There are 14 million men in the United States between the ages of 19 and 26 who are theoretically eligible for military service. How many of them actually are "available" to meet the escalating draft calls (46,000 men in October, the highest since Korea) is a matter of shifting definition. Over the past year the Defense Department has announced a number of piecemeal changes in standards which have increased both the manpower pool and the anxiety of men who have deferments.

Since 1958 many men have been rejected on mental grounds who would have been found acceptable earlier. Altogether about 600,000 men flunk the physical and mental tests each year. Now standards of induction are again being lowered. Two recent adjustments in the passing score on the Armed Forces Qualifying Test were supposed to net 40,000 men, and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara has decided he can "salvage" another 40,000 volunteers in the next 10 months (and more later) by further relaxing standards and giving special training and medical care to overcome educational and medical deficiencies.

The plan outlined by Mr. McNamara in his speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars on August 23 is as much an adjunct to the War on Poverty as it is to the war in Vietnam. Whether it will do something for the poor or to the poor depends on how you feel about military service and about a system that will still largely exempt the affluent and educated.

McNamara said that "the poor in America have not had the opportunity to earn their fair share of this nation's abundance, but they can be given an opportunity to serve in their country's defense. . . ." But the opportunity to serve, despite the advantages it might have in developing skills useful on the outside, is a dubious opportunity in the context of a system that allows many the opportunity not to serve. Making the nation's disadvantaged fit to kill, without closing the loopholes through which the advantaged flee to safety, will not make an equitable national service.

The problem of the military reject is part of the problem of poverty in America. According to the Secretary, the "vast majority" of the 600,000 men rejected annually are part of the "subterranean poor"; they are victims of inadequate health services and bad schools. McNamara would give some of them--a hundred thousand a year when the project really gets going--a chance to fight in Vietnam and, at the same time, an opportunity to learn a trade which will be useful to them when they go back to the slums.

To accomplish this he would make use of the huge educational potential of the Defense Department, which he calls "the largest single educational complex the world has ever possessed." In his VFW speech, the Secretary rattled off impressive statistics about his War College: 2,000 professional training courses for enlisted men, $90 million a year spent to educate military dependents in the ninth largest US school system, a million students enrolled in 30 correspondence schools, 258,000 students in the Armed Forces Institute. He seemed to be saying that if the Pentagon can do these things, it can certainly deal with the special problems of educating 100,000 men to pass the AFQT. With closed-circuit TV and programmed learning, it should be a cinch.

Before 1958 the services routinely took a lot of men who would now qualify for McNamara's salvation army. And the results were not particularly encouraging. The navy had to discharge from training more than 13 percent of the men in the lowest mental category of its recruits, while only two percent of the men in the highest category flunked out of boot camp. The air force discharged as unsuitable 16 percent in the low group, three percent in the highest. Of air force men who completed their tour of duty, 42 percent in the low mental group couldn't qualify for reenlistment, whereas the failure rate among the high group was only 10 percent. Even if McNamara does as well as he predicts, even if he succeeds with 85 percent of the men singled out for salvage, he will still be failing with 15,000 men a year.

One indirect effect of McNamara's plans will be to implement one of the recommendations of the controversial Moynihan Report on the Negro family, which suggested that the army could solve many of the young Negro's problems. Fully 30 percent of the men set for "salvage" are Negroes. The Moynihan Report argued that military service "is the only experience open to the Negro American in which he is truly treated as an equal." It added that the military provides discipline which Negroes from broken homes have lacked, and prescribed the army as "a dramatic and desperately needed change: a world away from women, a world run by strong men of unquestioned authority, where discipline, if harsh, is nonetheless orderly and predictable, and where rewards, if limited, are granted on the basis of performance."

The Defense Department in addition to being big in the education business is big in the war business. Sending poor people--a disproportionate number of them Negroes--off to fight in Vietnam, while allowing the more affluent and better educated to stay at home parlaying one deferment into another, isn't going to iron out the inequities in the draft. And despite the Defense Department's educational credentials, is it really the appropriate agency to make up for the failures of the schools and of the nation's health services?

The McNamara scheme, which apparently doesn't need a congressional appropriation this year to become operative, is an old idea, one already thrown out by Congress. The STEP program (Specialized Training and Enlistment Program), which Congress rejected last year, was to train and rehabilitate 15,000 substandard army volunteers at a special camp at Ft. Leonard Wood, Missouri. That plan was opposed, Senator Richard Russell (D., Ga.) said, because it smacked too much of "social and economic reform that should be handled by other agencies."

Programs already exist outside of the Defense Department to help youths who flunk their physical and mental tests. The health referral program of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare tells medical rejects what's wrong with them, and sends them to a doctor. The National Committee on Children and Youth, an outgrowth of a 1960 White House Conference, is under contract to the Labor Department to provide job training to boys in the Baltimore-Washington area who tried without success to get into the service. Since 1964, NCCY has offered classes to volunteers who can't pass the army's enlistment screening test. About 85 percent of them learn enough to get into the service, into more advanced job training, or to return to school. The NCCY is now training employment service people from Rochester, Chicago, St. Louis, Los Angeles and San Antonio, so they can start their own programs. The Labor Department sends men to 50 preinduction centers on examination days to discuss various government programs with those who fail draft tests. In this way unemployed youths, many of them school dropouts, are channeled into such programs as the Job Corps.

Sargent Shriver, the Director of the Office of Economic Opportunity, is scared that the McNamara proposals will be seen as eliminating the need for the Job Corps. "Two years ago," he said, "the 'experts' scoffed when we said exactly what the Secretary of Defense says today. But now that such a distinguished leader of our military effort endorses our position so eloquently, I am sure that public opinion will change. In fact, I predict that all the conservatives, in and out of Congress, who have attacked Job Corps centers when managed by American industrial corporations, educational institutions, private foundations, and the government itself, will suddenly approve of a similar program run by the military authorities. These conservatives will also cry out that the Job Corps is no longer needed now, because the army can do a better job with the same youngsters." He went on to say that, in fact, overlaps in "clientele" for his Job Corps and McNamara's war corps would be few. McNamara will be getting the 1-Y's--young men who are marginally unfit and normally considered qualified for military service only in a declared war or national emergency. The Job Corps, on the other hand, gets the more hard core 4-F's, who will be untouched by McNamara's salvage.

The Job Corps, nevertheless, has served to prepare many young men for military service. Shriver says that 30 percent of all enrollees enter the military "even though the vast majority were totally ineligible before." And the Job Corps has the advantage that it is completely voluntary: "Those who join volunteer freely. They succeed because they want to succeed. Such motivation does not come with compulsory training."

By David Sanford