The Case For The Draft

PrintPrintEmailEmailAs everyone in the United States is aware by now, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is a man of strong opinions. But Americans of all stripes, regardless of their feelings about the then-looming war, seemed to feel that the Secretary went too far last January when he responded to a proposal by Rep. Charles B. Rangel that the United States reinstate the military draft. Rumsfeld pointed out how many men had been able to get exemptions from service during the Vietnam War and then added that “what was left was sucked into the intake, trained for a period of months, and then went out, adding no value, no advantage, really, to the United States armed services over any sustained period of time, because the churning that took place, it took enormous amount of effort in terms of training, and then they were gone.” He concluded by declaring that there were no plans to revive the draft.

Rumsfeld did apologize for his remarks, after veterans’ groups raised a hue and cry, and no doubt his comments reflected in part his efforts to move the Pentagon away from what he considers an old-fashioned form of warfare, overly dependent on large armies and heavy weaponry, and toward a lighter, futuristic style of combat that would depend more upon electronics than on GIs. He is not the first man to be driven to distraction by the Pentagon’s glacial response to change (just why do we need four separate air forces?), but the historical question was left hanging: Were American draftees really all but useless in Vietnam?

For starters, the issue is complicated by how one decides what a volunteer is during an age of universal conscription. Of the 27 million men eligible for the draft during the Vietnam years, some 2.2 million were actually drafted. Another 8.7 million enlisted, but many of them signed up because they were going to be drafted anyway and wanted to ensure their choice of service, or because they wanted a better shot at becoming an officer, or even because a judge gave them a choice between the Army and jail—a common practice at the time. (More than 16 million able-bodied men managed to escape the draft altogether, some through such devices as, say, going to England as a Rhodes scholar or enlisting in an elite Air National Guard unit.)

Still, the age of the average American soldier in Vietnam was only a little over 19, as opposed to 26 during World War II. Moreover, as William S. Turley writes in The Second Indochina War: A Short Political and Military History, 1954–1975 , by 1965 the war’s strategy “relied partly on the sheer magnitude of U.S. resources.” This meant the sort of massive deployment that only a conscription army could provide. By 1969 there were 543,000 U.S. troops in Vietnam, and some 62 percent of battle deaths were sustained by draftees. By 1970, 88 percent of all the riflemen in country were conscripts. Nevertheless, this citizen’s army won every significant engagement it fought. By the end of the war U.S. forces had suffered almost 59,000 fatalities while inflicting perhaps as many as 950,000 deaths and more than two million total casualties on the enemy. Surely, at least some of the draftees who were shuttled through Vietnam were doing something right.

Of course, as Loren Baritz points out in his history of the war, Backfire, “Fighting before and after 1969 was markedly different.” Stuck in a war that the rest of America had all but given up on, led by an increasingly inexperienced officer corps, and fighting to preserve a regime whose own people would not rally around it, the troops in Vietnam became openly demoralized. The last years of the war were characterized by unprecedented numbers of desertions, assaults on officers, and atrocities against civilians.

But even this only shows what a bellwether military conscription has always been, and herein lies a larger point that Rumsfeld and the administration may have failed to grasp. When an undeclared, unwinnable war was pawned off on the poorest, the darkest, and the least well connected, neither the draftees nor anyone else could do much good. In a similar vein our very first national draft, imposed in 1863 during the Civil War, contained a provision that allowed any conscript to buy a substitute for $300, then about a year’s salary for an average workingman. This immediately set off the worst riot in American history and brought in relatively few draftees. Out of some 776,829 men whose names were drawn to fight for the Union, only 46,347 actually ended up being inducted. Another 73,607 substitutes were provided. Hundreds of thousands of men enlisted under threat of the draft, but many of them turned out to be “bounty jumpers,” who aimed to desert and sign up again to procure another enlistment bounty.