As the struggle with the Islamic State, or ISIS, grows more intense and the Obama administration’s air-attack strategy—if the experts turn out to be correct—proves unavailing, the calls for boots on the ground in Syria and Iraq are likely to become more insistent. Despite the coalition of nations aligned against ISIS and other terrorist groups, no one doubts that any such boots will be preponderantly American. Our current volunteer military will fill those boots.
Which prompts a question: Should the burden of defending America be exclusively theirs? When one watches those heartbreaking segments on the national news of men and women returning from Middle Eastern wars with missing limbs, and reads accounts of their suffering from mental-health problems as a result of their experiences in battle, one feels an essential unfairness about current military arrangements. True, these men and women volunteered for battle, yet in a democracy it somehow feels wrong for a small segment of the population to be charged with the responsibility of defending the country in foreign wars.
The remedy for this fundamental unfairness is of course at hand, and it goes by the name of the draft.
The draft was legally halted in 1973, toward the close of the Vietnam War. The effect was to relieve citizens of having to fight their country’s battles. A reinstated draft, or compulsory military service, would redistribute the burden of the responsibility for fighting wars, and engage the nation in military conflicts in a more immediate and democratic way.
The first effect of restoring the draft would be to make the American electorate generally more thoughtful about foreign policy. It’s well and good to call for boots on the ground, but all of us might make a mental adjustment if some of those boots were to be filled by our own youthful children and grandchildren. A truly American military, inclusive of all social classes, might cause politicians and voters to be more selective in choosing which battles are worth fighting and at what expense. It would also have the significant effect of getting the majority of the country behind those wars in which we do engage.
The last war fought by America that had the durable support of the nation was World War II. This was so in part because of the evil nature of the enemy. But the war was also vigorously supported because the troops who fought in it, owing to the draft, came from all social and economic classes. Everyone had a husband or brother or son or uncle or cousin in the war; everyone felt a stake in victory. People old enough to remember World War II remember the small flags with blue stars in the windows of people who had relatives fighting, and gold stars for families who had lost close relatives in the war.
The draft was still in effect for the Korean War, but public support was less, chiefly because the objective was far from clear and not very many troops were needed. During the early years of the Vietnam War, when the draft was still intact, a great many middle-class Americans avoided serving by going to graduate and professional schools and obtaining deferments. Vietnam was the first of our wars to be fought almost exclusively by an American underclass and, in part because of this, at no time did it have anything like the full support of the American people.
The great example of a successful conscription army is in Israel, where nearly all eligible young men and women serve. Israel exists, of course, in a state of perpetual peril; as has often been said, it cannot afford to lose even one war. But the glory of the Israeli army, and its support by all but the most pacifist Israelis, surely owes to the fact that everyone serves, or has served, in it.
Under the draft, the American social fabric would change—and, judging from my experience, for the better. I write as a former draftee who served in the Army from 1958 to 1960. I was, in other words, a Cold War soldier, and never for a moment in danger. Much of my time in the military—I worked on the post newspaper at Fort Hood, in Texas, and later as a clerk, typing up physicals, in a recruiting station in Little Rock, Arkansas—was excruciatingly boring.
Yet I am grateful for having served. Doing so took me out of my own social class and ethnic milieu—big-city, middle-class, Jewish—and gave me a vivid sense of the social breadth of my country. I slept in barracks and shared all my meals with American Indians, African Americans from Detroit, white Appalachians, Christian Scientists from Kansas, and discovered myself befriending and being befriended by young men I would not otherwise have met. I have never felt more American than when I was in the Army.
Memories from my two years in the Army retain a 3‑D vividness. I shall never forget Andrew Atherton, a Korean War veteran and my platoon sergeant in basic training. A tall, lean black man with a highly mobile Adam’s apple, he was, in starched fatigues with an ascot at his throat, more elegant than most men in white tie and tails. In dealing with us, he adopted a deliberately comic style, a combination of high pomposity and profanity. “It behooves all Christians among you,” I recall his bellowing out on our first night of training, “to get your sorry asses to church services on Sunday. As for those of you of the Hebrew persuasion, it is mandatory for each and every one of you young troopers to get his swinging dick to Friday-night services. Am I clear?”
At Fort Leonard Wood, in Missouri, where I did my basic training, I remember a guy from Tennessee named Flowers, whose ex-wife turned him over to the draft for failing to make alimony payments, and who joked about renegotiating the terms of his divorce when first issued his M1 rifle. At Fort Hood, I worked in the Public Information Office with a Wharton Business School graduate, a private first class named Carl Kershler III, who drove a current-year black Cadillac convertible around the base, causing full-bird colonels, taking him for the post commander, to salute him when he passed. In Little Rock, I remember Sergeant Wilson Duncan, whose drinking never got in the way of his kindness to the men under him, including me. None of these are men I would have encountered outside the Army.
In contemporary America, if one is born into the middle or upper-middle class, one is unlikely ever to have to step outside that class. One stands to go to school with people from the same social class, marry into that class, raise one’s children within it, live out one’s days among its members. Members of the working classes are more cruelly class-bound and isolated. The ingredients in the once famous American melting pot thus remain frozen.
The hiatus the draft brings can have a decisive effect on one’s future. Certainly it did in my case. By drawing me at the age of 22 out of the workaday world for two years, the draft gave me space to think about my life and what I wanted to do with it. But for the draft, I might, God forfend, have gone to law school simply out of the need to appear serious, and today have been a perhaps wealthier but undoubtedly much less contented man.
During the years the draft was in effect, it was not uncommon for judges to let young criminal offenders choose among reform school, prison, and the Army. Most chose the Army, a decision I should like to see made by the gang members who now menace the streets of my city, Chicago, and other major American cities. As a totalitarian institution—that is, one that has total control over the people in it—the Army in my day had a remarkably high success rate in rehabilitating young offenders and even wayward jerks. In the Army, you shaped up or—well, there really wasn’t any alternative but to go to prison or have your life permanently stained by a dishonorable discharge.
Arguments against reinstituting the draft, though not trivial, are mainly technical. Training volunteer soldiers is said to be hard enough, given the complexity of military hardware—training reluctant conscripts would be even more difficult. Yet far from all military tasks are technological; clerks, cooks, infantrymen are always needed. Having lots of soldiers who have gone through college and professional schools would also leaven the enlisted ranks in a useful way.
At a time of defense-budget cutting, as military bases are threatened with closure and new weapons systems are abandoned for lack of money, the Pentagon may not be interested in having to increase personnel dramatically with conscripts who would serve for only two years. Yet President Obama has said, and no one of any authority has disagreed with him, that this war is going to be a long one, a matter not of months but of years, possibly even decades. The reinstitution of the draft would make our country’s participation in this lengthy struggle not merely more just but possibly more efficient, by conscripting better-educated young people. It is time, I would argue, for a serious consideration of returning to compulsory military service in America.