Thought of the Day
“Is it Time for the Draft?”October 28, 2010
On June 21, 1945, with the war in Europe over but with fighting continuing in Japan, my father wrote my mother from Plezzo di Tarvisio, Italy of a celebration being held for a man who was returning home because he had accumulated “over 85 points”. At the time my father had 69 points, more than half of which (36) represented his four children. But the 16 points he needed meant another eight months overseas, or sixteen months in the U.S., barring another campaign. Nevertheless, enough points eventually meant rotation home. In contrast, in Iraq and Afghanistan today, many soldiers in our voluntary army are experiencing multiple tours.
The history of conscription reaches back to the Civil War. However, only about 2% of Union soldiers who served were draftees. The vast majority of the 2,100,000 who served in the Union army were volunteers. In World War I, President Wilson decided on conscription. Nearly 3,000,000 men were drafted over a two year period. In 1940, a year and a quarter before the United States’ entrance into World War II, the Selective Training and Service Act was enacted. President Roosevelt’s signing of that Bill began the first peacetime draft in the United States. In time, as the War proceeded, the Act was amended to require all men between the ages of 18 to 65 to register, with those between the ages of 18 and 45 being immediately liable for induction. (At the time my father was drafted, in the spring of 1944, he was 33 and had three children with a fourth due in four months.) For fifteen months, following the end of the War, the nation returned to an all-volunteer force. The Selective Service System was established by Congress on July 1, 1948 and with it a peace time draft.
In 1968, at the height of the Vietnam War, Nixon ran for President on the promise to end the draft. It was his belief that ending the draft would effectively undermine the anti-Vietnam War peace marches. In fact, its end was a consequence of the anti-war movement. In early 1973, two years before the fall of Saigon, it was announced that no further draft orders would be issued. The last drawing had been for men born in 1953. However, in 1980 Congress re-instated the requirement that eighteen year-olds register with the Selective Service System.
Until Iraq there had been no major military conflicts since Vietnam. There had been small skirmishes. President Reagan had Granada; President Clinton had Kosovo. George H.W. Bush had the first Gulf War; but in the scheme of things those were small theaters, with armed conflicts quickly concluded, at least as it pertained to U.S. forces.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have again raised the question: should a draft be reinstituted? Arguments supporting an all-volunteer army generally center on costs and efficiencies. Walter Oi, writing for Regulation magazine in July 2003, a publication of the Cato Institute, stated: “This shift [from draft to volunteer] appears to have had a dramatically positive effect on U.S military preparedness.” He cites, as examples, the Gulf War, and the first few weeks of Iraq and Afghanistan. Defending the all-volunteer army, Deputy Chief of Staff, G-1 United States Army, in an interview in July 2008, was quoted as saying that the “all-volunteer force is the envy of every single free society around the world.” He added: “Millennial-generation young men and women do have a sense of duty.”
But an all-volunteer army incurs costs. It is, in truth, a mercenary army. While one might argue there is a difference between an all-voluntary army and a mercenary one, I would suggest the difference is more embedded in perception than in reality. We have outsourced the risk and dangers of combat to a small group of people to whom most of us have little connection. Defense Secretary Gates, in his speech at Duke a month ago, said that fewer than 1% of Americans served in uniform over a decade of war. War is usually a result of failed diplomatic initiatives; as Carl von Clausewitz famously wrote, “War is a continuation of policy by other means.” Mr. Gates went on to warn of a “self-perpetuating cycle of civilian-military alienation.” He fears that the armed services concentrate themselves in “enclaves like the south and mountain west, while large urban, wealthy and coastal populations increasingly grow distant from military life.” “There is a risk over time,” Secretary Gates added, “of developing a cadre of military leaders that politically, culturally and geographically have less and less in common with the people they have sworn to defend.”
In recent years, those of us who are being defended read of soldiers assuming multiple combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan – sometimes as many as four or five. While multiple tours were not unusual in other wars among the officer corps, especially graduates of the military academies, they were not common for enlisted men. Even during World War II when men were drafted “for the duration of the war plus six months”, a point system allowed those who had served in combat to eventually rotate home.
The decision to wage war would likely be approached more cautiously if those who serve fight were truly citizen soldiers – a good, not a bad thing. We do not live happily in a democratic society because it is efficient. We do so because of the freedoms it affords. Those freedoms are worth defending; hiring professionals who risk their lives to save ours demeans the democracy being defended. A professional voluntary army may be easier and quicker to deploy, but it misses something when it excludes multiple segments of society.
I do not deny that a voluntary army has served us well over the past three and a half decades. But if Mr. Gates is right and the alienation grows, the decision to commit troops might come to resemble a video game to those in charge at home – an intense, but sanitized view of war. Soldiers would be little more than red pins on a map. In a letter to my mother, my father wrote of the accuracy of Bill Mauldin’s caricatures: “In combat, soldiers that I saw looked just as dirty and unshaven most of the time and often a lot worse. If you go two or three weeks without shaving and sleep in holes and sweat and hit the ground or mud or dust or whatever happens to be under your feet when a shell comes over (sometimes it was manure), you don’t end up looking like the beautifully groomed soldier you see mowing down the enemy in advertisements.” That experience should not be limited just to those professionals we pay to fight for our wars.
Georges Clemenceau, Prime Minister of France at the end of World War I, allegedly said: “War is too important to be left to the generals.” No more should our democracy rely on a mercenary army. We are all beneficiaries; we should all serve, if not in the military then in some form of national service.