While America’s volunteer army is four decades old, two long-simmering events have made this issue timely and sensitive. The ten-year wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have put enormous pressure on our forces. The fact that the U.S. has fewer troops to deploy than it had during the first Gulf War has meant three and sometimes four tours of duty for many of our soldiers. In like vein, there has been a long, smoldering resentment that dates back to Vietnam, when last we had conscription. In that era, better off young men were often able to get student deferments, or simply joined the National Guard or Army Reserve, to avoid the possibility of being sent to Vietnam.
Thus fighting fell unevenly on the poor and especially on African-Americans. In December 1969, the Selective Service Bureau introduced a lottery system to determine the order of call for military service. It was seen as means of addressing what were seen as unfair practices. However, it backfired, creating even more resentment toward the draft, particularly at a time when support for the war had already eroded.
Iraq and Afghanistan have given new life to that long-ago resentment toward the privileged – that wars are still being fought by the less fortunate among us. There are approximately 25 million Americans between the ages of 18 and 25, yet only about 260,000 have served in those two countries. In contrast, over 500,000 U.S. troops served in the first Gulf War, when the population was 20% smaller. Additionally, income and wealth gaps have served to magnify the differences between rich and poor in an already divided nation.
The military has been crucial to our country since its founding, but for most of those years the concept of military service was cloaked in civilian terms. One of George Washington’s maxims was: “When we assumed the soldier, we did not lay aside the citizen.” As an occupied colony of the British Empire, citizens were naturally wary of soldiers. Samuel Adams was quoted in 1776: “A standing army, however necessary it may be at times, is always dangerous to the liberties of the people.” Thomas Jefferson pushed for a universal militia until his death in 1826. In an 1813 letter to James Monroe he wrote, “We must train and classify the whole of our male citizens, and make military instruction a regular part of collegiate education. We can never be safe until this is done.”
When armies needed to be raised, as they did in 1812 and again in 1846, it was the responsibility of the states to raise militias. Those same methods were largely used during the Civil War. While President Lincoln did sign the Enrollment Act, which was the nation’s first federal draft, 98% of the North’s soldiers were still raised by states. Each state was given a quota. If not enough volunteers signed on, governors resorted to conscription on a lottery basis. However, if one found a substitute or paid $300 they would be exempted. That helped the rich, but not the poor. (To put the $300 dollars in perspective, at the time the annual income for a carpenter was roughly $550.)
It wasn’t until 1917, as the United States entered World War I, that the first real federal draft was enacted, the Selective Service Act. With a target of a million men and with only 73,000 volunteering during the first six weeks, President Wilson had no choice. Unlike the Civil War era, this law prohibited the purchase of exemptions. In August 1940, after the fall of France and before the Battle of Britain, President Roosevelt signed the Selective Training and Service Act, the nation’s first peace time draft. It effectively marked the end of the isolationist tradition of the United States. World War II changed forever the role of the United States within the world. Our role as leader of the free world and as a beacon for emerging countries carries with it a price, which is that we must enforce the peace. How we do that is critical for our survivorship and vital for the example we set.
Forty years ago this past January, the U.S. Military draft ended, when President Nixon allowed it to expire. Two years later, President Ford terminated the Selective Service Act, whose origins dated to 1917, with Proclamation 4360. For three decades a volunteer army served our needs well. The last ten years have raised the question: Is what worked in the past appropriate for the future?
The United States is often characterized as “exceptional.” Perhaps, as a nation of immigrants, we are. But luck and circumstances have been on our side as well. For the first 140 years, the Country was able to grow in “splendid isolation,” as we had only two neighbors, one on the north, the other on the south. Oceans served as barriers to the repeated attacks so common to most countries. We were blessed with natural resources, from timber and gold, to coal and oil. After the First World War, and despite our refusal to join the League of Nations, it became obvious that we were the preeminent nation. With the conclusion of World War II, there would be no retreat to the isolation of the past. Europe and Japan largely disarmed, but the emotions and behavior of mankind is timeless. With a world divided between dictatorships and democracies, we became the principal defender of the latter, sometimes under cover of the United Nations and sometimes alone. The collapse of the Soviet Union marked the end of their empire, but did nothing to end the concept of self interest – ours and that of our enemies. Keeping the peace required strength, not to be used offensively to gain land or political/economic control, but to help keep an unruly world relatively safe.
In this new world, enemies who could not command big armies resorted to terrorism; thus a new threat was born. And that has required a different type of military response.
The arguments favoring an all-volunteer force tend to center around three main points. The troops are professional; they are well trained, and they have high morale. About 170,000 men and women enlist each year. Another 130,000 join the National Guard or the Reserves. The former have chosen the service as a career; it is their profession, unlike a draftee who may be there under protest. But it is unclear that today’s army is representative of America.
Most supporters of a draft cite duty to the nation, respect for the flag and the institutions it represents. It means “skin-in-the-game” for all citizens. While we have a strong cadre of highly trained troops, there are questions as to the depth of our bench. Besides, draftees epitomize democracy. In the army, every recruit is equal. I recall my own experience more than fifty years ago. Standing in line at Fort Dix, while awaiting our shots and dressed only in shorts, it made no difference whether one’s father was a Wall Street banker, a farmer, a U.S. Senator or a drug dealer; for, as inductees, we were all the same – head-shaven grunts. I was reminded of Lear: “Is man no more than this? Consider him well…Unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor bare, forked animal as thou art.” That blurring of class lines is unquestionably healthy in a nation as diverse as ours.
Service to the nation does not have to be confined to the military. Young people of military draft age could be conscripted by AmeriCorps or the Peace Corps, or some similar organization. Doing so, however, should mean dedication and appropriate punishment for dereliction of duty. Service of this nature should not be seen as a comfortable way station for a year or two, or as the shirking of an obligation. Responsibility and accountability should be integral to any conscripted program. Failure to do what is asked should have consequences, as it does in the military.
When I began thinking about this piece, I felt strongly that bringing the draft back should be an easy decision. While I still believe that is the right course, I no longer think of the decision as easy. We live in a time when the rapid deployment of specially trained forces requires speed, discretion and efficiency – all of which are perhaps better provided with a volunteer, professional force. In combat situations, with the threat of death a permanent fixture, morale is critical to the successful completion of a mission. Again, an army comprised of willing volunteers seems the better vehicle. But service to the nation at any time, but especially when one is young, is a healthy reminder of the debts we owe to all those who came before us. As to whether we should restore the draft is a worthy debate. I rue the sense that appreciation for our nation seems to be ebbing; that patriotism, which when extreme can blind people into ignorance, now seems non-existent. The Memorial Day Parade in Old Lyme has been reduced to a few community groups, like scouts, little league, soccer teams, a few bands and some fire engines, with only a smattering of soldiers. It is wonderful to see the community support so many groups, but the meaning of the day gets lost.
We must recognize that the beauty of a government such as ours is not its efficiency, but its freedoms. As a people, we comprise every known ethnic divide, but as Americans we are united in our beliefs in individual liberty, the rule of law and the right to dissent. These are rights worth defending, and they should be rights for which each one of us is willing to fight.
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“The thought of the day” by Sydney Williams