"The Draft" (April 1980)
Why the country needs it. By James Fallows
"Improbable But True" (November 21, 2006)
James Fallows on how he came to co-write a 1980 Atlantic cover story advocating the draft with Senator-elect Jim Webb.
I spent the summer of 1965 living in a room not much larger than the downstairs of my present town house, along with almost forty other men, stacked four and five high on bunks with canvas undersides and mattresses about as thick as the carpet I now have on my floor. I had just finished my plebe year at the Naval Academy, and was being treated to a firsthand look at the operating Navy. Like the rest of my classmates I joined a ship of the line for the summer, and lived and worked with the enlisted sailors. I didn't learn a whole lot about the Navy, but I did learn a lot about enlisted sailors.
They glared at me as I struggled down the final ladder to their living space, my seabag preceding me with a heavy thud. They were fierce with their broken noses and garish tattoos, with their blackened hands that never washed clean and their pale faces that rarely saw the sun. I had drawn a division of "snipes" for my temporary brothers, boilermen and machinists who dwelt in the bowels of our ancient aircraft carrier, firing oil-burning furnaces and patching 1100-pound pressure leaks along the steam lines to keep the ship afloat and operational. The boiler rooms, I would soon learn, were hot and steaming metal forests, and the snipes were jungle-dwellers.
In every port we visited that summer, the snipes went wild. They drank too much and fought too much and were absolutely profane in public. They knew from nautical tradition the sections of each port city that would accommodate their lusts and brawls, and I can safely say that one could not have shot an arrow into the air after dark in any of those cities without having it land on a sailor who was either drunk or flagrante delicto or both.
But the amazing thing to me was, no matter how drunk or tantalized any of my snipe brethren got, back in the recesses of their consciences, like some Pavlovian alarm clock, lurked the "Cinderella Liberty syndrome." Nobody had to round them up when liberty was over. They made their way back to the ship in twos and threes, sometimes carrying drunken shipmates on their shoulders. One snipe staggered in after a Long Beach brawl, his uniform in tatters and his hat gone, and proudly raised his jumper to show us fifty-two (count 'em) shallow stab wounds on his rock-hard belly. His biggest worry had been whether or not the officer of the day would place him on report for having lost his hat on liberty.
They bitched about the Navy. They bitched about the officers. They bitched about the ship. They even bitched about each other. But they also worked hard, twelve hours every day and more on some occasions, down in the jungles of the boiler rooms, amid the oil and muck. As we steamed from Seattle to Long Beach, the Navy's hierarchy pulled a surprise Operational Readiness inspection and the snipes kept the old World War II ship cruising at maximum speed for the entire trip. The boiler room looked like Yellowstone National Park with its geysers of steam leaks, which they stood bravely next to and routinely patched, despite the risk of scalding. Their reward was an intangible called pride, the simple feeling that they were proficient at their jobs and were keeping this one small moving part in a very large machine oiled and functioning.
This all came back to me the other day as I read a news story mentioning that the chief of naval operations himself estimates 38 percent of the ships in the fleet to be less than functional, and that better pay and newer ships would remedy the problem. Those snipes from fifteen years ago didn't have a modern ship to service. Their pay was by any standards atrocious. Many of them had chosen the Navy as the lesser of two evils over Army service as draftees. But they got the job done, and damn well, too. And my bet is that, if you put that same crew on any one of these "substandard" Navy ships of today, they would have it patched and functioning in hours.
Something is gone from today's military, and the screams for more pay and better hardware are only symptomatic of deeper, more harmful wounds that the political process has inflicted on our ability to defend our way of life. In the one generation when we were the most enlightened and powerful nation on earth (and I use the past tense advisedly on both counts), we seemed to recognize easily the nexus between military preparedness against external threat and the creativity and freedom we enjoyed internally. Vietnam, unfortunately, muddied our logic. We exhausted ourselves on vehement, internecine arguments over whether Vietnam could in some way be defined as an "external threat" to our existence. We ignored such measurable Soviet moves as the takeover of Czechoslovakia and the expansion of their naval presence into the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean. We came to blame the military for the Vietnam involvement, and for the ultimate failure of the war itself.
Westmoreland lost the war; no matter that Lyndon Johnson once boasted that the military "couldn't bomb a shithouse" without his own approval. "The racial horrors of the military" became a byword; no matter that the military was the first institution in this society to become fully integrated, and no matter that the racial problems it faced were being experienced in much more violent form in civilian society. Vietnam supposedly symbolized the ultimate collision in the "generation gap," with old and young facing each other on opposite sides of the issue; no matter that Gallup polls showed that the most consistent support for the war came from those under the age of thirty.
Lacking any clearly defined external threat, the military became the threat. And, lacking a clearly defined mission, it became a very convenient sociological lab for political experimentation. Project 100,000 (which eventually became Project 400,000) was designed to test whether mental rejects could function as soldiers. When it was discovered that by and large they could not, the military was blamed for the failure. In another context, politicians and judges decided that their judgment, albeit removed, was more accurate than that of military commanders at the scene as to what sort of performance went into "honorable service." The military discharge system, they maintained, was unfair and stigmatizing; no matter that the military during Vietnam awarded 97 percent of its people discharges under honorable conditions, more than 93 percent of them with full honorable discharges, which is a more successful matriculation rate than that of any other large institution in this country.
As the military began to come unglued because of such intense political meddling, it was often blamed for that, too. Books such as the much-lauded Crisis in Command claim that a failure of leadership created the military's difficulties, with no mention of political overcontrol and its effect on the erosion of discipline.
Again I recall my first summer of sea duty, at the very dawn of the Vietnam War, as we shuttled men and weapons to Hawaii on their way to the war zone. We would stand in the mess hail lines, a hundred men conversing or reading from ever-present paperback books that fit neatly in the rear pockets of our dungarees, and it was a chilling deterrent when the call went down the line, "Gangway! Prisoners! Gangway! Prisoners!" We would move against one wall and the Marine guards would march the prisoners past us, to the front of the line. Their heads would be shaved and their hats would be turned upside-down over their onion heads and they would walk in one rank, so close that each man's nose was pushed into the back of the head of the man in front of him. They could neither lo ok nor talk except, as they picked up silverware and plates and food, to gain permission from the security guard each time they moved even a hand. "One knife, sir? One spoon, sir?" They ate in an isolated space behind the chow line, away from the other sailors and marines, sitting at attention and requesting permission to take each bite. At four o'clock every morning, the marines brought them up to the chilly, wind-blown flight deck and ran them. It was no fun to be in the brig, but those who broke regulations were on full notice about what awaited them. And the visible display of those sanctions was a measurably effective deterrent: I never saw more than perhaps eight men in the prisoner line, on a ship of several thousand sailors.
Today, such treatment would constitute a violation of individual rights. At the same time, the Navy's absentee and desertion rates over the past three years have been the highest in its history. The connection is absolute: military men don't run away from discipline, they run away when there is no discipline.
I thought of those shaved prisoners recently when I read a story in the Baltimore Sun about five soldiers at the Army Ordnance Center at Aberdeen, Maryland, who had repeatedly refused to get a regulation haircut. Their heads were shaved down to crewcut level as a punishment, after the soldiers were given the option of having such haircuts administered to them or undergoing an Article 15 disciplinary hearing. The soldiers then decided to complain that their rights had been violated. The end result: the company commander, the first sergeant, and the sergeant who administered the haircuts were relieved of their duties.
The soldiers, according to an Army spokesman, "said they felt they have been satisfied with the action taken." The Army spokesman did not comment on whether the company commander and his NCO's were satisfied with it.
Nor did the Army or anyone else seem to wonder about the effect on a unit when its members learn they can violate regulations, not only with impunity, but at the direct expense of those charged with upholding the regulations. One clear indication that such destruction of traditional discipline affects military performance comes from the very unit in which this incident occurred. The soldiers were trainees in the command's automotive trade course, which supposedly prepares enlistees to maintain and repair mechanized equipment. An extensive behavioral study conducted by the Army in 1978, directed by Brigadier General Frederick Brown, found that only 45 percent of the E2 and E3 automotive repairmen in the Army's operating units could perform even 1.3 of the eight "common maintenance tasks" designed to keep their equipment functioning on n daily basis. The study further found that only 30 percent of the E4 and ES track vehicle mechanics could perform LI of their eight basic tasks.
Discipline in training develops an individual's attitudes toward the military and toward himself as a soldier. Greater discipline in the initial stages of a marine's service life is the most marked reason the Marine Corps has traditionally been able to take the same street dude or farmer that the Army might draw on and make him a much better fighting man. Contrarily, as in the present Army, when discipline disappears, so does a individual's perception that he is learning and performing tasks that go beyond what he would be doing in the civilian world.
Somehow, we seem to have lost that perception. We have built the essential elements of defeat into our military, pre-programmed many units for failure because of political fantasies. Our soldiers cannot even maintain their equipment under nonstressful situations, and we relieve commanders who attempt to develop a sense of discipline in those responsible for the equipment. We may well need better pay and newer equipment, but our most urgent need is more discipline and fewer political intrusions.
Gather a group of military professionals in a room where they believe they are among their own and you hear bitter, laconic tales, told with a sense of powerlessness and even doom. Of the military commander during the Mayaguez incident issuing an order and hearing the heavy German tones of Kissinger cutting through the tactical net, countering his command from 10,000 miles away, two decades of preparation for that very moment negated by a politician watching a tote board in Washington. Of variations on that theme played daily in Vietnam, until it was a litany. Of a present administration so dominated by internationalism on one hand and domestic politics on the other that it sees the military as a domestic political tool, and is more consumed with how many women it can put into a tank than with whether the tanks are operable. Of federal judges who dare to say that voluntary heroin use, which threatened to shut down many operating units several years ago, and which is a federal crime in the civilian world, nonetheless constituted service that is deserving of a mandatory honorable discharge. Of a Congress that is more afraid of the protests of a few thousand comfortable college students than it is of the reality that our manpower situation has deteriorated to the point where our reserves, which are the linchpin of any future mobilization, are three quarters of a million men understrength. Our active duty military will be stranded in a future conflict. We need the draft back.
The last cut is the deepest, because it demonstrates to the military professional that his life is considered less important than someone else's political career. The volunteer Army, which is repeatedly referred to as "only a peacetime Army" by Department of Defense politicians, was designed to operate as part of a triad, alongside a strong reserve and a Selective Service system that remained able to draft citizens on short notice. Both of these backups have been eviscerated to the point where they would contribute little in a mobilization.