Today I received an email from a friend, Christopher Jehn. We became friends at a party at Richard Thaler’s house in Rochester in the fall of 1977 when we learned that we were strong allies on the fight to keep the all-volunteer force (AVF) and avoid returning to the draft. We have kept in touch on these issues since. Our views on foreign policy are very different but our views on the draft are very similar. Chris was the assistant secretary of defense for force management and personnel in the Bush I administration from November 1989 to January 1993. In this role, he occasionally interacted with Colin Powell.

Chris sent his email to a group of friends who are all opponents of the draft and I got his permission to post it. Here it is:

One of the many benefits of my tenure in OSD [Office of the Secretary of Defense] was getting to know Colin Powell. His obituaries have done a good job describing his accomplishments and significance, though I wish they’d taken less apparent pleasure in reminding us of his UN speech justifying the invasion of Iraq. But, not surprisingly, none mentioned he was a strong proponent of the all-volunteer force (as was Dick Cheney). He understood both its strengths and the problems with conscription. Two instances are illustrative.

We first talked about the AVF in Fall, 1990 during the large deployment to Saudi Arabia to prepare for the Gulf War against Iraq. As the size and duration of the buildup became evident, the press and others began questioning whether a volunteer military would serve our needs. (A couple of bozos in OSD Policy even wrote a memo arguing it would be necessary to resume the draft.) Most troubling politically, because blacks were overrepresented in the military, self-appointed guardians of black service members argued that blacks would die at a higher rate than whites when combat began. General Powell initiated several conversations between us to ensure we were giving consistent answers to questions we had both been asked. He understood why a volunteer military made the military stronger and needed no help from me to clearly articulate those reasons. Best of all, as I was going on about how blacks weren’t overrepresented in the combat arms (they were heavily represented in supporting units such as supply and maintenance), he noted that the overrepresentation of blacks in the military was an indictment of the civilian sector’s treatment of minorities compared to the military’s. It was the civilian world’s problem, not the military’s. While I could and did make that argument in public, Powell was a much more convincing witness.

A year or so later, I was in Powell’s office with LTG [Lieutenant General] Don Jones (my deputy for military manpower and personnel policy) to brief Powell on the incentives we’d developed to encourage service members to voluntarily leave the military. Powell was supportive and that part of the meeting took only a few minutes. The rest of our time Jones and Powell entertained me with stories of their time together in Viet Nam. They’d been majors on a command staff and at one time went into the field together to brief the command’s units on command plans. Jones quickly pointed out that Powell was the “talent,” giving the briefings while Jones was along to flip slides. Knowing my views on the draft, they eventually started telling stories about the mess that was the draft-era Army. At one point, Powell got up, and stood behind Don Jones’ chair and said, “This is how we tested recruits’ hearing then, Chris,” and then yelled, “CAN YOU HEAR THIS?”  An unsuspecting Jones jumped, and we all laughed.

Powell’s view of the volunteer military was no doubt shaped by his service as a junior officer in the late 1950s and ’60s.  His view was a sharp contrast to the views of general officers just fifteen years earlier, almost all of whom thought ending the draft was a huge mistake.  Powell saw the strength of the Army as in large measure due to voluntarism. He also understood the volunteer military was good for blacks and other minorities, as well as the country. It was a privilege to know him.

My comment: I wish Stanley McChrystal would understand what’s wrong with the draft.

Chris, by the way, wrote “Conscription” in David R. Henderson, ed., The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics.