150 Years Of The Atlantic April 2007

The Military

This is the 14th in a series of archival excerpts in honor of the magazine’s 150th anniversary. For the full text of these articles, visit www.theatlantic.com/ideastour.
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The Staff of the United States Army
March 1878

A little more than a decade after the Civil War ended, a U.S. Army colonel sharply criticized the military’s personnel structure—warning that it was fostering apathy rather than bravery or a commitment to excellence.

Our army presents the only known example of a business or profession, either public or private, in which incompetency and want of zeal bring the same substantial rewards as energy, capacity, and active attention to duty. Such a system of promotion is in violation of all the rules of common sense by which men are governed, as well as of those by which they are incited to strive for superior excellence, and the condition of our army at the outbreak of the rebellion affords an excellent example of its inevitable result. At that time the superior grades of the army were filled by old men, who, having outlived all above them, had been regularly promoted, in accordance with this system, to the positions which they occupied, regardless of the well-known fact that in the majority of instances they were unfitted, both by age and infirmity, to perform any military duty whatever. The spectacle was so pitiable, and the lesson it taught so apparent, that it might be supposed the government would have profited by such crushing experience, and been led by it to the adoption of wiser measures. Such, however, was not the case … [This system] is deadening to all effort at improvement or professional skill, and suggests the natural conclusion: that, as superior rank is obtained only by longevity, each should strive to avoid all exposure, hardships, or dangers by which health may be impaired or life risked.

Vol. 41, No. 245, pp. 376–384


You’re in the Army—Again
January 1949

by Edgar L. Jones

In the late 1940s, as the government reinstituted the peacetime draft, Atlantic correspondent Edgar L. Jones took issue with the excessive and misleading pains the Army seemed to be taking to reassure concerned mothers.

Almost simultaneous with the Army’s announcement that the peacetime draft would shift into high with the induction of 20,000 trainees in January was the companion announcement by General Jacob L. Devers, chief of Army Ground Forces, that every youth drafted into the Army “will be treated as a human being, never a raw recruit.” Speaking before the American War Mothers, General Devers outlined a serviceman’s utopia in which draftees would be sent to posts “as near home as possible,” would be given a “chance to ask questions,” and would be assigned uniforms “individually fitted.”

As if that were not enough to indicate a new way of Army life, General Devers assured the mothers that training instructors, no longer to be thought of as tough drill sergeants, would try “to establish a personal relationship with the incoming recruit,” and that all trainees would be “told the reason for everything they do that is new to them.” The Army’s principal authority on combat training then went on to say that the Army would insist that each trainee write home; that each would be interviewed by his company commander and chaplain, both of whom, in turn, would write personal letters to his mother; and that (the real clincher) “neither he nor his instructors will use profanity.”

The good General’s attempts to lighten the hearts of American mothers had a derisive reception among World War II veterans—among those, at least, who let their reactions be known to newspapermen …

The veterans have not forgotten that much the same picture of humanized service in a “civilian” Army was projected for their benefit at the start of the 1940 draft. At that time, too, military leaders were busily promoting the idea that the Army was not so much a militar­ized regime as a glorified trade school in which young men not only equipped themselves for steady peacetime work but also acquired all the wholesome personal qualities that, by implication, their parents, schools, and churches had failed to nurture.

The GI of 1940–1945 was not treated, to borrow another fine phrase from General Devers, as “a person of individual dignity and feelings.” And there will be no sadder Sad Sack than the draftee of 1949 who expects to have a tender regard shown for his individuality.

Vol. 183, No. 1, pp. 31–34

The Draft: Why the Army Needs It
April 1980

by James Webb

When President Jimmy Carter proposed reinstating the draft registration requirement in response to the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, decorated Vietnam combat veteran James Webb said that registration was not enough: Nothing short of reinstituting the draft, he argued, could save the Army. (In 2006, Webb was elected to the U.S. Senate.)

The volunteer Army is an unmitigated disaster …

Because there is no draft, volunteer Army soldiers are wheedled and cajoled by recruiters. This sort of seduction, which has become necessary in the face of recruiting shortfalls that have increased every year, creates an attitude in both the enlistee and the military itself which is destructive to discipline and the traditional notions of service …

The military is not a job, any more than paying taxes is a job … We should all be willing to give a portion of our lives in order to assure that our freedoms will not disappear …

It is fundamentally wrong—and cowardly—in a democratic society to claim that those who stand between us and a potential enemy should be risking their lives merely because they are “following the marketplace,” and the military is their “best deal.” The result of such logic is today’s volunteer Army, a collection of men and women who have been economically conscripted to do society’s dirty work, as surely as if there were the most inequitable draft imaginable.

Our greatest need is … to make our military once again a fighting force rather than a social lab, and to stop being afraid to ask the men of Harvard to stand alongside the men of Harlem, same uniform, same obligations, same country.

Vol. 245, No. 4, pp. 34–44

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