Can We Really Get by without a Draft?

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Mr. Foley is an assistant professor of history at the City University of New York's College of Staten Island and author of CONFRONTING THE WAR MACHINE: DRAFT RESISTANCE DURING THE VIETNAM WAR(2003). He is a writer for the History News Service.

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In this season of quagmire war and political campaigning, President Bush has a manpower problem. The Pentagon has announced that troop levels in Iraq will remain at 135,000 until the end of 2005. Thus, with the American military stretched to unprecedented limits, one of the most pressing questions in the presidential campaign will be the riddle of who will fill out the ranks of those stationed in Iraq and fighting the ongoing war on terror.

Once again, we feel the lingering shadow of the Vietnam War. Over the last few weeks, against the backdrop of the Iraq war's heaviest fighting and as images of flag-draped coffins and tortured prisoners remind us of Vietnam, we have also heard the first sustained discussion of the price being paid by reservists and National Guard troops in Iraq.

Observing that 40 percent of the American force in Iraq is made up of middle-class and working-class "weekend warriors," Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) has raised the prospect of bringing back the draft. Calling the war on terror a "generational challenge," Hagel called for a long-term strategy in which the burden of fighting the war would be distributed across all segments of American society.

Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon understood this dilemma. In 1965, when Americans had been living with a "peacetime" draft for nearly 20 years, Johnson mobilized manpower for the escalating Vietnam War by dramatically increasing monthly draft calls. Unlike Bush, he chose not to call on huge numbers of reservists and Guard troops for fear of the political fallout. Americans accustomed to the draft as a seemingly permanent part of Cold War American life were more likely to protest mobilizing middle-aged men with jobs and families than younger, single draftees.

But the Vietnam era draft produced tremendous resistance because it allowed deferments and exemptions to the privileged while channeling the poor and minorities into service in Vietnam. In short, the draft did not redistribute the burden of service any better than today's reliance on reservists and Guard troops. As a result, thousands of men openly defied draft laws and welcomed prosecution. And tens of thousands evaded the draft by leaving the country, faking illness or using connections to get appointments in the reserves or National Guard.

Consequently, when Richard Nixon took office in 1969, he recognized the political costs both of the draft and of mobilizing reserve units. He first moved toward a more equitable draft lottery and then eliminated conscription altogether in favor of the current all-volunteer force.

The difficulty today, however, is that in the multi-front war on terror, the all-volunteer force is stretched so thin that the Bush administration is now extending the tours of Guard and reserve units in Iraq -- sometimes notifying them days before they are to come home that they'll have to stay another three or six months. Morale, by all accounts, is slipping. According to one Illinois National Guard soldier in Iraq, the uncertainty of when troops will rotate out of Iraq "is killing us . . . It's like checking on a turkey in the oven 24 hours a day."

Yet Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld insists that the administration is not even considering reviving the draft. No doubt he understands the political costs of such a step.

Continued reliance on unprecedented numbers of reservists and Guard troops carries political costs, too. The Vietnam War showed that resistance within the military is sure to develop, particularly if the war's objectives are not altogether clear to those fighting it.

By 1968, civilian peace activists increasingly allied themselves with dissenting GIs and returning veterans, sometimes by granting sanctuary to AWOL servicemen in churches. Later, GIs and veterans became the most common and reputable face of the antiwar movement.

What should concern the Bush administration is that, today, a movement among military families and GIs against the Iraq war is growing. As tours get extended, as the strain grows on reservists' families and employers, this is sure to become a political problem for both presidential candidates. All over the Internet -- at the web sites for Bring Them Home Now, Military Families Speak Out, and the Vietnam Veterans Against the War -- there are dozens of stories from disillusioned servicemen and women and their families. In recent weeks such stories have often appeared in the mainstream press.

The timing of this growing manpower crisis could not be worse for George W. Bush and the presumptive Democratic nominee, John Kerry. As each tries to look tough on national security, both must be aware that there's no appealing manpower option: either keep using alienated reservists and Guard troops, or institute conscription on a population of draft-age men who, unlike their 1960s counterparts, have not been conditioned for the possibility of military service.

It's a losing proposition. Whether or not Bush and Kerry face the issue in the campaign, whoever wins will have to make an unpopular choice after the election.

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John P Fisher - 5/24/2004

The author poses a dilemma, but maybe it's a blessing. If Kerry is elected, he will have to go to Nato and the UN for troops, because there is no other source. The Bush administration would probably tend toward more quasi-civilian mercenaries, once the Guard is exhausted. These mercenaries will eventually metastasize like Anglo Fedayeen, and cause trouble all over the world.

There is another problem with the draft - girls will have to be inducted, too. Sending the Prom King and Queen off to Iraq would send the politicians running for cover, I think.

As the parent of a 15 yr old and a 17 yr old, I'll move to New Zealand before they are drafted. Its perfectly obvious that parents can't trust politicians and the Pentagon with the lives of our children.

Marc "Adam Moshe" Bacharach - 5/24/2004

An excellent idea Derek:

Andrew D. Todd - 5/23/2004

In the first place, there are five billion people in the third world, three billion in the "unorganized third world," exclusive of China and India. We simply do not have the demographic base for a world empire at the level that the Neo-Cons dream of. Someone like Bin Laden can always pull back beyond our demographic reach. There was nothing very special about Afghanistan-- it was simply one of many countries where the government was not powerful enough to contain a Saudi oil multi-millionaire and his private army. Most of the states in the third world are very fragile, and can be expected to crumble under sustained combat. The end result might be the proliferation of hundreds of small new states of one tribe.

So ultimately, we do have to recognize limits to our military power. The only question is where. The Navy and Air Force have no need of a draft, not even in the sense of providing incentives to give them first choice of the manpower pool. They are steadily increasing their level of automation and mechanization, and reducing their manpower requirements. These services consist mostly of repairmen of one kind or another, and their ultimate stable level is probably about a seventh of their current size, after all the repair jobs have been automated out. The Air Force is actually letting surplus airmen out early, even at present, an indication that the automation program is running ahead of schedule. The surplus airmen are not being involuntarily transferred to the Army, because that is not in the implied contract, and doing so would harm the Air Force's interests down the road. By contrast, the Army does have a manpower problem, so it is breaking up superfluous heavy artillery batteries, etc., and making them into MP's, the current name for pedestrian "leg" infantry.

The reason of course is that the Navy accepts the limits of "Mahanism," that is, Alfred Thayer Mahan's idea of controlling the sea lanes, but not trying to control the land masses. Open deserts are a kind of sea, and can be treated as such. For example, west of the Nile, it is no great trick to cut north Africa off from Sub-Saharan Africa. Similarly, the Arabian and Syrian deserts can be controlled easily enough.The few oases can be treated as islands. The natural "coast" of Iraq is the bluff line above the west bank of the Euphrates river, the point beyond which irrigation water cannot be sent. If the United States were to accept limits, and to hold the open desert, plus a corridor reaching along the Syrian border to Kurdistan, its military problems would be greatly diminished, and the Army would no longer have a manpower crisis. The difficulty arises from trying to hold Mesopotamia.

Now, of course, a realistic manpower estimate for holding the Middle East, inclusive of Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Arabia, Yemen, Oman, the oil sheikdoms, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Sudan, and Libya (an aggregate population of something like 400 million people) would require a universal draft from the ages of eighteen to twenty-five (seven year's service), to raise an army on the order of fifteen million men. Failure to hold any of these countries will merely result in the fedayeen using them as staging areas, the way the Viet Cong used Laos and Cambodia. On this basis, one could expect about 200,000 American troops to be killed annually, from Khartoum to Karachi. In short, imagine the Vietnam War, scaled up by a factor of twenty. Vietnam happened to be a small and geographically isolated country. At that level, only in a more central location with a larger population involved, the new war would be comparable to the experience of Germany and the Soviet Union in the Second World War. Out of every ten young men, one would eventually be killed, and another one (or two) would be crippled. If you think this sounds insane, you are of course correct.

Jesse David Lamovsky - 5/23/2004


The question is whether or not our troop concentrations in Europe really act as a deterent to terrorism. I'm not convinced they do (I won't argue, as some might, that their presence constitutes a provocation, either). I'm not an expert here, but it does seem that the domestic security forces in those countries are better able to handle these threats than our soldiers- particularly when the threats come from naturalized citizens of European countries. Certainly they can go places we can't go.

As for South Korea, it's my understanding that the 37,000 U.S. troops in that country are not there to physically repel a North Korean invasion (in the event of a war on the peninsula, they would probably be swamped in short order), but to prevent such an attack taking place at all. It's the simple presence of the Americans, not necessarily their numbers, that enhance South Korea's security. If this is the case, than what harm could be done by siphoning off some of these troops for active duty in other parts of the Empire? As long as there are at least some U.S. troops on the peninsula, the deterent will exist.


Derek Charles Catsam - 5/23/2004

Laura --
One answer (and those with experience might correct me) is that troops often do not seem to be needed until they are. In other words, it would be sghortsighted to pull all troops out of places around the globe because they are not needed now. We still have NATO obligations, for example. It might seem absurd to think that Europs is in any danger, except terrorist attacks in Span and Greece in recent weeks give the lie to such an assertion. We need more troops in Iraq, there is no doubt about that, and the arrogance of the administration on this front has been galling, but that does not mean that we simply pull them from other places. And I respectfully disagree that we do not need them in South Korea, which is unbelievably vulnerable to an inplacably horrible enemy. The Axis of Evil taxonomy is silly because it is reductionist. It is not silly because North Korea is not a threat, because clearly they are, in many ways far worse than iraq could ever have been. You don't take cops off the beat in the sort of bad neighborhoods to deploy them to the truly bad neighborhoods. You recruit more cops.

Derek Charles Catsam - 5/23/2004

I just would humbly posit a comparison of the service records of the two candidates for the Presidency this year as a rejoinder to Mr. Clayson's vacuous attempt to make military service a liberal versus a conservative issue. Both served. Let's compare how. Irredeemably dumb arguments, however forcefully stated, are still irredeemably dumb.

Laura Hiatt - 5/21/2004

My only question concerns American forces in other countries that do not seem to need to be there. For instance, America still has many troops in Germany and South Korea stationed there although the reasons for it do not exist anymore. Why not utilize those forces for Iraq, where they are needed, instead of keeping them in places that are unnecessary to station troops in?

Murray xavier Polner - 5/20/2004

Vernon Clayson's response typically lays all responsibility on liberals. That's right,draft evaders like Bush, Cheney,the neocons, all liberals, refused service. I'm a veteran yet today I ask Clayton and anyone else favoring a draft: Why would any parent or potential conscript was to fight in an elective war crafted by liars and incompetents? Dissent and resistance to a draft is very American.

Marc "Adam Moshe" Bacharach - 5/20/2004

Mr. Clayson,
I thought I might comment on your post. I will tackle each issue in order.
1) “The author gives no credit to the vast majority of young people who would serve responsibly and honorably if they were drafted”

I don’t get that implication at all. All the author suggests is that such people “have not been conditioned for the possibility of military service.” I agree wholeheartedly. People of draft-age have not been prepared for any sacrifice from the administration and certainly not draft. I see no indication that the author is mistaken.

2) “History indicates there would be an unseemly large group who would go to any measure to avoid the service, sadly that would be those from the more liberal schools, most politically connected and well to do”

You are right but for the wrong reason: Most college students at liberals schools would avoid the draft, but history tells us that so would most college students in general, and especially those well-connected, as Bush did. Vietnam taught us that anyone who could escape the draft and was smart enough to do so… did so, and since liberals were more likely to be against the war, it makes sense that liberals would be more likely to get out of fighting there. Is there anything wrong of unusual about this?

It should be noted that in WWII, when our cause was just and provocation obvious, I know of no record of mass draft dodgers, and certainly not liberal one’s. In fact, at that time, it was the conservatives who were more likely to oppose the war for isolationist reasons and thus, would be more likely (hypothetically) to try and avoid draft. That is my hypothesis, in any event.

3) “right after Ted Kennedy, the most offended will be the liberal media.”

Since there is really no such thing as a “liberal media,” this is a moot point but let us assume that the media was liberal: why would they be offended? Wouldn’t they enjoy the opportunity to criticize the Bush administration for getting us into this situation? Wouldn’t that be consistent with the conspiracy theory of the so-called liberal media? That they want bad things to happen so they could blame Bush? Also, right after Ted Kennedy, the most offended would be the parents of draftees who recognize that their child is being sent to possibly die in an unwarranted war. That is my suspicion.

4) “Historians should know that young Americans have always shown up, whether as volunteers or conscripts when it mattered, and they will respond in either event this time as well.”

I agree 100% with this statement. I assume you mean to imply that in Iraq, it matters and that is where I disagree. We should not have been there in the first place and now that we are there, we have to stay and finish the job but not at any cost. A defeat in Iraq could be the creation of a new Afghanistan or worse but it would not have the same kind of threat as, say, a German victory in WWII.

5) “A few may be disgruntled but almost all will be proud of their service, the exception would be someone like John Kerry, who expressed outrage immediately after his service but now proudly proclaims that same service, at least for today.”

Of course he proudly proclaims his service: it was heroic and life-threatening. However, his disdain for the war and acts involved in it was natural and (time has shown) accurate. Furthermore, Kerry was no exception but part of the growing number of veterans against that terrible war. I predict that Iraqi veterans, if drafted, would react in a similar way… we well they should.

Vernon Clayson - 5/19/2004

The author gives no credit to the vast majority of young people who would serve responsibly and honorably if they were drafted. History indicates there would be an unseemly large group who would go to any measure to avoid the service, sadly that would be those from the more liberal schools, most politically connected and well to do; anyway, right after Ted Kennedy, the most offended will be the liberal media. Historians should know that young Americans have always shown up, whether as volunteers or conscripts when it mattered, and they will respond in either event this time as well. A few may be disgruntled but almost all will be proud of their service, the exception would be someone like John Kerry, who expressed outrage immediately after his service but now proudly proclaims that same service, at least for today.