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April 1980

The Draft: Why the Army Needs It

by James Webb

Because American males have been conditioned since Vietnam to view the avoidance of military service as honorable and just, and because President Carter's Administration has misguidedly viewed the role of women in the military as an issue more of equal opportunity than of effective national defense, increasing percentages of women are being brought into the service. It is expected that by 1984, 12 percent of the Army will be female, up from 2 percent in 1972. Army Secretary Alexander, a former chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, views reluctance to use women in the military through the same prism he did the resistance to blacks in the 1960s: as a product of unfounded bigotry. Using the "narrowest definition of combat that was practicable," he has opened up all but twenty-four of the 30,5 military specialties to women, ensuring that female soldiers will be directly involved in any future military confrontation. The glowing press releases put out by the DOD about how well this is working may be fooling portions of the American public, but they are hardly deluding the Soviets. Furthermore, our international military credibility is damaged by the reality that no President wants to be the first to send large numbers of American women out to die.

The issue is more than the cultural bias which sometimes held blacks back: it is biological as well. We are the only country in the world whose political process is pushing women toward the battlefield. Contrary to popular mythology, Israeli women do not serve in combat units but rather perform administrative and technical functions that free the men to fight. When three Israeli women soldiers were killed in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, it shocked the nation. The Soviet military, which used women out of necessity in the latter stages of World War II, now has only 10,000 women in a military force of some 4.5 million. If the Soviet World War II experience had been beneficial, it seems logical that they would have capitalized on it.

But quite obviously, the disadvantages of using women far outweigh the advantages. Training regimens in our own military have been watered down. Sexual attractions dissipate a unit's sense of mission, and affect combat readiness in other ways: in 1978, fully 15 percent of the women on active duty in the Army became pregnant. Double standards in performance and discipline have unavoidably evolved; despite what some would like to think, men and women are fundamentally different, and treat each other accordingly. And the product, after all of this confusion, is a soldier who is 55 percent as strong, has 67 percent of the endurance, and has much greater privacy needs than her male counterpart. But how can a male policymaker who debunked the whole notion of military service when he was called upon to serve now invoke the essential masculinity and rigorous nature of that which he avoided?

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. Enlistees often expect magical, exotic things to happen to them once they "join the people who joined the Army." What they do not expect, and will not abide, is the sort of harsh, demanding regimen necessary to produce disciplined and effective soldiers. And-a recent innovation, compliments of volunteer Army recruiting difficulties-if they don't like the treatment they are receiving, they can simply quit. Under the Trainee Discharge Program and the Expeditious Discharge Program, a person on active duty can leave the service at any time up to three years after his or her enlistment, with a discharge under honorable conditions.

The military, which traditionally has caused many an errant youth to develop self-discipline and motivation, is now discharging people by the thousands at their request, for lack of those same qualities. According to current Army regulations, members who have demonstrated that they "cannot or will not meet acceptable standards" can be discharged owing to "poor attitude, lack of motivation, lack of self-discipline," and "inability to adapt socially or emotionally." The characteristics that help "identify" these soldiers include such formerly resolvable tendencies as being a "quitter," having "hostility toward the Army," having an "inability to accept instructions or directions," and a "lack of cooperation." Since this program was introduced in 1976, more than 190,000 servicemen and women have simply walked away, with discharges under honorable conditions-enough to populate the entire Marine Corps at full strength.

Under this and other such rubrics as motivational problems, character or behavior disorder, inaptitude and unsuitability, fully 40 percent of the enlistees in today's military fail to complete their period of obligation, and yet manage overwhelmingly to receive discharges under honorable conditions. How can a military commander create a properly disciplined environment when his members can simply walk away and still be rewarded for "honest and faithful service"?

The Carter Administration has responded quite creatively to such statistics. Assistant Secretary of Defense John White testified in the Senate in May 1978 that the decline in absences without leave, courts-martial, and nonjudicial punishments showed that "a strong case can be made that our active forces are stronger and better manned than at any time in our history."

Quite apart from the fact that, at the very moment Secretary White was uttering those words, General Brown's combat-effectiveness study was showing that one out of every four tank gunners in the Army cannot even aim a battle sight, the Secretary's statement was circuitous. The decline in the use of the disciplinary process does not indicate that our troops are more disciplined; rather, it indicates that there is not even enough discipline to utilize the process. When a disaffected soldier can simply quit and walk away, with a discharge under honorable conditions, he hardly needs to go over the hill.

Not that people have stopped going over the hill: in 1979, 113,650 servicemen and women did so. Greater than 11 percent of the enlisted personnel in the Navy and 12 percent in the Marine Corps were absent without leave or in a desertion status for some part of that year.

During my last year in the Marine Corps, I briefed a case for the secretary of the Navy involving a marine who had received a bad conduct discharge in 1932 and was asking for an upgraded discharge. The marine, a combat veteran of World War I who had had fourteen years' good service, had been awarded this punitive discharge, the equivalent of a criminal conviction in a civil court, for being AWOL for five days. This seemed extreme to me in 1972, although I certainly viewed his absence as a punishable offense. During my time in the Marine Corps, unauthorized absence did not become grave enough to warrant discharge until perhaps a month, when an absentee became a "deserter" for purposes of identifying his offense. An absentee was most likely court-martialed; a deserter, although rarely convicted of the offense of desertion, was usually thrown out with a less than honorable discharge.

In the volunteer Army, however, a deserter is seldom even court-martialed. As an example of the deterioration regarding this peculiarly military yet important offense, from 1974 through 1977 the military reported 608,000 AWOLs exceeding twenty-four hours. The Army court-martialed almost none of them. In fact, only 11 percent of the most serious offenders, the thirty-day "deserters," were court-martialed. And of these 608,000 offenders, only 2335 were discharged for the offense. As a referent from another era, more than 29,000 servicemen were convicted by court-martial for being AWOL in 1952 alone.

The cohesion and morale of an army are often measured by its desertion rate and what its leaders do about it. Condoning unauthorized absence destroys the notion of duty and commitment in a military unit, and affects discipline as few other breaches of military custom can. The military becomes simply a job. Soldiers become employees, who show up whenever and in whatever condition they choose. But how does a system stop this when it must beg its members to join, and when those who become annoyed with their service can quit?

A draft would remedy this and other shortfalls, not merely by offering up more manpower and a less delicate command environment, as opponents of the draft so often maintain, but by causing a much-needed reorientation of priorities. The military is not a job, any more than paying taxes is a job. In fact, military service might be equated to a tax. We each surrender a portion of our income to the common good, and we should all be willing to give a portion of our lives in order to assure that our freedoms will not disappear. It is so very basic, and yet so much maligned in the cynical wake of Vietnam: conscription is not slavery, it is societal duty.

Reinstituting the draft would help in yet another, more elemental and equitable way. We created a military, just as we created a society, for ideological rather than mercenary reasons. Detractors of the draft who claim that our natural state, through history, has been draft-free fail to recognize that our position in the world until well into this century was less than preeminent. Nor do they recognize the post-World War H strategic realities. 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.

The draft would not make us a nation of militarists; it never has. It would instead leaven the military and at the same time weave those in uniform back into the fabric of our nation. People who work together and depend on each other end up liking each other; that was the great lesson of World War II, which brought together 16 million American men from all walks of life. The obverse is true of Vietnam, which over a longer period saw 9 million men in uniform, less than a third of the draft-eligible males in the pool, selected out largely on the basis of education or lack of it.

Those who oppose the renewal of the draft claim that the young will refuse to serve, invoking some misconception from the Vietnam days about widespread draft resistance. My bet is that they are wrong, just as they are wrong to invoke Vietnam as precedent. The lesson of the Vietnam draft is not that people will not go if called: only 13,580 men refused the draft during that entire era, while millions went. The real lesson is that a draft, once invoked, should be fair in its application, and should not allow the travesties of avoidance within the law that draft counselors perpetrated during Vietnam. How is a system equitable when Joe Namath, a fabulous athlete, and Tom Downey, now a vigorous, basketball-playing congressman, are found physically unfit for service? In America, only one in three was drafted. In Israel today, 95 percent of the males serve in one capacity or another. There are plenty of desks to sit behind in the Army, in order to free those more physically able to fight. It only remains for a system to refine itself in order to determine who should type and who should fight.

It has become clear that, if we mobilize without a draft, the only men in this country capable of plugging up the dike until replacements can be trained are those who served and fought in Vietnam. DOD mobilization plans presently provide for this contingency, as well as for recalling military retirees. Those who claim that another Pearl Harbor would obviate the need for a draft, and that the time period for mobilization would thus be much shorter than now planned, overlook the reality that the draft had been in effect for a full year before Pearl Harbor, and that fully two thirds of our servicemen in the Great Patriotic War were draftees.

So it would be left largely to the Vietnam veterans to do it again. The group that went once to the well and came away labeled as "suckers" by 63 percent of the respondents in a recent Harris survey would be required, simply because they did their patriotic duty once, to do it again, while the two thirds of their age group that stayed home and started their careers and bitched about the war could do that again.

This is a manifestly unfair possibility, although I have no doubt that many Vietnam veterans would voluntarily re-enlist if we were to mobilize. And perhaps, come to think of it, putting Vietnam veterans back into uniform for a while would be enlightening to today's military. For all the maligning of their Vietnam service, there can be no doubt that they could aim tanks and fix ships and show up for work.

But our greatest need is to get beyond those old jealousies from Vietnam, 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