When Richard Nixon abolished the draft a generation ago, he effectively relieved citizens of any obligation to participate in the nation's defense. Military service became strictly a matter of individual choice, one that the Pentagon promoted as a job opportunity.
For the most part, privileged America looked for opportunity elsewhere. When it came to donning a uniform, members of the predominantly white upper and middle classes tended, in the formulation made famous by Vice President Cheney, to have ''other priorities." National defense became, like housecleaning and lawn care, an essential service that the affluent preferred to contract out. Although Ivy Leaguers were welcome to join up, no one much expected that they would. With few exceptions, they have not.
Less privileged Americans -- people of color along with the sons and daughters of the working class -- picked up the slack. As a consequence, the military establishment that emerged by the 1990s as a preeminent symbol of revived national self-confidence and self-esteem was in no sense representative of American society. Its members came not from the suburbs but from the farm and the inner city, not from Harvard but from Prairie View A & M. Seldom acknowledged openly but tacitly understood by all, this ignoble arrangement figured prominently in easing the divisions that Vietnam had opened up at home.
Of all the services, the US Army depended most on this arrangement. By 2000, 42 percent of Army enlisted members were minorities. Black Americans in particular had made the volunteer army a success. Although African-Americans constitute 13 percent of the nation's overall population, in 2000 they comprised fully a quarter of the Army's soldiers and a larger percentage still of the noncommissioned officer corps.
Today, under the stress of a protracted war, this bargain -- plain folk serve while the well-heeled cheer from a safe distance -- has begun to unravel. Last month, the regular Army (along with the Marine Corps) came nowhere near to filling its quota for new recruits. For the past several months, recruiting for the Army Reserve and National Guard has been in free fall. No one in a position of authority doubts that this situation will worsen in the months ahead.
Among the principal reasons for this crisis, one fact stands preeminent: African-Americans have begun to opt out. Whereas in fiscal year 2000, 23.5 percent of Army first-term enlistees were black, by 2004 that figure had dropped to 15.6 percent. Over the first four months of the current fiscal year, it stands at 13.9 percent. Nor is the problem confined to the enlisted ranks. Since 2001, black enrollment in ROTC has dropped by 36 percent. Like Cheney in the 1960s, young African-Americans today are finding that they too have other priorities.
Major General Michael D. Rochelle, who directs the Army's recruiting command, describes this trend as ''alarming." He is right. If African-Americans are no longer willing to shoulder more than their fair share of responsibility for defending the United States, then the compact that made the all-volunteer force possible becomes essentially defunct.
Ratcheting up its advertising budget, offering more lucrative bonuses, flooding strip malls with additional recruiters, and lowering enlistment standards, the Pentagon is furiously trying to manage this problem. That effort is unlikely to succeed. The all-volunteer force is beginning to come apart not for a lack of resources but because it is and was from the outset inconsistent with democratic principles and morally untenable.
According to President Bush, winning the global war on terror means that the United States must exert itself to spread the blessings of liberty around the world. If so, then those who enjoy a disproportionate share of freedom's blessings here at home ought to share in the sacrifices that such an enterprise necessarily entails. In that regard, plastering yellow-ribbon decals on the back of the family SUV or sporting ''Support Our Troops" jelly bracelets as fashion accessories just won't cut it.
Military service today is no longer a job opportunity to be coveted. Increasingly, it is becoming a trial to be endured. The immediate question posed by the crisis confronting the all-volunteer force is not whether to revive the draft. Instead the question is this: Will this democracy ensure that the burdens of war are distributed consistent with the principles of equity and justice?
Andrew J. Bacevich, professor of international relations at Boston University, is author of ''The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War."
© 2005 Boston Globe