President Bush passes up few opportunities to assure Americans that the Persian Gulf war "will not be another Vietnam." Only history will judge whether or not he's right. But when it comes to the men and women serving in Operation Desert Storm, the contrast with the Vietnam-era mi-litary could not be more stark.
The U. S. troops who waded through Vietnam's jungles and rice paddies were in large part alienated conscripts with notoriously poor morale. Today's volunteers are older and far better educated than their Vietnam counterparts. The troops of Desert Storm are more likely to be married and to have children--and a large number of them consider the armed forces their career. Many more of America's warriors--officers and enlisted personnel--are women or black. And whenever the war ends, today's soldiers are unlikely to suffer the social and economic reentry trauma experienced by Vietnam veterans.
For many in today's military, that reentry may come sooner than planned. The Pentagon still intends to follow congressional orders to reduce the number in uniform by 20%--from 2.04 million to 1.67 million by fiscal 1995. "Desert Storm is a delay in what is still expected to happen," says Deputy Defense Secretary Donald J. Atwood.
'A RIPPLE.' Unlike Vietnam's "dog soldiers," who suffered from low pay, poor leadership, drug abuse, and racial strife, today's troops will be far more capable of joining the civilian work force. "This is going to be a ripple compared to Vietnam, Korea, and World War II," says David Grissmer, a military manpower expert at RAND Corp. A major reason: Earlier wars dumped a lot more vets into a much smaller labor force. In 1968, the U. S. forces of 3.5 million constituted 4.3% of the labor force. Today's troops make up just 1.7% of the work force.
Those who will be leaving the service in the next year or so, of course, could have trouble finding good civilian jobs. The military's record as a vocational training school is mixed. Soldiers who have become electronics technicians will be in heavy demand; those trained as riflemen will have a harder time. Manufacturing industries, which still offer many of the best-paying positions for those who aren't college graduates, have lost nearly a million jobs in the last few years. "They'll be coming back into an extraordinarily weak labor market," says Edwin Dorn of the Brookings Institution. "But they should be desirable employees--disciplined, reliable, and drug-free."
Education gives vets-to-be a big leg up in the job market. Beginning after the draft ended in 1973, and especially during the Reagan defense buildup of the 1980s, Congress sweetened military pay and benefits, attracting better-qualified personnel. During the draft era, nearly half of incoming soldiers were high school dropouts. As late as 1980, just 68% of enlisted personnel were high school graduates. But today, 95% of enlistees have diplomas, the highest rate ever (chart, page 35). The results show up on the aptitude tests given to recruits: From 1980 to 1987, those scoring in the two highest categories doubled.
While the military is luring more high school grads, there are far fewer college graduates. Without a draft, those with degrees choose to enter as officers or not at all. The result is a more homogeneous group that's easier to train. "You don't have the Harvard graduates, but you don't have the people that you scrape off the streets, either," says Robert L. Goldich, a defense specialist at the Congressional Research Service.
Blacks are disproportionately represented in the armed forces, a fact that has been the source of much controversy. They now make up 21% of the armed forces. By contrast, blacks compose just 14% of the population aged 18 to 24, the prime enlistment years. Blacks account for 25% of all soldiers in the Persian Gulf and 30% of the Army. When the military was planning force cuts before Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, populist crusader Jesse Jackson warned the Pentagon against allowing the reductions to fall too heavily on blacks. Of late, Jackson and other black leaders have been complaining that the large number of blacks in uniform amounts to the ruling class turning poor blacks into cannon fodder through an "economic draft." Says Martin Binkin, a military manpower specialist at Brookings: "In peacetime, military service is viewed as a benefit and in wartime as a burden."
In fact, a major manpower trend of the past decade has been a rise in the proportion of white volunteers. Better incentives and higher educational standards have attracted more white high school grads. Today, 35% of qualified black men have served in the military, vs. 16% for qualified white men, according to a study by Binkin. During the 1970s, as many as 42% of qualified black men served in the military.
But these days blacks who serve have been rising in the ranks, increasing their numbers among officers and noncommissioned officers. Roughly a third of Army noncommissioned officers are black--a result of several factors, among them a black reenlistment rate twice as high as that for whites. Blacks have doubled their representation in the officer corps from 3% during the 1960s to 6% today.
Even more dramatic are the statistics for minority women in the services. Whites are in the minority among Army women--44% are black, and other minorities account for 8%. Although women remain barred by law from combat, they're doing everything else, serving on ammunition ships and driving supply trucks to the front lines. During the 1960s, women accounted for just 2% of military personnel; today's figure exceeds 10%.
MILITARY MOMS. The presence of so many women is forcing the military and Congress to reexamine the roles of females and military couples. The proportion of married troops of both sexes among the lower enlisted grades has doubled since the draft ended. A third of the enlisted ranks are now married. And since two-thirds of women who marry while in uniform pick a spouse who is also in the military, there are many more all-service families.
What's more, an additional 14% of females in the service are single parents, while the figure for males is 4%. This phenomenon has prompted a lot of television news coverage of tearful children calling for Mommy. Already, bills are piling up in Congress that would exempt single parents from service and would keep both parents from being sent into a war zone.
The irony is, women have become so entrenched in the military, in so many important roles, that it will be hard for the Pentagon to hand out many exemptions for mothering while maintaining an effective military. "It's more likely the Pentagon will start trying to screen out mothers," predicts Charles C. Moskos, a military sociologist at Northwestern University.
Eventually, the greatest effect of the war's end and the subsequent drawdown of forces may be felt not by those leaving but by those youths who won't be able to enlist. Moskos estimates that by 1995, the Pentagon will be seeking 150,000 fewer volunteers out of the 3 million Americans who turn 18 each year. That translates into an additional 5% of America's job-hungry youth who will have to find a job elsewhere because Uncle Sam won't want them.