The Volunteer Army

Fort Benning, Georgia, is a 285square-mile ecological filigree of long-needle pine forests, ridges, swamps, clay banks, and foot-high anthills bordering lonesome pre-Civil War cemeteries, and networks of dirt trails and two-lane macadam highways named for long-forgotten heroes. It is one of America’s last official sanctuaries of machismo, a place where middleaged warriors direct textbook wars of their own design against imaginary enemies, using pistols loaded with blanks, with troopers who were adolescents when the officers were cursing real artillery falls in Vietnam. Fort Benning is the home of the 197th Infantry Brigade, one of the first and still best examples of the Nixon Administration’s plan for an all-volunteer army, an end to the draft. As the plan goes into its second year of trial, all is not well at Fort Benning or with the Army.

Long good-bye

Some of the more gung-ho generals up north at the Pentagon see the volunteer army as the hottest device since Moshe Dayan invented the Israeli Defense Forces. It has been a handy excuse for instituting reforms delayed by the war, such as overhauling training methods and trimming deadwood. But their opinion was not always thus. Until recently the signals coming out of the Pentagon said, clearly, don’t commit yourself on the volunteer army. Stay loose and wait for the antiwar hysteria in Congress to pass and the retributions to play themselves out, and the draftees will be back. But the signals have changed. A warning has gone out from the Pentagon, and it is that the draft will not be back for a while. The volunteer army is the only army the generals are likely to have for some time, and they have received intimations that failure to make it work could bring personal retribution.

“We get some bad soldiers through the volunteer program, but we did in the draft system too,” a battalion commander in the 197th remarked as our jeep bounced down a narrow dirt road in the middle of a Fort Benning forest after dusk. He was on his way to join the battalion for a night exercise. “I would say we’re making the volunteer army work because we’ve got a lot of professional people who are taking the right attitude to make it work. Now, some of the noncommissioned officers and the lower-ranking commissioned guys are skeptical, and without the draft I don’t get people with college degrees and skilled people like draftsmen to make pretty charts for me. I have to develop people to do that myself, and it makes me do a little more work.” The officer, a stocky, graying lieutenant colonel from San Antonio named Charles Arneke, shrugged, as if it was of no consequence. As we lurched into the assembly area, I asked Arneke what he thought would happen if the volunteer army didn’t work out. He wrinkled his nose, as if he smelled a trap.

“I think we can make a fighting unit out of the men we’re getting now,” he said.

“But what if you yourself come to a point where you can see it’s just not working?”

Arneke thought for a long moment.

“We’ll have to draft ‘em,” he allowed.

That is not likely to happen in the near future. If it even begins to appear that the draft will have to be restored because the volunteer army has flopped, there is every indication that supporters of the volunteer experiment in Congress would launch a hunt for scapegoats. Advocates of the plan in Congress and in the upper strata of President Nixon’s Defense Department are chewing over a body of evidence suggesting that until about October, 1973, somebody in the Army was subtly undermining the system with the aim of provoking a quick restoration of the draft.


“Nothing has been as traumatic for the Army since the removal of the Air Force in 1947,” notes one civilian Defense official who asked not to be identified because he sees himself as being on the trail of saboteurs. “This is an institution that’s in a state of virtual revolution. This thing is rocking the Army from top to bottom. Everybody’s affected. It’s hard to pinpoint where the resistance was coming from without saying who it was, which we can’t do, simply because we’re still trying to deal with the problem and solve it permanently. We would have had some firings long before this if Watergate hadn’t gotten in the way. The case has to be proven to people who are not inclined to believe it, like [White House chief of staff Alexander M.] Haig, who was never a friend of the volunteer army. I don’t know if the President knows how much harm Haig can do us over there or not, just by not letting the word get through,”

The Army’s failures since the last draft call went out in January. 1973, were mostly in the area of recruiting. For the first nine months of the year, the Army consistently missed its enlistment goals, falling as low as 49 percent in April. During the same period the Navy hit above 90 percent five times and 100 percent twice. The Marines made their monthly goals all but twice, and the Air Force hit every month.

As the Army’s lag became noticeable, Defense Department officials began wondering about a number of curious circumstances.

Item: In June, 1973, the Army chose to move its recruiting command from Washington, D.C., to Chicago. June is the very month when the Army normally expects to recruit its greatest number of high school graduates, and it also happens to have been the month when the volunteer force officially came into being. Naturally, the shift in location threw the recruiting command’s communications and coordination out of step.

Item: Until Assistant Secretary of Defense for Manpower William Brehm ended the practice, the Army routinely tacked onto the next month’s goal the number of men by which it missed its recruiting goal during the month just ending, thereby systematically inflating the monthly recruiting failure—on paper, anyway.

Item: The Army had 6500 recruiters in the field in July, 1972, when the draft was still in effect. By September. 1973—nine months after the draft had ended—the Army had reduced its on-station recruiting force by almost 18 percent at the recommendation of the Army’s audit agency. The Army later claimed that this reduction was an innocent error in managerial judgment.

Item: Out of eighteen colonels and eight lieutenant colonels in the recruiting command eligible for promotion last year, not one was promoted. Out of eighty-eight officers eligible for assignment to senior service schools, which are prerequisites for entry into the super ranks, not one was sent. This could be read either as evidence that the Army had picked unpromising officers to man its recruiting stations in the first place, or that it was deliberately discouraging promising officers from volunteering for recruiting duty.


One who holds the sabotage theory is Roger T. Kelley, a civilian whom a trial lawyer might call an expert witness. Kelley directed the Pentagon’s switch to all-volunteer policies from 1969 to 1973 as Brehm’s predecessor, and left the government last June. On his way out he set off a few explosions.

“As I leave I am very sensitive that the adversaries [of the volunteer system] are bolder and more frequent in their acts of sabotage against the system,” Kelley told a wire service reporter as he was cleaning out his desk. And: “I found more cooperation than resistance, but certainly enough resistance that it’s a danger signal to my successor.” And: “[Enemies of the system] can demonstrate a need for the draft by letting failures occur and then observe once again the services have missed their goal.”

Since then Kelley has calmed a bit. “On balance I would give the armed forces decidedly high marks for making as much progress as was made in a relatively brief period of time in which the whole system was being turned around.” he says. But, “I very deliberately used the term sabotage because any lack of willingness or positive commitment to make it work under the circumstances would be sabotage of the system, and I saw plenty of evidence of that. The draft system was more comfortable and secure, since all you had to do was reach into the well and call up more people whenever you had shortages. Military careerists could count on always having a sufficient number of people. The volunteer system puts you in competition with other employers and therefore it demands considerably more leadership than does the draft system. I think—I knowsome of the senior military leaders felt a good deal more secure with the draft.”

Kelley refuses to name culprits, but he says he puts the responsibility for the Army’s failures “squarely on those who are running the service,” by which he clearly means to include General Creighton W. Abrams, the Army’s chief of staff.

“Abrams has been very equivocal,” says a Defense Department official. “There was no clear pattern, and his commanders and everybody else in the Army interested in getting ahead are very alert to picking up that kind of equivocation from their chief. If the chief of staff is talking volunteer force, they’re going to talk volunteer force. If he’s not, they’re not. It’s a follow-theleader game. That’s what it’s all about.”

Last October, Abrams called a conference of major commanders and ordered them—unequivocally— to get behind recruiting and push the volunteer system. Abrams’ critics hold that this turnaround was a response to a visit to Army bases last August by Senator John C. Stennis, Democrat of Mississippi, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, after which Stennis publicly, and somewhat testily, warned that the volunteer system had better work because the draft was not going to be restored any time soon. Some sources believe that soon after the Stennis statement, former Secretary of Defense Melvin R. Laird, then Nixon’s chief domestic counselor, either told Abrams directly or sent a warning to him that further deterioration would not be tolerated. In any case, the Army’s performance suddenly took a radical turn. In November, the month after Abrams’ conference, the Army hit its recruiting goal for the first time since the volunteer system had gone into effect. It surpassed its goal by 4 percent.

A spokesman for Abrams, Deputy Chief of Army Information Major General DeWitt C. Smith, Jr., discounts the talk of sabotage. “We began without knowing much,” he says. “We’ve been feeling our way, and we began with very bad luck in July, August, and September [of 1973]. But we took a major number of initiatives in policies and programs and revitalizing people in the recruiting effort across the board. I don’t expect the volunteer army not to work. That would represent a total failure by all of us. We’re not trained to failure and not accustomed to failure.”

Nixon’s ploy

The more fundamental question— whether the volunteer army should be made to work—remains.

The system traces its parenthood back to 1967, and the warm-up of Richard M. Nixon’s presidential campaign. One new member of his entourage was Martin Andersonthen thirty—a Republican economist associated with Milton Friedman and Arthur Burns. Anderson was interested in the issue of the volunteer army from a theoretical and ideological viewpoint. He is a conservative libertarian who believes in minimum interference by government in the lives of individuals, and so opposed conscription as unwarranted interference. The military had argued over the years that a volunteer army would be a poorly motivated, untrainable, undisciplined army. With the help of some young Ripon Society Republicans, Anderson marshaled the arguments rebutting this view and drafted a paper claiming exactly the opposite.

Anderson circulated the paper among his colleagues in the Nixon policy group. Although some thought that an all-volunteer force would lead to problems associated with a mercenary army, the consensus was favorable. If the system were militarily feasible it would be a legitimate piece of conservative thought. The more pragmatic wing of the Nixon team was pleased by the prospect of Nixon embracing a plan that would attract war-weary voters, and confuse and divide the antiwar movement. Coupled with Nixon’s vague pledge to “end the war and win the peace,” the proposal seemed sure to confound further an already splintered and dispirited Democratic Party. Liberals in Congress were split on the issue, some fearing that a volunteer force would encourage a President to use the Army recklessly, since he would be less likely to come under the kind of public and congressional scrutiny that commitment of an Army of draftees would invite. For varying reasons, liberals and conservatives worried about the prospect of a volunteer army heavily manned by poor, ill-educated blacks. Some liberals sided with conservatives who oppose the draft as an invasion of civil liberties. On the other side of the divide, some congressmen simply saw the volunteer force proposal as a painless way to cast an antiwar vote. Important opposition to the plan came from traditional conservatives such as those on the House Armed Services Committee, including F. Edward Hebert, Democrat of Louisiana, who is now the chairman; they felt that any such change would weaken the nation’s military preparedness. Anderson’s paper was a persuasive argument against that view—which Hebert, nevertheless, still holds.

Nixon endorsed the concept in late November, 1967, during an interview with a reporter on a campaign flight. He liked the response he got and continued to advocate the volunteer system all the way through the last weeks of the campaign, finally issuing a major policy declaration, written by Anderson, during a radio campaign speech in October, 1968.

Soon after his inauguration, Nixon appointed a commission headed by Eisenhower’s Secretary of Defense Thomas S. Gates to make an official study of the military feasibility of the proposal. In due time the commission unanimously ratified the idea, and in April, 1970—at the height of student protests over U.S. involvement in the clandestine war in Laos and shortly before Nixon announced his decision to send U.S. forces into Cambodia— Nixon ordered the Defense Department to start planning for an allvolunteer force to go into effect by June, 1973. Though protests continued, an order that foreshadowed the end of the draft had obvious dampening effects.

“It’s pretty simple,” says General William C. Westmoreland, then the Army’s chief of staff, when discussing the volunteer army’s origins. “It was a campaign problem of the President.”

Westmoreland, who retired in July, 1972, had always opposed the concept, partly on philosophical grounds and partly because he was convinced the absence of the draft would deplete the Army reserve system, which he still believes cannot survive without the motivation of the draft to produce enlistees.

“I opposed ending the draft—not just the volunteer army,” Westmoreland said in an interview in Charleston, South Carolina, shortly before he announced his candidacy for the Republican gubernatorial nomination. “The two are related, but it’s an entirely different approach. The approach I had hoped for was to take extraordinary steps to increase the number of volunteers through increasing the pay and improving service attractiveness, putting more effort into our recruiting program, and improving professionalism. It was my opinion that with the inducement of the draft we could attract the volunteers we needed and we would not have had to exercise the draft very often, to a point where it would become politically odorous. From a social standpoint it seemed to me that our armed forces should represent a cross-section of America from the standpoint of economic status and ethnic and racial status of our society.”

Black and white

Defense Department officials praise Westmoreland for suppressing his doubts about the system once Nixon ordered the planning to proceed. He appointed one of his most innovative generals, Lieutenant General George I. Forsythe, who had commanded the First Air Cavalry Division in Vietnam, and gave him wide powers to develop a program and budget and to oversee testing of the system at three sites: Fort Carson, Colorado; Fort Ord. California; and Fort Benning. But bureaucratic resistance began to develop almost immediately.

“I don’t think the Army is completely with it yet,” says Forsythe, who has also since retired. “The performance is still spotty. But there are a lot of young generals coming along now who understand what needs to be done, and they are doing it. At first there was a sense of insecurity on the part of a lot of officers and noncommissioned officers. This is a frightening experience for many people.”

“Everything we do here is geared toward professionalism,” says Fort Benning’s 197th Brigade Commander, Colonel William R. Steele, a tall, bushy-eyebrowed, forty-fouryear-old veteran of twenty-three years in the Army. He has a polished manner that fits an officer who once served as Westmoreland’s senior aide. Steele regards command of the 197th as “the best job in the Army,”

The brigade intelligence and civil affairs officer, Lieutenant Colonel Douglas Snell, was standing at rigid parade rest between two easels, flipping charts as Steele flowed through his narration. Off to the side on a sofa were Steele’s deputy commander, Lieutenant Colonel Watha J. Eddins, Jr., and the brigade information officer, a forty-one-year-old black major, Willie R. Cage, Jr.

Like most combat units, the 197th has a high proportion of black soldiers. Steele estimates that blacks account for 31 to 33 percent of the brigade’s approximately 4300 men, compared to an Army-wide figure of 20 percent. Blacks form about 13 percent of the total U.S. population. Steele said he couldn’t furnish statistics for the black-white ratio in the front-line rifle and mortar platoons, but from what I saw at Fort Benning I estimated some of these units were from 50 to 75 percent black.

Less than 11 percent of the unit’s 275 officers are black, and Major Cage is the only black officer above the rank of captain. Race relations in the 197th appear to be good, however, with no racial incidents showing on Steele’s charts so far in 1974, though there were two in 1973 and six in 1972. Steele credits the brigade’s active race relations program of classes and seminars with this improvement. Good or bad, the upward trend of black enlistments in the Army has been more or less steady since February, 1973, peaking at 34.1 percent in August and averaging 27 percent in fiscal 1974. In 1970, 13.2 percent of the Army was black, compared to 17 percent in 1972 and the current figure of 20 percent.

Cage and I had lunch at the battalion’s headquarters mess hall, a large, hollow room with linoleum floors, water pipes exposed along the ceiling, and furnished with wooden tables, covered with red plastic sheets, and molded turquoise plastic chairs. Cage broke into a group of black troopers who had just come in and were making their way through the cafeteria-style serving line. “Tony, are y’all waiting for hamburgers?” a distinctly white Southern voice called from behind us. “Yeah,” replied one of the black privates.

The Southern voice belonged to Captain Harold E. McClelland, the headquarters company commander, a bony, twenty-seven-year-old native of Montgomery, Alabama. As we moved around the hamburger line he apologized for the confusion. “When the mess hall is redesigned, the short-order area will be moved so we don’t have the mess we have here,” he said.

After lunch McClelland took me upstairs for a look at the barracks. All the enlisted quarters are undergoing remodeling to conform more closely with the Army’s recruiting poster promises. The rooms I saw still had a long way to go.

The first one we came to was painted a sort of traffic-signal yellow and had seven months’ worth of Playboy centerfolds hanging on the walls. “We allow anything on the wall as long as they’re not too ridiculous, like hard-core pornography,” McClelland said. “They’re allowed to decorate and paint their rooms any way they want.”

As we entered, five black soldiers were gathered at the rear of the room near a portable radio that was playing soul music, very loud. One looked around at us, lowered his gaze, and turned back. After several moments McClelland said in a low. intense drawl that pierced the music, “Can you come to attention?” They turned and stiffened, faces blank. The one nearest the radio switched it off.

“Where do you belong? Where are you supposed to be right now?” McClelland asked in the same tone of voice.

One of the men made a muffled reply. After an awkward silence. they filed out one by one. When they were gone McClelland dropped his stern pose and grinned sheepishly. “They’re some of our problem children,” he said. He looked up at Cage and then amended, “Not really.”

The room looked depressingly bare, despite two handsome Armyissued mahogany dressers and a desk, all of which Cage told me later were made by Duncan Phyfe. Other items included three plain wooden chairs and a pair of battered. dull gray metal lockers. The floor had no rug. Two metal frame bunks covered by sagging Army blankets projected from the wall. The other rooms looked much the same. Many had pinups, mostly of nude black women in provocative poses, and hand-painted posters carrying antidrug and religious slogans. There were also photographs of younger brothers and sisters, girlfriends, parents, and on a wall in one room a letter from something called the National Photographers Album Company. It began, “Dear ________: Your credit record is one of your most valuable possessions. . . . Your payment is past due. . . .”

What can money buy?

Money is one of the keys to the volunteer force. In 1968 recruits received $102,30 a month. Now they get $326. a raise of more than 200 percent, and salaries go up to $363 after two months’ service, plus, of course, free room, board, and medical care. Privates with dependents receive an additional $105 a month. There is a $2500 bonus for service in a combat unit, and everyone gets a bonus of up to $10,000 for reenlisting.

Supporters of the volunteer system say a soldier getting this kind of pay should be sufficiently motivated and well-disciplined, considering the fact that he volunteered. But it was the almost unanimous opinion of the noncommissioned officers and commissioned officers at the company level whom I talked to (when out of range of senior officers) that money has bought neither motivation nor discipline. One dissenter was a thirty-four-year-old staff sergeant from Kentucky whose platoon was practicing setting up mortars in a remote part of Fort Benning. The unit was the first he had been in charge of training since the end of the draft. “I haven’t had any discipline problems,” said Sergeant Billy M. Whitaker, a fifteen-year veteran. “It surprised me. Usually you have a few bad eggs at least.”

However, a black lieutenant in the field with a support battalion said. “We’re getting immature soldiers and guys out of jail, where the judge orders him to join the Army or else. You can’t do anything with them a lot of the time. Guys below the rank of Spec. 4 can’t see the need for some of the things we do, and you can’t get the backing of higher-ups when you call them for discipline problems.

“A couple of months ago I surprised some troopers who were trying to lift the hubcaps off my car. which was parked on one of the brigade streets,” the lieutenant said. “One of them took a shot at me as they got away in another car. The Army refused to prosecute, even though I later identified the men, because there were no corroborating witnesses.”

“I think there’s a lot of politics involved in this,” grumbled a thirtyseven-year-old sergeant first class who was in charge of a mortar platoon. “If you have a big scuttle and a whole bunch of guys are kicked out of the Army on account of discipline problems, it’s going to be in the news real fast and people are going to be embarrassed. So the higher-ups are afraid. They take a private’s word for something before they do a platoon leader’s or even a company commander’s.”

One of the sergeant’s squad leaders, a black Spec. 5, nodded in agreement. “Once I had to tell my squad in the unit I just came from in Korea [where the Army is about 90 percent volunteer] that we had orders to move a hundred meters to the rear and let the other two squads stay up on the line and make a lazy W. And what they said was, ‘Why the hell does it have to be our squad? Why can’t it be the one over there? How come we have to move this heavy thing? Let them come over and help us.’ ”

“If that happened, the man ought to be a private instead of a Spec. 5,” snapped General Smith, the information deputy, when I told him that story. “There really is no connection at all between the volunteer army and permissiveness. I don’t think the shout, kick, and shove school of discipline is necessary and I don’t think it’s effective. But when they say they can’t get people to obey them with alacrity and sharpness and so on, I just think the people who say that are not effective leaders.”

If so, the 197th has a serious leadership problem. The volunteers themselves, mostly eighteento twenty-year-olds from towns, cities, and farms in the Southeast, seem for the most part bewildered and unsure of themselves. Many acknowledged that they had spent their entire bonuses during short leaves and were left wondering what they had gotten themselves into.

Drug use appears to be rising at the 197th, though it involves mostly marihuana, Colonel Steele says, and the upward statistical trend may be due to better methods of detection such as the use of dogs trained to discern the odor of marihuana. In fiscal 1972, the battalion arrested 114 men for drug use. compared to 155 in fiscal 1973 and 114 in the first half of 1974. “Very seldom do we find a hard-drug user,” Steele says, “and most of those get identified pretty quickly.” The Department of the Army reported at the beginning of 1974 that the trend in identified drug use was “generally level” and that the Army’s policy was to rehabilitate drug (and alcohol) abusers or to discharge them when they cannot be rehabilitated “within a reasonable period.”

One person who is convinced the volunteer army is bound for failure is former Lieutenant Joe Hooper, thirty-six, the most decorated soldier to come out of Vietnam, according to the information officer at his last duty station. Fort Polk, Louisiana. Hooper’s chestful of ribbons includes a Medal of Honor, delivered personally to him by President Nixon. Hooper quit the Army in January after seventeen and a half years of service, two and a half years short of eligibility for full retirement, partly because his battlefield commission was about to expire and partly because he couldn’t stand the volunteer army.

“I would just as soon be a private as a general as long as I’m happy with what I’m doing,” Hooper says. “But you see what’s happening and you become discouraged. There’s no discipline now, or it’s just way, way, way down. The Army would fall apart if it had to go into combat now. We’re a third-rate military power, and the officers are afraid to say anything because they’re running scared.”

Though much of what Hooper and others have to say about the volunteer army may be owing to natural resistance to change, one is still left with a dour picture.

The last time the United States had a volunteer army was shortly after World War II, when Harry S. Truman allowed the draft to die, to the general applause of a war-worn and politically hostile Congress. After a disastrous recruiting effort, Truman went back to Capitol Hill in 1947 and pleaded for restoration of the draft.

The problems haunting today’s volunteer army experiment can be summed up this way. First, it seems clear that no army is likely to perform well in combat if officers and noncommissioned officers who are directing the lighting have to argue with troops about tactics. Second, assuming the volunteer army could be turned into a military success, one can’t discount the danger of an essentially mercenary force at the disposal of a President given to arbitrary decisions. As Adam Yarmolinsky, who served in Robert McNamara’s Defense Department, put it recently. “If this great hulking creature is allowed to go bumping about in American society and the rest of the world, the range of consequences runs from broken china to shattered civilizations.” And yet, third, a return to the draft system, with its gross class inequities, would be almost impossible to legislate now. (If the volunteer army fails disastrously, there could be a move to a universal service system, under which a person could choose between spending two years in uniform or two years in a government-sponsored civilian occupation serving the public in some way, for example helping alleviate the shortage of health service manpower. This idea was dismissed by Congress without debate as it considered the volunteer army scheme.)

For now officers such as Lieutenant Colonel Arneke are likely to continue running volunteer troops through night operations and the like even though the operations look more and more like empty charades. Before I left Arneke’s exercise around midnight, one of his soldiers collapsed and swallowed his tongue and had to be taken out of the field by helicopter. The medic who first looked at the soldier reported that it looked like a drug overdose.

I caught up with Arneke about 2 P.M. the next day. He seemed as energetic as before, even though he said he had slept only three and a half hours. He was poring over a map propped up on the hood of his jeep, which was parked near his command post tent on a bed of pine needles. His fatigues were starched to a marble finish and his boots were gleaming.

“We had a pretty good time last night,”he said. “Alpha Company crossed the starting point, here, about 12:45, and Bravo went along Red Arrow Road to the north. Once they got moving we turned the scout platoon into aggressor troops and set up ambush sites. Bravo moved up so fast that they passed through before the aggressors got set up. Charlie came along seven hundred meters behind and was caught with an M-60 machine gun. Charlie dispersed along the road and sent out an element to find out what had fired on them, and as soon as they got squared away they were hit with tear gas.”

Arneke stared at the map, and absentmindedly fingered his scarf.

“I had planned to start a voluntary night withdrawal tonight, leave a third of the people in position and deceptively withdraw the main force to another position, but I dunno. . . . I’m thinking now about trying a night attack. It’s a much more complicated maneuver.”

He looked around for his deputy commander and then remembered he was asleep in the tent.

“Go wake up Major Windham,”Arneke said to a droopy-eyed soldier standing nearby.

The soldier wandered off.

“What the hell, I think I’ll do a night attack.”