Our Volunteer Army: Two Wars and Counting

It was General Lewis B. Hershey, head of Selective Service from 1941 until 1973 who said, "I hate to think of the day my grandchildren will be defended by volunteers."

Well, Lew, they are now.

Still, looking back, it’s hard to believe that an army of volunteers was ever meant to be anything but  peacetime force, available only for an occasional march into a feeble state in, say, the Caribbean or Central America.

After Korea and before Vietnam, very few men were drafted. Public demonstrations were unheard of. Vietnam changed everything. Since the early seventies, when opposition to the draft mushroomed as its lack of fairness became so evident (yes, college students were exempt, but so too were pro baseball players whose bosses had a tacit agreement with government allowing them to play soldier in occasional reserve duty, the children and grandchildren of fire eating Congressmen, prowar editorial writers and pundits, and future hawks hiding behind numerous deferments) a few libertarians such as economist Martin Anderson of Stanford helped lead the fight to end the draft. Drawing upon the conservative/libertarian stance of the draft as a violation of one’s personal freedom, Nixon said he was concerned about "the question of permanent conscription in a free society." It was just campaign rhetoric, but a handful around him thought that no draft would mean the end of mass campus and street demonstrations. In 1973, relying on Anderson, Nixon fulfilled his campaign promise and ended the despised draft. The last man inducted, Beth Bailey tells us in America’s Army: Making the All-Volunteer Army (Harvard University Press, 2009), was in December 1972.  

Despite contemporary conservatives who would like to see it reinstated to maintain American worldwide hegemony and liberals like Charles Rangel and Bill Moyers who fantasize that a draft will lead the American people to rise en masse and shut down our current two wars (it never happened in Korea and Vietnam), Nixon preferred a "market-driven all-volunteer force."  

But most significantly, Nixon and his advisors recognized the absence of a draft meant fewer anti-war protests and student protestors. And they were right. Certainly, non-vets George Bush and Dick Cheney understood this as did Donald Rumsfeld, who went a step further in believing that the era of WWII great land and sea battles were ended and what was needed was a smaller army populated with men and women who want to be in the military, much preferable to relying on reluctant, short-term conscripts. This new army of choice would then attract volunteer specialists trained in the new techniques of contemporary, counter-insurgency, counter-terrorist warfare. Of course the assumption proved to be questionable given that well-paid mercenaries outnumber U.S. troops in Iraq (and will perhaps in Afghanistan as well) plus the onerous reliance on the National Guard, whose members signed up for home front duty and extra pay with no idea they would end up in Iraq and Afghanistan.  

Beth Bailey, who teaches history at Temple University, has painstakingly and perceptively detailed the process involved in ending the draft after combat troops were withdrawn from Vietnam. She also poses thorny questions — though never quite answers — such as whether a volunteer army offers young men and women a chance to better their lives and serve their country or is merely a duty to be borne by every citizen. Then there is a central question: Why serve in the military at all when the wars to be fought may be unworthy of the pain and sacrifice demanded of our young men and women? 

Other than periods of economic distress, recruiting was always a problem. The army sought to cope with the many societal changes occurring in civilian life, and their efforts, at times well-intentioned, are covered well in the book. Advertising slogans were written and rewritten.  Agencies were changed. As Iraq demanded more and more troops, and as tours were extended time and again, even recruiters felt the stress, Bailey noting that thirty-seven of them went AWOL in 2005. In 1978 ABC-TV featured a program, "The American Army: A Shocking Case of Incompetence."  Critics spread the false and deliberately racist rumor about volunteers as "too dumb, too black."  However, Bailey rightly nails the critics by writing that in 2007. "Even in enlisted ranks," the army is "fairly solidly middle class," (also noted in an earlier conservative Heritage Foundation study) and that "people of color have not borne the brunt of the war."  

Many volunteers have certainly benefited from their service and performed well. But we now know that many have also suffered the agony of death and destruction, multiple tours, government falsehoods and the consequences of alcoholism, divorce, domestic violence, post-combat mental illness, rape in the ranks, shockingly high rates of suicide and grievous wartime injuries. Who, other than Hollywood and TV myth-makers and think tank patriots, ever thought real war was easy and fun?

As problematic as depending on volunteers to fight two wars, resorting to a draft as an alternative is no answer. Simply put, no draft is fair. Four million Americans turn eighteen every year. Should the current lottery system even be utilized, how could a draft of about 50,000 annually be justified when all the rest are free to go about their civilian lives? As happened during Vietnam, virtually no Washington VIP in or outside the government today (save Joe Biden’s son) has a child on active military duty in Iraq/Afghanistan. The same elitism and deference to influence and wealth will certainly prevail in any future draft. Anyone with serious political contacts and family connections will always be able to avoid active military duty, or if not, receive plum jobs. 

This is not to say that efforts have not been made to reinstitute a draft. Bailey reports that during the Reagan Administration the Department of the Army issued a "secret" report urging a draft. When the Washington Post reported it, Secretary of Defense Weinberger exploded and the White House instantly announced it had no intention of reinstating conscription. Every president and presidential candidate since then has restated his opposition to a draft to widespread national approval. It is also evident that no draft has ever deterred policymakers from going to war. All it does is provide an endless supply of cannon fodder. 

Then again in 1980, Jimmy Carter, seeking to bolster his failing presidency and buffeted by home front neocons demanding a more warlike foreign policy, called for every eighteen-year-old male to register (remarkably, it’s still in effect) for a non-existent draft and then spun the deed as a symbolic protest against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which Bailey describes as a "sensible move." Why so is entirely unclear since there is not a shred of evidence that Moscow, mired in its own overwhelming domestic and foreign problems, was swayed in any way by American high school boys signing registration cards in U.S. post offices. Within ten years the USSR collapsed of its own incompetence and corruption, not draft registration. 

Historically addicted to war, the U.S. has a vast "national security" apparatus, more than 1000 bases, and with much money to be made by arms producers and global weapons traders. To service this immense and complex system requires a constant supply of troops. Meanwhile, far from the battlefield, politicians and pundits debate the "proper" use of military intervention, whether for allegedly humanitarian causes or by invading, bombing and occupying to ensure economic and military domination. Now, faced with nonstop wars in the Middle East and possibly elsewhere, and while the drums of war against Iran are heard in Washington and Jerusalem, the question remains, who will be required to serve and fight, and most important, why? 

This article originally appeared on History News Network.

Author: Murray Polner

Murray Polner has written for The New York Times, Washington Monthly, Commonweal, The Nation, The American Conservative, Columbia Journalism Review, Newsday, and other publications.