the secretary's current focus on transformation. I think, indeed, I would argue that one of the most important transformations of the American military that's occurred in the last century was the decision, made in the Nixon administration at the tail end of the Vietnam War, to move to a volunteer force.

As I think you are aware, this was truly an historic decision. There was no military in the world at that time of comparable size that operated on a volunteer basis. The British did have a volunteer force, much smaller force both in absolute numbers and in proportion to its population. This was preceded by considerable debate about how to do this. The debate was, as I think you know, summarized in the Gates Commission report. And it is a transformation that took the better part of 10, 15 years to come to fruition. The volunteer force had a very rough beginning, almost failed; importantly because serious mistakes were made in the setting of military compensation too low.

And it also took a long time, indeed, in some respects it is still taking time, to change all the personnel practices that came out of the draft era, in which people were seen as cheap and easily replaceable, as opposed to the reality in our society, people are expensive and highly valuable and a resource carefully to be conserved.

It's a transformation that has changed the minds of the nation's senior military leadership. I had the privilege, as some of you are aware, of first serving this department in the early 1980s. I can recall that at that time there were senior military leaders who were eager to talk Secretary Weinberger out of the volunteer force concept, go back to conscription. So there's echo of the present debate in that demarche. That was a rejected in favor of making the volunteer force a success.

And I can recall that by the mid- to late 1980s, as the fruits of a volunteer force became apparent, that the minds of the flag and general officers of this department were changed. They came from the field, having commanded units in which volunteers now predominated, and said, "You know, this is a different force. These people want to be here. These people are eager. These people want to obey. They want to learn. They want to perform at high levels."

And I would argue that the fine performance of our forces in the Persian Gulf War in 1991, the fine performance you've seen in a variety of crises in the last 10 years, including operations in Afghanistan this last year and continued operations in the greater Southwest Asia region, indeed reflect the excellence of that force.

You can see the transformation not only in the force itself but in the thinking of the nation's military leadership that now, when asked whether they would like to switch back, there is a resounding "No!" given. They do not want to go back to a system where the people in the ranks are people who don't want to be there, who are there for short periods of time, who are not really focused on the job. Everyone likes being a part of a winning organization, and that's what's been created.

That's true both of the active force, and I think you see it also in the Reserves. I mean, one of the great stories of the present set of military operations has been the very successful Reserve call-up, the fact that you get very little pushback from the reservists themselves. Yes, there are things that go wrong. Yes, there are things people complain about. But as a broad generalization, these people signed up knowing that they were liable for call-up in times of national need. And they are responding, often in circumstances that involve financial hardship for themselves and their family, and almost invariably in circumstances that creates some degree of personal hardship in terms of being away from their families, being away from home.

But they are not complaining about the need to serve; indeed, a certain eagerness to serve. I have the privilege of -- at the extreme end, talking to commanders who were upset because some neighboring unit was given part of the mission, as opposed to being given to their unit, which -- in its entirety, which they felt was only their due given their degree of preparation.

A great deal has been made about this issue of representativeness. Let me warn those who would manipulate the numbers on this point about several pitfalls in so doing. First of all, in a volunteer force, I think when you have people who want to be there, and who have made a positive choice to join, as Mr. Weinberger said in his Wall Street Journal article just last week, if you decide to go to conscription where you force some other group of people to be there, you've denied somebody who wanted that opportunity that chance to serve. I think the interesting question is whether you really want that result as a matter of public policy.

Second, I think you have to differentiate in terms of representativeness what things look like at the entry point -- I think we're much closer to the mark in terms of national population numbers -- from what things look like for the force as a whole, which is a function of who decides to stay. And this, again, let me take on very directly an issue Mr. Rangel has raised, and that's the question of African American participation -- the entry point, particularly if you look at the whole force, not just the enlisted personnel, which is what many people do, so you need to look at the whole force, including the officer corps, which is about one-seventh or one-eighth of the total, that -- and it is true African Americans join at rates modestly above the national population numbers, but I would underscore the word modestly. Now, when we look at the whole force, African Americans represent a higher fraction of the force because many -- because they decide to stay with us at higher rates than some other population groups.

So, what representative looks like -- what representativeness looks like very much depends on what metric you want to use in terms of measuring your forces. It's also the case in terms of minority representation that we have below the national population numbers for most services, Marine Corps being the exception to the statement, for Hispanics. A matter of concern to the department. It's one of the issues I think one wants to weigh in terms of this debate over representativeness as well.

Okay, how close to national population norms do you want to get? What's the right balance, the right answer? I think we all want a force that, roughly speaking, looks like America, and I think by and large that's what we have in the military -- in the military today. It's a great force. I would end my opening remarks by underscoring this point. It's a great force, it performs very well, it's the envy of the world. Even in the last days of the Cold War, Soviet field marshals visiting the then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Crowe, pointed to our non-commissioned officers and said, "We want people like that."

And we got people like that out of the volunteer force, people who joined voluntarily, and who made a voluntary decision to stay based upon the whole package of incentives that we offered, and the challenges we offer in terms of the kind of career they could have, the kind of responsibility they could have.

It's the envy of civil society. You see that in the desire to give to the military various missions, which even the secretary of Defense is a bit skeptical, ought to really be in the military portfolio. And you can see it in the degree to which military personnel, when they leave military service, successfully are offered positions in civil life, and often go on to very senior posts, as you know from your own researches and work.

With that, let me end my opening statement and invite you to ask questions about this issue as you would like.

Yes, ma'am?

Q: Can you put some numbers behind what you're talking about -- the entry points and then who decides to stay? Can you break it down maybe by ethnic groups?

Senior Defense Officer: Yes. You basically have a situation where for Hispanics we are a bit below the national population norms for the entry-level cohort. For blacks were a bit above by a few percentage points. It just depends a bit about what population groups you look at. Do you look at the whole population, do you look at population in the recruiting age range, which changes these answers. Do you look at those who are in the labor force? Do you look at those who are employed? So you get all kinds of answers, depending on which of these metrics that you use.

If you look at the whole force, the enlisted force, you're going to get numbers on the order of 30 percent African American. But that reflects significantly a decision to stay at high rates. You're going to get Hispanic numbers that are below, in the force as a whole, below the population average for Hispanics. Other minorities, which lumps those of the American Indian background, Asian Americans, and so on, into a total that's within a percentage point or so of the national population numbers.

Q: You don't have better -- more numbers than --

Senior Defense Officer: Well, we can -- I'll get Bill Carr to get you detailed numbers on all the different cohorts. But I would warn you, this depends critically -- you can get a different picture depending on what metric you use for the force; specifically, do you use enlisted only, or do you look, as you should really, at enlisted plus officers. And do you look at the population as a whole, versus the population of military age range, especially the entry level, 18 to 24 years, or something like that.

And do you look at those who are in the labor force versus those who are employed? Those will produce different answers. Especially at past times in history we've had much higher, to put it -- (inaudible) -- much higher unemployment rates in the minority community than true recently.

Yes, sir?

Q: And that dovetails with what I was going to ask. It seems that this talk about race obscures what is the real issue, and it's not as much who's in the force but who isn't, and it's as much about economic background as it is about skin color. First off, do you have any statistics on the economic background of the people joining the force?

And also -- (off mike) -- some of sort of a black mark on the American citizenry that those who have the most financial stakes in the society are not -- I'm guessing that the numbers are not -- are going to show that it's mostly economically disadvantaged people who are joining the military.

Senior Defense Officer: Well that's actually not true. And let me give you numbers for the enlisted force only and let me promise that Mr. Carr and company will toward the end of the week get you numbers that have both the enlisted and officer force in them, because, again, remember, one-seventh to one-eighth of our force is officers. They are generally left out of these broad-based comparisons. They should be included. They are part of the force, too. And by leaving them out, of course, you bias all your metrics against those who have completed college, because it's the officers corps that typically -- there are some exceptions -- that typically requires a college degree.

But one measure of social status is, do the -- does the recruit's parents have education beyond high school -- high school or beyond? Let me just read you some of that. Again, this is enlisted only. This is not including the officers, and so it's biased downward in terms of the DOD situation. But I'll just read -- (inaudible). High school graduates for DOD enlisted recruits, the father being a high school graduate -- 32 percent of the total are high school -- have fathers who are high school graduates, and 35 percent of mothers. The population age numbers for the same metric -- in other words, high school graduate -- is 31 percent of the population at large has -- the father has high school graduate status and 35 percent of the mothers. So on that metric, they're about the same as the national average.

Next group -- I'm going up now --

Q: You just totally confused me. What were those two sets of numbers?

Senior Defense Officer: I'm now going to give you -- and I'll give -- just going to give you the whole table -- but I'm going to read you the table that says what's the education level of the DOD recruits' parents versus the education level of the population at large, which is a classic measure of socioeconomic status.

Q: That's about the same age? Is that what you're looking at --

Senior Defense Officer: Yes. In other words, I'm going to compare DOD enlisted recruits with the recruit-age population at large.

Q: Okay.

Senior Defense Officer: And in the DOD population, 32 percent of our recruits have fathers who have a high school graduation status, and that's it. In other words -- I'm going to go on to some college and college graduate in a minute. In the recruit-age population at large -- and let me just take the fathers to make this easier for the moment -- in the recruit-age population at large, 31 percent of the recruit-age population have fathers with high school graduation. So, it's about the same in terms of high school.

For some college, the DOD-enlisted recruit population, 30 percent have fathers with some college. In the recruit-age population at large, that's 25 percent. So, we're a little higher on that particular metric, actually.

Q: And that number includes the high school?

Senior Defense Officer: No, no. This is --

Q: Okay. So, the high school is taken out --

Senior Defense Officer: -- the high school is high school that's it.

Q: Okay.

Senior Defense Officer: And some college is some college, and that's it. Not a degree.

Now, college graduate or higher, 22 percent of our enlisted recruits -- this goes directly to some of the issues Mr. Rangel is raising, have a father who has a college degree or more, versus 30 percent of the recruit age population. And I'm quite confident once we add the officers in, you'll see those numbers -- that gap between those numbers close. Bottom line, look at this classic measure of socioeconomic status, and enlisted recruits alone, before we even add the officers in, don't look all that different from the recruit-age population at large. And you get a similar conclusion if you look at mother's education; in fact, it's even closer if you look at mother's education, which some argue actually is the --

Q: How recent are these numbers?

Senior Defense Officer: This is a 1999 survey of recruits. Fiscal year 1999. These are non-prior-service recruits, to be more specific about these numbers. And I'll have Mr. Carr give you the full table.

And in terms of -- now, in terms of income status -- and if you look, by the way, at occupation distribution, you'll see similar kinds of -- there is similar kinds of situations, where the occupations of the enlisted recruits fathers and mothers look roughly the same as the occupations of the population at large. There's somewhat less representation of the professional ranks; that's not surprising, again, because as I'm trying to emphasize here, officers are left out of this comparison.

If you add officer's back in, which we'll try to do as much as we can this week, you'll get a little different picture.

Now, in terms of median income, for whites -- now again, this is enlisted versus -- and this is against the entire civilian population, so it's not quite the right comparison. But for whites, the median total gross household income in 1999 for our enlisted population was about $33,500, versus $44,400 for the civilian population. Again, that omits officers from the DOD numbers --

Q: This is the household income that these recruits are coming out of?

Senior Defense Officer: Right. This is white enlisted.

Q: Thirty-three five. And what was the second number?

Senior Defense Officer: Forty-four four, for civilians as a whole.

For African Americans, however, the total gross household income of our active duty personnel, their parents, that is, was $32,000 versus $27,900 for the population at large. So specifically to Mr. Rangel's charge, it's not quite the picture that he would argue exists. These are actually -- for our African-American recruits, recruits come out better, above average, in fact, near the national average, in terms of household income.

Q: Is that -- I don't want to --

Senior Defense Officer: Go ahead.

Q: Have you looked at any -- is there any sort of legacy thing? Is it African-American families that have a history of military service, therefore have a skill set and a marketability, and then their children are more likely to go into the military --

Senior Defense Officer: There may be some of that. I don't think that's the important factor. The important factor is that the Department of Defense is indeed Lake Wobegone. This is an above- average institution. We aim to be an above-average institution, and we position our compensation to try to achieve that result.

Q: Do you have Hispanic numbers?

Senior Defense Officer: No, I don't have income numbers for Hispanics, I'm sorry.

And among the ways that we get there is we demand a higher level of educational aptitude achievement for most of our recruits than is true of the population at large. We require almost all recruits to be high school diploma graduates. So actually a higher standard. In other words, you made it successfully through a high school, which is a strong predictor of whether or not you can be productive in a highly structured environment. And typically, we're aiming to try to get recruits from the upper end of the mental aptitude distribution. We give the so-called Armed Forces qualification tests. Our preference is for candidates who are in categories 1 through 3(a), which is above average.

So we are aiming to get an above-average population in terms of the enlisted recruits alone. So it's not terribly surprising, when you put those kind of filters on, that you're going to be selecting from individuals across the board, African-Americans included, whose parents are -- in quotes -- "more successful."

Again, this comes directly back this charge that somehow it's the poor and disadvantaged that are defending the country.

Q (Off mike) -- poor and disadvantaged, but even, you know, the middle class. But I'm talking about, you know, the people making a hundred -- $150,000 or more annually. I mean, I just get the sense, from the people I see out in the civilian population and the people I see here, that that's not a very large chunk of the military population.

Senior Defense Officer: It's not a very large chunk -- I would urge people to go get the national income statistics out. It's not a very large chunk of the civil population. And the defect in most of these comparisons, including, as you can tell, our own, is that up to now -- partly because this issue has largely been quiescent for the last 10 years or so -- most of these comparisons people talk about are about the enlisted force, which, almost by definition, is not going to come out of the ranks of people whose parents make each $150,000 a year. Those people are where we would tend to recruit our officers from. And what we're going to try to do is put together a similar picture -- some of which we may have for you this week, some of which we may have over the coming weeks -- of what's a officer class look like versus the population at large. You would not expect a large number of people with parents with that income low because that -- if you look at American income distribution statistics across the board, there aren't a lot of Americans who make that much money. A lot of people in Washington make that money, but that's not typical of the country as a whole. Hence all the joking about outside and inside the Beltway.

Yes, ma'am?

Q: Well, if you were going to ask a question about numbers, go ahead.

Q: I am. I mean, to follow up on his question, do you have numbers that show what percentage of people do come from -- pick a number -- $75,000 and up in the enlisted class? I mean, just to back up your point that, by definition, those are not going to be the people? Do you have a number.

Senior Defense Officer: I don't have it here, but I'm confident -- since we got the federal survey, I'm confident we can --

Q: I think he may -- I think if Charlie Rangel were sitting here -- and not to take his side, but to play devil's advocate, is in some ways your numbers are kind of proving his point that the very elite class in this country -- and again, pick your number on that, $75,000, $60,000 and up, $75,000 and up, and even higher -- are not who is sending people into enlisted ranks, combat troops, not going to get --

Senior Defense Officer: Well, let me remind everyone that combat and enlistment are two different statements.

Q: Of course.

Senior Defense Officer: The United States Air Force, the United States Navy, if it is largely going to be an air operation, it will be principally officers whose lives are at risk. Further, I think we have to, in an age of terrorism, rethink what we mean about combat exposure.

Let's take the September 11th attack on the Pentagon. More civilians died than military. In one service it was more women civilians died than military.

So this whole issue of who is exposed to risk, I'm struck in this debate -- Mr. Rangel and others who are raising this question are a bit of an echo out of the past. It's not really a description of current situations and current risks and who is bearing the burden. And I would argue that if -- once we look at the officers, you're going to see a different pattern than the critics are raising. Now, I don't have the officer numbers here this morning; I apologize for that point. But it's going to look a little different once you include the officer class in this.

Q: Rangel's basic point is that the powerful elite who make campaign contributions and who make decisions about war and peace don't have children that are represented in the military, by and large. And you don't have anything that sort of --

Senior Defense Officer: I don't think -- well, now we get down to sort -- almost the idiosyncratic level of debate, you know, who are the power elite? You know, if you look at the classes at our military academies -- West Point, Annapolis, Colorado Springs -- many people would argue you're looking at a future power elite there. And these are young men and young women who are quite willing to put their lives on the line, and do so, as you can see from the inscriptions on the various memorials at those institutions.

So there is no lack of willingness on the part of Americans from more privileged backgrounds -- to deal directly with Mr. Rangel's question -- to serve. And we see that also in the Reserves. I would urge each of you, you know, if you want -- no one has really done all this research in the comprehensive way that I think we'd all like to see, but I'd urge you to take the biographies of the flag officers in our Reserve and Guard establishment, and on any metric you like in terms of socioeconomic status, look at whether or not you think they qualify as being in the power elite. These are people who are often successful businessmen, businesswomen now increasingly, successful figures in their community; includes doctors who have joined Reserve units, are willing to serve; have been sent forward in some cases, mobilized a number of these people and sent them to Southwest Asia, are quite willing to expose themselves to the risks that I think Mr. Rangel is concerned.

Q: Where do you think that perception comes from, then? I mean, we did a piece last week where we were just talking to people on the street, and virtually everyone they talked to seemed to have this impression that, you know, it's poor people who are going out and doing all the fighting, while the rich people are sitting back counting their money.

I mean, where is that misperception coming from? Is it --

Senior Defense Officer: I think it's rooted -- it's interesting how long old ideas persist. And I think this is a very old idea that the country at large -- you know, if the country's view of the military is importantly determined by such TV epics, which I happen to love myself, as M*A*S*H, you have the wrong view of the American military today. That's not the American military of the late 20th and early 21st century. It's, to borrow the advertising slogan, it's not your father's military, quite literally, in this case. It has changed.

And then back to the point I opened with, there really has been a transformation of the American military that has moved it from the conscription hero situation, where people were intent -- because we picked people at random, since we did not need everybody, and compelled those who drew the unlucky ticket, so to speak, to serve, it -- our opinions were disproportionately affected by the stories of those who evaded that responsibility.

Now, we have a force composed entirely of people who want to be there, and as I would emphasize, we set high standards. Virtually all officers have to be college graduates, a high fraction of our officers actually have master's degrees and a small fraction has PhDs. The just-retiring USAREUR commander, for example, you know, has a Ph.D., wrote a well regarded professional book that is much appraised. And our enlisted force starts out almost invariably with a high school diploma, and by the time these days they have finished five or 10 years of service, the majority have some degree of college education, on the order of a year or so -- (inaudible) -- do this, and a small fraction have actually bachelors degrees, even some -- the just- retired master chief petty officer of the Coast Guard -- with a Ph.D.

So this is not the military people remember, which I think is what's informing the public view. You could criticize the department for not having gotten this story out there. It's also true of the Reserve forces, which again, in terms of socioeconomic mix, I would urge for you to look at in terms of where have you come from.

Yes, ma'am?

Q: Going to people's willingness and ability to serve, what percentage of people who enlist do not make it through their first enlistment period for whatever reason? They can be --

Senior Defense Officer: About one-third.

Q: One-third.

Senior Defense Officer: That's right. That's not too different, by the way, from private sector -- remember, enlistment terms are typically three to four -- three to five years. That's not too different from industrial -- in fact, some would argue it's below industrial attrition rates.

Q: Do you have a number to compare it to -- an industrial --

Senior Defense Officer: No, not in my head, but --

Q: There is a number that the Vietnam veterans compare that to, which is one in 10 washed out during the draft.

Senior Defense Officer: That's not true. I don't know where they got that number. But the draft numbers -- say again, Bill?

Staff: That's the reenlistment number --

Senior Defense Officer: That's a reenlistment number, not --

Staff: -- the ones that continued their enlistment after two years.

Senior Defense Officer: Now attrition is leaving before you reach the normal expiration in terms of service. We have looked at the draft era numbers there in the same regime. There's not much difference -- (inaudible).

Yes, ma'am?

Q: Let me change a little bit from looking at the numbers.

Senior Defense Officer: Yes.

Q: You have mentioned at the beginning of the all-volunteer force the personnel policies almost doomed it to failure, because they kind of harkened back to the days when people were, you said, cheap and easy to replace. Can you just give us a review of what were some of those policies and how we have fixed those today?

Senior Defense Officer: Okay. Most important, of course, is compensation. Compensation was set too low, to speak frankly, in the 1970s, led Congress in 1970 -- 1980 to raise compensation -- 1979-81, roughly, to raise military compensation in the order of 25, 30 percent. So in terms of big changes, that's one of the big changes that occurred.

We've also changed a lot of our policies in terms of housing. We now have a variable housing allowance that's an important part of people's compensation, on top of the basic housing allowance, which recognized the fact that a high fraction of our force is married and has a family. That was not true in the draft era. As you recall, in the draft era, specific matter of policy -- we did not draft people who had children, and we rarely drafted people who were married. So this is a much more married force, a much more family-oriented force. A whole series of concomitant benefits have come along with that change in status.

In the draft era, we largely told you what was good for you. In other words, you -- you know, "you're going to like this military occupation especially, young lady; it builds character." Now we come to you and say, "Well, which of these would -- which of these training opportunities would entice you to join and stay with us?" Now you have to qualify. You have to have the aptitude and so on, so forth. So there's a whole reversal in terms of how we look at your choice of the training regimes or what we put you -- so you're much more likely, in today's force, to wind up in a specialty that you like, as opposed to being forced to do something that you hate.

This even is starting to -- and this is my comment, my aside, about the legacy of the draft still in the department -- is even coming to affect assignments. At one time, assignments -- you know, the dream sheets or wish lists you turned in were viewed as just that; they were sort of things people papered the wall with. They didn't really pay attention. Increasingly, the military service is paying attention to what people want. The Air Force has tried various experiments with, essentially, reservation systems reenlisting, in which you sort of put in for what you want and they try to satisfy it. Now we have not yet gotten to some of the standards the civil sector would set, but I think that's one of the unfinished pieces of business ahead of us.

So the whole picture of what this force is like, how it is treated -- these people are professionals, and we treat them as professionals.

One of the important changes brought about over the years, as a result, is a much higher fraction of our force today, than was true in the draft years, is career. In other words, it has more than one-term service. So this is a more experienced force, typically, than we had in the draft years, and therefore, a more -- I would like to argue, and I think the facts demonstrate, a more effective force than we had in that period of time.

That's one of the reasons I think military leadership is horrified at Mr. Rangel's suggestion. No one wants to go back to a situation where the people didn't want to serve, in fact, might have been hostile to the purposes to which they were put. I served in a draft force. I remember when enlisted folks fragged, as we liked to say, threw grenades into the officers quarters in Vietnam. Not a pretty picture. It's sometimes glossed over in terms of these -- remembering the way it was. Well, it wasn't that way.

Now we have a force where people all want to be there, where they are eager for the opportunity to serve. It's a completely different picture than we had in that period.

Yes, ma'am?

Q: But the attrition rate -- unless I caught this incorrectly, and I'm sorry -- you said the attrition rate now is about one-third. You said that's about the same as it was during the draft period?

Senior Defense Officer: As best we can resurrect the numbers, yes, ma'am.

Q: So in other words, only -- the same number of people who are now supposedly putting their hand up and saying, "I want to serve," are now saying, "Well, I changed my mind and" --

Senior Defense Officer: No, no. I think you misunderstand what causes attrition. About a third or so of attrition is caused by problems that surface during the basic training period. Those include all sorts of reasons, including, importantly, physical reasons. In other words --

Q: They're not able to finish their enlistment, and so it's not that they don't want to.

Senior Defense Officer: They're not able. It's not that they don't want to necessarily.

Q: Okay. How many people leave for no reason other than they quit, and are subsequently punished for not --

Senior Defense Officer: Well, you have to understand how the incentives have changed over this period of time. I would be very careful about using attrition numbers as an indicator of people's motivation.

Q: Okay.

Senior Defense Officer: In the draft era -- having served with draftees -- the incentive of the draftee was "How do I figure a way to get out?" And the system was designed to make sure that you didn't evade your responsibilities.

Q: Were you drafted?

Senior Defense Officer: No, I was not drafted. I belong to the class that went to college the year the Berlin Wall went up, which is a whole different mindset from the mindset that prevailed afterward.

In the volunteer system, you have the opposite set of incentives. In other words, the system -- if you're not performing all that well, for whatever reason -- it might be physical, might be training incompatibility, might be this wasn't really cut out for you -- the system, as a practical matter, isn't all that intent on hanging on to you.

In fact, the criticism management's often had is that we are too willing to let someone who is having second thoughts change his or her mind; we ought to be a little more encouraging of second chances. In fact, some change was made in terms of management, especially of the basic and early training regimes, to promote that. In other words, just because you stumble and you say, "Oh, this is hard, I want to give up," several years ago the drill sergeant said, "Okay, fine, here's one rubric under which you can be sent home." Now people are increasingly, you know, being encouraged, saying, "Well, you know, why don't you give it another chance?" More encouragement. I don't want to overdo this, and it's not quite as black and white as I would portray it.

So I would not encourage using the attrition numbers as an indication of whether people want to be there or not. I would use the reenlistment numbers, which are quite healthy by historic standards compared to the draft era, as your indication of who wants to be there. Again, that's a positive decision to join as opposed to a 17- or 18- or 19-year old young American who may not have understood the physical rigors. To speak quite frankly, in a volunteer force you have people who often, because they're so eager to serve, may conceal physical problems, and, you know, then it comes out during the rigors of basic training that maybe that knee doesn't work quite so well as you thought.

Yes, sir?

Q: What percentage of the force reenlists? You said look at the --

Senior Defense Officer: It varies by service. I think the numbers range from 30 to 50 percent. (To staff) Is that fair?

Staff: It's, I think, about half for volunteers at their first enlistment; for draftees, one in 10. For true draftees, one in 10.

Q: Does this department have any expectation this legislation actually has a chance of getting through Congress, or are you more concerned about the debate over bringing back the draft gathering some momentum in the coming months?

Senior Defense Officer: Well, we hope it doesn't, and we hope it doesn't for performance reasons. We think a volunteer force performs a lot better. And I think the historical record, specifically the Persian Gulf War of 1990-91 and the Afghanistan operations of last year, demonstrate that. Not in any way to denigrate the performance of our military in prior conflicts, but this was beyond anyone's expectations in terms of both what the units could do and how individuals responded and how innovative those individuals were. Because again, I cannot underscore enough what a difference it makes when that young man and young woman wants that training. Instead of being there in a class where the instructor's main objective is to keep everyone awake, now you have young people who are intent on learning their craft. They are professionals. They want to know how to do this, they want to know how to do it well, because they want to get ahead. They want to be promoted.

They want to be one of the ones -- we do not actually allow everyone to reenlist who comes up to reenlist. If you have not done well, we may say to you, it's time to go home, basically.

Q: It just seems that it's highly unlikely, I mean to me, that this legislation is going to get through Congress. But there seems to be a strong interest in nipping this concept in the bud, is my take of this --

Senior Defense Officer: You're absolutely right. And it's, again, because with 20-some years experience, 30 years experience this summer, we are convinced, especially the last 15, 20 years of experience one has when we got the volunteer force past its early birthing difficulties, that the performance of this force is so far superior to the alternatives, that no one in this department wants to go back. Mr. Rangel's call is a call to go back to an earlier and lower standard of performance. We do not want that for the American military. It is not in the national interest.


Q: What kind of a threshold would the Pentagon have to reach, I mean, what kind of challenges would you have to be facing that you would have to suck it up and say, "We just can't do it with the people who are in the Guard and Reserves and the active duty folks." I mean, what --

Senior Defense Officer: Well, let me -- let me again go back to a little history, because I think it's informative of why conscription indeed did prevail in the 1950s and early 1960s. And it has to do with the size of the military and its needs versus the size of the -- let's say arbitrarily, the 18-year-old birth cohort.

If you look at those numbers today, there are, roughly speaking -- right, Bill? -- about 2 million young men turn 18 every year. For male enlistments, we're probably aiming at maybe 150,000 or so a year from that pool. That's the enlisted force, with the officers on top of that. So we are taking maybe one in 10 of young American males; a much smaller fraction of women.

In the '50s, when the nation first in its history maintained in peacetime a large standing military force, the birth cohort that was passing through, from which you did the recruiting, so to speak, was a birth cohort that came out of the Depression, when, as you know, generally in bad economic times, birth rates fall. A very small birth cohort relative to the much larger -- we were taking on the order of 300,000, 400,000 young men a year out of that, I mean even larger than that, actually, since we were only -- (inaudible) -- to serve two years. So let me get Bill to get you the number we took.

But if you look at the numbers from that period and you subtract off from the birth cohort those who were mentally and physically unable to serve, and given that we had an almost all-male force at that time, what you realized in the '50s, running through the early '60s, the nation had to have almost every physically and mentally fit male serve in the military to staff its needs.

So if you get back to a situation where the size were at that level, which no one is thinking about as anywhere near the realm of possibility, that might be a wholly different issue when essentially, everybody does have to serve in order to staff the military. That was to some extent true in the 1950s. That's a wholly different picture from the picture in terms of population dynamics the country faces now and for the foreseeable future.

Q: (Off mike) -- more of the extreme examples -- confrontations in X, Y and Z places, including here at home? I mean, if it --

Senior Defense Officer: No one foresees a need that would require us to go back to the draft, period. I'm merely pointing out why historically, given the manpower practice of the time, which is everybody served only two years, or, not everybody, but most served only two years, so you ran a lot more people through the military, and the birth count was very small, where -- while we got the conscription for historical reasons, you can see it's an almost economic matter that you are -- you are going to have to use some degree of coercion to get that high a fraction of birth cohort to serve. We are not now, nor does anyone foresee even the most dire circumstances we are going to be in a position where that many have to serve.

And conversely, that is, to speak frankly, the problem with national service. It is a hugely expensive undertaking. You had to figure out -- remember, we're taking roughly one in 10 of the young men who turn 18 every year, if you use that as the marker year, and a smaller fraction of the women. What do you plan to do, if you're going to have required national service, with all those other people? And even if you pay them a conscription wage, what is the bill going to look like for doing that? To what purpose? This is always an evocation that people like to point to -- it would be great if everybody did this -- few go through the practicalities, the public administration realities of what's involved here in this program.

Yes, sir?

Q: My question is you mentioned that the African American rate in the whole force is 30 percent higher than --

Senior Defense Officer: No, the whole force content is 30 percent.

Q: Of African Americans --

Staff: It's only 20.

Senior Defense Officer: Excuse me, 20 percent.

Q: Twenty percent?

Staff: (Off mike.)

Q: And what's the general population?

Senior Defense Officer: Fifteen? Twelve?

Staff: Twelve to 14 percent of similarly aged people.

Q: Back to my question was, do you have -- one question was, do you have any sense of why they sort of stay in larger numbers, which is what you seem to be saying? They come in at the entry point at roughly the --

Senior Defense Officer: Somewhat higher, but not a lot. A percentage point or two than the --

Q: They obviously stay around to make that number goes higher.

Senior Defense Officer: This is a subject of a great deal of speculation. I think one hypothesis that is given a fair amount of credence is that this is indeed and has for some time been very close to an equal opportunity institution. This is a merit-based system. You get ahead based on who you -- on what you can do, not the color of your skin or your ethnic background.

But go -- and I know many of you have done this, but it's fascinating going through a line military unit and see the wide range of ethnic and experience backgrounds that people in that unit bring to military service. It really is an extraordinary cross-section of America.

And I think, again, this is the kind of thing that's hard to prove, but I think there is widespread conviction that because it's merit-based, African Americans, at least in terms of recent history, decide this is a good place to make a career; "I will get a good deal out of this. I'll be judged on my abilities, not on my background."

Q: And my second question was, when you looked at the college graduate -- or parents who are college graduates, or you've used the dads here, 30 percent of the population as a whole, 22 percent of your enlistees. Again, do you have a sense of why those two numbers aren't as close as the other numbers? Is it that someone who has parents who went to college or have college degrees, might have more opportunities available to them -- they could do the military, they could go to college, they can do the family business?

Senior Defense Officer: It's largely because we've left officers out of the comparison. The numbers I quoted you are for enlisted only. So if I added officers back in, whose parents -- I hope I can get to you by the end of the week some numbers on that score -- college graduates, a father or mother is a college graduate, it's going to look close to the population average.

Yes, ma'am?

Staff: Let's wrap up with these two. Lisa and then Pam.

Q: To what extent do you think that this whole argument shows the disconnect and -- how much the population misunderstands what the military is? You keep talking about the fact that when you don't put officers into this equation, the picture shifts. Well, anybody who knows anything about the military knows that officers are college graduates; enlisted aren't. That's basically the definition. And what does it say to you about the misunderstanding of what the military is --

Senior Defense Officer: I'll tell you, let's go back to your colleague's question earlier. I think there is a lot of old views out there as to what the military is like, and I think that's one of the things I'm out to advertise here. But I'm hopeful that you, with your stories -- and many of them are doing that, I would underscore -- can help the American public change its view.

But those views, once established, may be very hard to shift. The younger generation, which is actually facing these choices, may understand it, but they aren't necessarily the ones who write opinion columns or occupy positions of political influence, et cetera. So I do think it takes a long time to -- this has only happened within the last generation, too. I think we have to keep that in mind.

Q: But even beyond the older -- you know, the older group of people who see the military as a Vietnam military, I'm talking about a fundamental misunderstanding of how the military is constructed and used in this country.

Senior Defense Officer: I couldn't disagree with you. I mean, there is that.

Yes, ma'am? Last question.

Q: Last week, the secretary of Defense said some things essentially in the same spirit of what you're talking about, is how much better an all-volunteer force is, and enraged Vietnam veterans groups who basically said, "So you drafted us, you forced us to serve, and now you're dissing us?" And the same idea that you've kind of put forth here, which is that an all-volunteer force is dramatically better than a force where people were required to fight.

Senior Defense Officer: Were conscripted.

Q: Before, I have to come back and get you to restate that, is there anything you'd like to say with that population in mind?

Senior Defense Officer: There is no intent to disrespect the service of those who have come before. They served, as you're pointing out, under a different paradigm. The country had not come to this truly bold experiment.

And I think that's the point I'd like to end on. It's the point where I started. This is a transformation, and it was a huge gamble. No one had ever done this on this scale before in the modern era. And indeed, it had a troubled history. The first 10 years, even through the early 1980s, you had serious calls inside and outside the department, much more serious -- to go back to your question -- I think, than this legislation we hope has chances for -- to go back to conscription. So it took the better part of 10 years to get past the early errors of management, to come to the formulation that's going to work.

So it's only within -- coming back to Lisa's question -- only within the last 20 years, which is a relatively short time in terms of people's mind sets and what people understand about what's happening in the military, that we've had this kind of successful program. And I think the first real test -- and it was -- having been here when it occurred, we understood that this was something that was going to prove or disprove the concept -- was the Persian Gulf War of 1990-91, where we took a volunteer force to war.

If you read the Gates Commission report, which I encourage you to do, it equivocates on this question -- back to your issue, sir -- in terms of under what circumstances you might have a draft. It equivocates on the question of what happens in the case of conflict. I think what was significant from a historical perspective, which cemented the transformational changes it's brought the department, was the successful use of a volunteer force in a shooting conflict in 1990-91. And of course, that's been repeated on a lower level in the Balkans since then, and then most importantly, this last year in Afghanistan.

It demonstrates this is a concept that's successful. It's a force that is broadly representative of the United States as a whole. It's not perfect in that regard, but it's not -- does not have the kind of imperfections people believe it has, because most of those numbers we've been discussing leave out the officer class in terms of looking at who is in the force as a whole.

With that --

Q: I'm sorry. Can I follow up just on what you were saying there? Are there any statistics out there? Do you have any numbers that prove -- granted there were, you know, great people who did great things in the Vietnam era, but there also -- there have to have been a lot more discipline problems.

Senior Defense Officer: There were.

Q: There had to have been a lot more drug problems. Do you have numbers to back that up?

Senior Defense Officer: Yes. Yes. We can get you some of those numbers. The rate of drug use, the rate -- I mean, we are, because we test in the military -- we set the standard, I think, for American society -- we have very lower rates of drug incidence. And we'd like them to be zero.

If you look at the AWOL rates, which are absent without leave rates, you look at disciplinary indicators of similar sorts -- incarceration, so on -- this is a well-behaved force. Again, everybody understands -- back to Lisa's question -- you screw up and you're out of here. It's not that we have to keep you in because you're somehow evading service and have, therefore, deliberately, like Corporal Klinger, I think, in the M*A*S*H program -- (laughter) -- trying to fail. No, no. These are all people who want to -- they don't want to fail. They want to -- shall I say, suck it up and get through. They want to demonstrate they can do the job. And it's a whole different mindset. It is truly a transformation in terms of how the military works.

And what's interesting to me is that other nations have realized this, so this is not just the United States talking to itself. And as you're seeing in Western Europe, societies -- and Eastern Europe, societies that for millennia -- or for centuries, anyway, have used conscription as the way of raising the force, have started to change. The French, the Germans, the Italians, certainly -- they're all trying to move to a volunteer force because they are seeing the payoff to that concept in the performance of their military.

Q: So you don't think the cultural benefits of having people exposed to the daily rigors of military --

Senior Defense Officer: What I would argue is that when you include the officer class, you are including a broad cross-section of America. This is not limited to one ethnic or racial group or one social class, as I was trying to say with parent's education, which I think is a far better indicator of social class than income, which is skewed by a number of factors here. And I think when you include the officers especially in that, you are seeing a force that's broadly representative of America as a whole.

Q: Sorry. What I was getting at is the supposed cultural disconnect between the American population and the military. And that's one of the reasons why people said maybe people should be serving in the military so that they better understand the sacrifice and what they put up with, and appreciate them more.

Senior Defense Officer: I don't think there is as big a difference between the population at large, especially the population outside the beltway, and the American military, as some arguments would contend. I think you particularly see that in the way our Reserve component units, which really are out there all across the country in every community of the land, how they are responding to this call-up. We have at one time or another called well over 100,000 reservists. Some have been sent home already, some are being called up now. And I think the success of that call-up, which you have documented in your stories, which I found very informative and, indeed, flattering to the Reserve components in their import, demonstrate that they understand what they signed up for, and shows that the country as a whole is responding. It's really a terrific, terrific story.

Bryan, with that, thank you very much. Appreciate it.

Staff: Thank you, sir.

For further information and reference to numbers quoted in briefing, see http://www.defenselink.mil/news/Jan2003/d20030114avf.pdf


Additional Links

Stay Connected