by Carl Rowan
King Features Syndicate
Can you imagine a nation with an abundance of wealth and even greater freedoms entrusting its defense to the poorly educated members of a sort of permanent underclass?
That is what the United States is doing. We provide our military with the most sophisticated weapons that man's mind can devise, but we do not supply either the quality or quantity of manpower necessary to use them properly. That's because our leaders don't have the political or social stomach to force those who have the most to protect to engage in military service.
For years after the draft ended in 1973, volunteers seemed to fill the needs of all branches of the military. But now, in our blossoming economy, teen-age nerds think of being "day-traders" on Wall Street, not high-tech Air Force stars. A young computer expert wants to work for Intel or AOL, not Uncle Sam.
The result is that my old military branch, the Navy, is sending seriously undermanned ships into combat areas. Even with 4,500 recruiters and an advertising budget of $70 million, the Navy is at least 22,000 short of the personnel it urgently needs.
Even though it now accepts more recruits who do not have high-school diplomas, it has had to dispatch aircraft carriers, guided-missile cruisers and other vessels into the turbulent Middle East area with crews drastically short of their normal complements.
This country hasn't faced the fact that, in war or peace, sea duty and other military work is hard. Sea tours can be long and lonely. Quarters are cramped. The food is often terrible. Yet, we pay a lowly sailor with two years of experience a paltry $887 a month, and a master chief petty officer with 20 years of experience a measly $3,207 a month.
President Clinton and congressional leaders are talking about pay increases of about 10 percent, but that is not likely to cause an enlistment rush of young men who now intend to enter private industry.
Leaders in our armed forces all say they are searching for ways of solving this personnel shortfall, but none dares to mention making all young men and women share the military burden by reinstituting conscription. Clearly, something drastic is called for when, as The New York Times reported, only 9 percent of young men ages 16 to 21 are even considering joining the Navy.
But there isn't even a feeble cry in America to restore the draft, and I doubt that even the middle class, let alone the richer and more powerful upper classes, would entertain the thought of required military service. They don't even display the generosity of a craven long-ago time when a rich man could pay a poor man to go to war for him.
One thing I'm sure of: It is both morally and militarily untenable that we should say to those Americans with the least in goods and hope, "Get out there and defend America!"