The Case For The Draft

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Surely the struggle we are currently engaged in will require large commitments of men and women on the ground.

In the twentieth century the draft was usually instituted only with wide public support, and the results reflected it. Drafted men fought both world wars and fought them well, and soon after World War II the draft became an accepted fact of life in postwar America. The difference between war and peace had become ever more tenuous, and in a time when we all could be targeted for destruction, it did not seem too steep a sacrifice for young men to devote two years of their lives to defending their country. Our citizen military continued to perform well, containing the Soviets at Cold War outposts around the globe and fighting a much larger Chinese force to a standstill in Korea.

In return for that sacrifice, beginning during World War II our veterans were rewarded with an array of unprecedented benefits. The GI Bill alone provided some 12 million returning vets with cash up front and medical benefits for life. Some 4.3 million took out home loans, another 2.3 million enrolled in college, and 5.5 million used the bill for job training. It jump-started the modern middle class and transformed American life. One Department of Labor study even estimated that the government made money on education benefits, because of how much more the average male with a college degree earned at the time.

Beyond all this, military service became an experience that itself ameliorated some of the worst inequities of our democracy. It soon became untenable to have a military that was made up of all of us, fighting for all of us, yet segregated by race. Despite some loud protests from the brass, President Truman desegregated the armed services near the beginning of the Cold War, and the result was probably our most successful experience in integration. Demands that military service be fair and equitable even helped bring down one of our worst demagogues, Sen. Joseph McCarthy, when he and his crony Roy Cohn tried to bully the Army into giving preferential treatment to one of their henchmen. This sense of duty and fair play broke down during the Vietnam War, as did much of the Cold War consensus, but even that served a democratic purpose in the end. Presidents who had launched and executed wars without declaring or even fully explaining them would now find it impossible to finish them without a mass, conscript army, willing to fight.

This seems to me the point most pertinent to our current situation. If we are now to engage in a great global war against out-and-out evil, a conflict of indefinite scope and duration, shouldn’t the whole country be involved, instead of simply cheering from the sidelines while we lap up tax cuts?

The all-volunteer military’s impressive performance in the Iraq war has only been the most recent in a long string of complicated post-Cold War missions, from the first Gulf War, to peacekeeping in Bosnia, to “nation building” in Haiti. The next stage of the conflict ahead, though, promises to be engaged on an entirely different scale. Despite Rumsfeld’s vision of a new, quick, high-tech form of warfare, it will most likely be “a long, twilight struggle, year in and year out, ‘rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation,” as President John F. Kennedy said about the Cold War. Surely such a struggle will require large commitments of men and women on the ground if we are truly to root out terrorism and sow democracy. And if that is somehow not the case, if we are happily disappointed, new draftees could be channeled into a domestic program of national service, one that could enable them to earn benefits, do needful work, and bind our country together all the tighter in a time of looming crisis. It could only strengthen our strategy and our resolve.