The Draft

Why the army needs it.

Read the companion piece to this article:

"The Draft" (April 1980)
Why the country needs it. By James Fallows

Also see:

"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.

Selective Service is in "deep standby." DOD mobilization plans call for delivering the first contingent of draftees within thirty days after a mobilization, and for having at least 100,000 in training within sixty days. Under present circumstances, it would take 110 days for the first inductee to set foot on a training base. Faced with this evidence last autumn, Congress voted down a move to reinstate draft registration 259 to 155. The rhetoric on the House floor was right out of a 1970 antiwar rally. The reality of our national mood, demonstrated in an April 1979 Gallup poll that showed 76 percent of Americans nationwide and 73 percent of those in the eligible age group favored draft registration was ignored.

The situation with the reserves is equally bleak. Individual Ready Reserves, those who are still serving out a commitment and thus are eligible to be mobilized even though they do not train with a unit, are 500,000 men short of the number considered necessary to fill the lag between mobilization and the preparation of inductees for duty. The organized reserve, which is designed to feed actual units into a theater of operations within days after mobilization, is 200,000 men short, and is a laughingstock that does not even take itself seriously. It cannot recruit: the Army Reserve is at less than half of its wartime manpower level. Defense politicians have responded by lowering reserve manpower goals to match the number of recruits they believe can be signed up. For instance, the Army claimed in 1978 that it recruited 92.5 percent of its reserve goal, although this was only 48.4 percent of wartime requirements. Nor can the reserves retain: 60 percent quit before they fulfill one tour of duty.

The Carter Administration has been on notice regarding these deficiencies for some time. Its response has been to classify part of the problem and ignore the rest of it. In late 1978, for instance, the DOD ran a paper mobilization exercise known as "Nifty Nugget," which theorized a major commitment of U.S. forces to Europe to help NATO fight a conventional war against Warsaw Pact forces. In light of the overwhelming conventional superiority Eastern European forces enjoy, and the increasing adventurism of the Soviet Union, as well as our own possible hesitation response to a conventional attack on our strategic "periphery," this is not an unlikely scenario. The results, in manpower terms alone, were devastating. As one Army planner put it, "Don't buy any Victory bonds."

Ninety days into such an engagement-twenty days before this country could even deliver a draftee to his training facility-our military would be more than one million personnel short. In some critical combat skills, we would have only 30 percent of the trained manpower needed to fight a war. We would have less than 40 percent of the doctors needed, less than 25 percent of the nurses, and less than half the enlisted medics, thus ensuring that many thousands would die for lack of care. It is impossible to measure what would happen to our aviation forces; aviators require more than a year of intense training before becoming combat-ready.

Confronted with this evidence, Army Secretary Clifford Alexander refused to discuss it, even with members of Congress in closed session. This led Congressman Robin Beard of Tennessee, a former marine and a leading proponent of military preparedness, to claim that "this is a flagrant abuse of the system and does not serve the national interest. The manner in which this information has been handled is nothing short of a national defense scandal."

There are not many members of Congress with the insight and concern of Robin Beard these days. The failure to address defense manpower issues over the past decade shows the priorities of a Congress whose members have an increasingly large lack of military experience, and whose view of the political world was shaped by the gyrations of a vocal minority during the Vietnam protest years. Of the twenty-nine members of Congress born in 1944 or later, only five have served with the active military forces, and only one is an actual combat veteran.

The volunteer Army is an unmitigated disaster. Those who discovered, after fifteen years of calculated silence, that the Vietnam draft fell disproportionately on the poor and minorities, now remain mute before the hard evidence that the cure is infinitely worse than the disease. If present enlistment trends continue, the Army will be 42 percent black by the early 1980s. White enlistees have less education than black, evidence of their socioeconomic status. More than 60 percent of enlistees are from the bottom two categories of intelligence testing. It is so hard to re-enlist a soldier that the Army is now permitting those who fail their skills qualification test to re-up, thus assuring the youth of America that, if mobilization should occur, their NCO's will be unqualified to train them, much less to function themselves. This situation is getting worse every year: in 1979, the intelligence levels of recruits and those re-enlisting were the worst since the volunteer Army began.

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.