Improbable but true: James Webb-James Fallows joint article on the draft

I had known Jim Webb for about a year, and had worked for the Atlantic for about the same amount of time, when I proposed to him early in 1980 that we jointly undertake a project for the magazine. The results, published for the first time on the Atlantic's web site, are here (Webb's article) and here (mine); the back story follows.

Webb, who was then a young Congressional staffer, had recently published his novel about Vietnam, Fields of Fire. I had just published a cover story in the Atlantic called "The Muscle-Bound Superpower," which presented "defense reform" arguments that I went on to develop a year later in my book National Defense. From entirely different perspectives -- Webb as a Vietnam veteran who left the Democratic party in outrage about Jimmy Carter's pardon of Vietnam-era draft evaders, I as an all-out opponent of the war who had done my best not to get drafted and then had worked in the White House for that same Jimmy Carter -- we had come to a similar conclusion. It was that the all-volunteer army would, in the long run, be bad for the military and bad for the country.

The topic was in the news because, in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Jimmy Carter had proposed resuming not the draft itself but draft registration. Robert Manning, who was then the Atlantic's editor (and who had hired me for the magazine, and who had commissioned great journalism about Vietnam during the 1960s and early 1970s), blessed this project. It ran as the magazine's cover story in April, 1980, under the joint title "The Draft." Webb's half was called, "Why the Army Needs It." Mine was "Why the Country Needs It."

The idea that a volunteer force has been a disaster for the military hasn't held up so well -- or at least, it has complicated pros and cons. The idea that it's a disaster for the country is, to my view, confirmed with each passing year and each new commitment of troops made without the full democratic involvement that a draft requires.

In the real world there is essentially no chance, short of simultaneous land-war against Canada and Mexico, of the U.S. returning to forced military conscription. (Reason one: pressure of numbers. Many more Americans turn 18 each year, male and female, than even a very large military could absorb. So how do you choose fairly which ones should serve? Reason two: compulsion. A mandatory draft must be backed up by the threat of prison or other legal sanction. Absorbing the resulting friction just does not seem plausible, after a generation or more of the state asking nothing of its citizens.)

But the country has lost something important as it has separated its military decisions from any impact on the population at large. A recent college graduate recently told me that he hadn't really focused on Iraq policy. You can bet he would have, if he knew it would affect him. And gestures like the one Charles Rangel periodically makes, in proposing a restoration of the draft, are valuable for directing attention to this problem - and perhaps paving the way for consideration of other ways to make national service more attractive and to close the military/civilian gap.

I had not looked at these articles in more than twenty years. On re-reading mine, I see one thing I would change: the emphasis on the "sucker" quality of the all-volunteer force. That was a legitimate concern in the late 1970s, just after Vietnam; it is not now, as the military has complicated reactions, including a large measure of pride, about being held to different, higher standards than the population at large. But otherwise, I am both relieved and depressed to see that the warnings it offered have come true.