June/July 2003 | Volume 54, Issue 3
Historically it has had real virtues
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.
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.