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Melvin R. Laird

Choose to Serve

Melvin R. Laird Op-Ed Piece
Published by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Thursday, October 28, 2004

In September 1972, I oversaw the end of the military draft in my role as secretary of defense. At that time, the Vietnam War was winding down after dividing our country and scarring our military.

I believed then that we did the right thing by ending conscription and instituting an all-volunteer military. In addition, as the so-called "Father of the All-Volunteer Force," I believe it even more strongly now.

Today, in the midst of a heated political campaign, some people are trying to scare our youth and their parents with the prospect of another military draft despite repeated denials and the staunch opposition of President Bush, the secretary of defense and a near-unanimous majority of Congress.

The military manpower draft is not coming back - period. We don’t need it. Nevertheless, since I was there to see its demise, it is probably worth revisiting how we came to adopt the all-volunteer force in the first place and why it was so essential.

When President Johnson first expanded the Vietnam War, he faced a gap between the manpower needed for operations in Vietnam and the size of the military at the time. Instead of boosting recruiting levels or activating the Reserves and the National Guard, the decision was made to rely on the draft instead.

Of course, not everybody stood an equal chance of being drafted and serving, particularly when many received college or hardship deferments. Some even avoided service by leaving the country. Because service was mandatory and for fixed periods, pay was less than if the military had been forced to compete on the open job market.

As we made the transition to an all-volunteer force, the Laird-Packard team, with the support of the Congress, eliminated deferments and instituted a lottery.

As a congressman representing my Wisconsin district during the 1960s, I watched the Vietnam War steadily escalate and the number of draftees, as well as casualties, greatly increase. Visiting constituents in my Wisconsin congressional district convinced me that the draft was unfair and not serving our country or our military very well.

A young congressman from Illinois felt the same way and was one of the first to press for an all-volunteer force. His name was Donald Rumsfeld.

America, for much of its history, had maintained a skeletal standing Army that expanded quickly in wartime to absorb vast numbers of conscripts. These draftees, after a modicum of training, would be rushed out to join regular units engaged in combat, usually with mixed results and high casualties.

It did not seem to make a lot of sense, particularly with this short-term service and the required training or new technology used by the services. It was expensive, unfair, and it was not doing the job as our county might have hoped.

In 1970, a prestigious commission, established with President Nixon’s approval, concluded that the country and the military would be much better served with an all-volunteer force.

At the time, there was considerable opposition to that idea within government and the military. Some government officials feared that ending the draft would convey a message of weakness to the Soviet Union in the middle of the Cold War.

Some commanders worried that the Army would become desperately and dangerously short of troops. Others worried that the military could not compete with the private sector and other governmental agencies for qualified manpower because of the costs to maintain comparable compensation and benefits.

My Pentagon team was convinced that those concerns were misplaced. We were able to convince Nixon and the Congress to support the all-volunteer service, which officially came into being on Jan. 1, 1973. After some early fits and starts, it was proved to be one of the most decisive and positive changes in our military’s history.

That professional all-volunteer force ultimately helped win the Cold War against a Soviet force made up mostly of conscripts. In rapid fashion, the same volunteer force freed Panama from the grip of Manuel Noriega, Afghanistan from the rule of the Taliban and Iraq from the brutality of Saddam Hussein.

The demands of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have led some people to contend that we will need more troops to sustain the war on terrorism, which, in turn, has led others to talk about the draft. Even if significant numbers of extra troops are needed in the future, this can be accomplished through expanded recruiting and incentives for the all-volunteer force. We must be competitive for manpower and womanpower with the private sector of our society.

Consider that at the peak of the Reagan defense buildup in the 1980s, the active military grew to 2.2 million volunteer troops. Presently, we have 1 million fewer in our regular forces.

The taxpayers of this country have shown again and again a willingness to increase pay and incentives to attract qualified men and women in the regular forces, the Reserve and the Guard. They will do so again, as compensation has dropped below many comparable private-sector jobs.

In the early 1940s, my two brothers and I volunteered to serve in the Navy during World War II. We made that decision shortly after the unprecedented attack at Pearl Harbor, when fanatics and fascists with global ambitions threatened our country.

Today, our nation faces another global struggle that once again calls upon the service and sacrifice of our people. Throughout the years, I have had the privilege to meet many of our young men and women in the armed forces. A conflict as complex and unpredictable as the global war on terrorism requires a force of highly motivated, trained and skilled people that only an all-volunteer military can provide.

Motivation is, indeed, important, but the quality of life for the men and women and their families must not be overlooked.

Thirty years ago, many people wondered and worried if the all-volunteer force would suffice to meet the unexpected challenges of the coming decades. That question has been answered resoundingly as our military today is a model for the world.

While there are always ways to improve the total force, it would be foolish to temper with its fundamental strength — the talent and motivation of those who choose to serve.

Melvin R. Laird was secretary of defense from 1969 to 1973 and represented Wisconsin’s 7th Congressional District for nine terms.

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