Normandy, Four Kinds of Soldiers, and the Draft: Some Thoughts

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Army Rangers on deployment to the Normandy celebrations

Army Rangers on deployment to the Normandy celebrations

Veterans from the British beaches
Veterans from the British beaches


Normandy, Four Kinds of Soldiers, and the Draft: Some Thoughts


          Earlier this month, I was privileged to be present in Normandy for the celebrations of the 60th anniversary of D-Day.  It was unforgettable for all kinds of reasons, including the sheer profusion of soldiers. 


          There were, of course, the actual D-Day veterans being honored, old, proud, mostly infirm.  Talking with the vets, you were struck by their ordinariness, how they really had been what historian Stephen Ambrose called Citizen Soldiers.  By and large they were ordinary, decent people who had been torn out of their civilian lives to join an armed force that was being pumped up to several times its pre-war size and do something that there was nearly universal consensus had to be done.


          The veterans one expected to see.  What to me at least was a shock was a swarm of faux-GIs infesting every corner of the Channel coast.  Dressed up as 1944 aviators, infantrymen, WACs and nurses, they went careening around the Cotentin in vintage Jeeps or troop transports, waving at passers-by like the liberators in the old newsreels.  It was utterly bizarre, especially when one discovered how few of them spoke English.  At the June 6 ceremony at the Coleville Cemetery waiting for President Bush to speak, I was sitting in front of four of these impersonators all decked out as paratroopers, conversing loudly among themselves in German.  At sunset that day, on the beach below the Cemetery, I had to explain to a group of Italians wearing the insignia of the 29th Infantry what the blue and grey colors on their shoulder patches actually meant.  Looking like a U.S. GI (virtually no Tommies or Maquis, let alone Wehrmacht, were in evidence) is apparently incredibly chic, even among the children and grandchildren of their former Axis adversaries.  It may be a bit of an unwanted compliment to the veterans, but the dress-up stands as some kind of indicator how universally the Greatest Generation guys and gals are admired.


          Actually running all of the bigger American sector ceremonies were today’s soldiers, real live current members of our volunteer military.  They too were everywhere, and there were numerous chances to talk to them off duty.  Of course the two best-known members of that volunteer military at the moment are Lynndie English and Charles Graner, late of the Abu Ghraib Prison torture and humiliation detail – about as different as could be from the admirable Citizen Soldiers of old.  The burning initial question on my mind was of course whether the security personnel and honor guards in Normandy were cut from anything like the same cloth as the Abu Ghraib torturers.  My sense, after observing the former in a number of settings over a number of days, is that the answer is no.  The soldiers I talked to, including soldiers who had served in Iraq, were frankly appalled and dismayed.  I did not hear a single word uttered in defense or mitigation of the abuses.  Perhaps more important, I was struck what you might call the moral spit-and-polish of these warriors.  It may be that the ugly spirit of Abu Ghraib chimes nicely with the ugliness rife at the White House and the CIA, but it is not typical of the volunteer Pentagon.  I also spent some time talking with a Special Forces colonel, whose observable easy rapport with his men, distinguished career, and thoughtful perspective on matters both military and not convinced me that we still have the makings of Eisenhowers.


          There was another kind of soldier abiding in Normandy too, represented by the thousands of white marble crosses in the Coleville cemetery.  The dead are ever present in Coleville.  They relentlessly refute any notion that war is some great glorious exercise without cost.  The sheer staggering weight of the sacrifices represented by those crosses sets everything in perspective.  These are sons, husbands, fathers, who would never come home, broken hearts, wasted education and training, futures that would never be – raw, jagged sacrifice.


          The dead under those crosses were part of an army that in some respects we should never expect to see again.  130,000 people were landed as part of the immediate D-Day invasion.  There were a million and a half Americans in England on D-Day-1.  There is unlikely ever to be an American armed force as vast again.  A military colossus of that size is technologically outmoded.  Increasingly, what land war demands is small cadres of soldiers skilled at operating weapons systems, and/or light or special forces to combat guerillas, as opposed to huge masses of infantry for fighting each other in fixed formations or storming fortifications.  But as the headlines proclaim each day, and the hallways of the Veterans’ Hospitals attest, the high tech warriors and the guerilla-killers get killed and injured just like their forbears.


          Perhaps the biggest distinction in the end is this: The men laid to rest at Coleville were largely an army of draftees.  The draft had thoroughly mobilized every segment of American society in that War.  The necessary sacrifice was largely shared among rich and poor, largely courtesy of the draft.


          In World War II, unlike Vietnam, World War I or the Civil War, there was little political or legal debate about the draft.  Considering the sheer scope of the enterprise in 1944, it is interesting to speculate on this silence, the dog that didn’t bark, as Sherlock Holmes would have described it.  After all, the draft is definitely a form of servitude which seems entirely antithetical to the life, liberty and pursuit of happiness extolled in the Declaration of Independence and protected (at least as to life and liberty) by the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments.  In the case of World War II the lack of debate seems easy to explain.  The soldiers of D-Day believed in their war and believed in their leaders.  In Roosevelt, they had a President who had spared them until it was indubitably necessary to do otherwise.  In Eisenhower and Marshall, they had generals with what Tom Wolfe would later call the Right Stuff.  They knew their sacrifice was for a good cause and intelligently administered.


          Unfortunately, there is no way to guarantee this unique constellation of a perfectly legitimate war and near-perfect leaders.  Far from it, in fact.  One thing Roosevelt did which no later President has ever done to assure legitimacy was to obtain from Congress an actual declaration of war.  Later Presidents have fiercely guarded and expanded their prerogative to commit U.S. troops to action with at best limited Congressional assent, often obtained with lies and half-truths (the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and the recent authorization of our Iraq adventures being sterling examples).  American parents can be pardoned for feeling distrustful about committing their precious sons and daughters to wars justified by lies and instigated by liars.  As I have said, my sense of the officers I met in Normandy is we still have military leaders of Eisenhower’s caliber.  But it is an open secret that we lack Presidents like Roosevelt who are willing to put their warmaking to the true constitutional test of open war declarations, or whose honesty justifies the trust that war requires.


          Today’s Army is different from the Army of D-Day, in part because our volunteers are a self-selected lot who have chosen arms as their lifetime or at least temporary career.  Of late, there have been calls to erase this part of the distinction and reinstate the draft.  A program is already under way to re-staff the Selective Service System, Presidential advisor Karl Rove has been sending feelers out to Republican lawmakers on the draft, and legislators are talking about it.  And in effect we have already instituted a limited de facto draft by deploying National Guards and Reservists and denying them the ability to demobilize or resign. 


          Two predominant reasons are cited for returning to the draft.  Some, like Congressman Charles Rangel of New York, want to democratize the sacrifice World War II-style.  In Afghanistan and Iraq, the volunteers fighting and dying there are reportedly predominantly from lower-income locales and social groups.  Rangel objects to the sacrifice being concentrated in this way.  And he also no doubt feels that if the wars to which rich draftees were sent were of questionable legitimacy, these rich draftees would use their connections to challenge wrongheaded warmaking.  In other words, if sent into military servitude, these soldiers would exercise their social influence (an influence not possessed by today’s volunteer soldiers) to keep the servitude from being wasted.  So runs the theory.  Others, many of them military insiders speaking mostly off the record, feel that our armed forces are simply too small for the missions on which they are being sent nowadays, and that a draft would fill the ranks of new divisions and air wings and carrier groups in a way that mere volunteers could not be trusted to do.


          Those who fear that the marketplace of volunteers is drying up because of the unpopularity of our wars have some anecdotal evidence to support them.  The New York Times recently reported that military recruiters, used to filling their quotas, are suddenly finding they have fewer well-educated recruits, or even fewer recruits, period.  This should be little surprise; in a free market, incentives and disincentives (like distrust of wars and leaders, and unwillingness to die for that which one distrusts) will have an effect.


          It is likely, therefore, that the call to return to the draft will grow louder in the coming months.  At this writing, we are stationing centurions in Afghanistan and Iraq, and have soldiers and sailors and airmen posted all over the world.  And America’s worldwide war with elements of Islam, highly lethal and probably unwinnable, will continue to claim the lives or health of large numbers of our military so long as we continue with it.  The demand for recruits looks to be constant if not increasing, at the same time as the attractiveness of being recruited declines.  The draft will inevitably look increasingly attractive to the warmakers.


          Calls to revive the draft should be resisted.  There are two overwhelming reasons.


          First, as noted above, the constitutional safeguard of declarations of war has been bypassed so often and in so many different ways that it is essentially a hollow guarantee.  If we also eliminate the market forces that limit the size of our military, this disables one of the few significant checks on the ability of our leaders to wage undeclared and unpopular war.


          Second, conscription is not slavery but it tends in that direction; as such, it is a moral wrong.  The decision whether to submit to military discipline is too important to allow another person or a government to take in one’s stead.  Whether to subject oneself to mortal jeopardy is also a matter of personal right that simply outweighs any claim that any nation can possibly have.  A nation which has nurtured and protected one can have claims, for instance to taxes, but not to that.  And, paramount to all these considerations, the decision whether to take part in a killing enterprise like a war should be the most personal of all.


          Of course, this begs the question whether, if all the young men who gave their lives in June 1944 in Normandy had been free not to participate, we could ever have had such an indispensable invasion.  Our nation’s survival at times has depended on people submitting to military discipline, exposing themselves to mortal jeopardy, and being willing to kill for their country.  That is a tall order, taller if people are free not to opt in.  But not, I believe, impossibly tall.  The Revolution was fought mainly without conscripts; Baron von Steuben remarked at the time that in Europe you tell a soldier to do thus, and he does it, but that in America it is necessary also to tell him why he does it.  Eisenhower quoted this comment nearly two centuries later in his memoir of World War II.  Von Steuben and Eisenhower therefore suggest that over our whole history, it is a constant that if you do tell America’s would-be warriors convincingly what you need them to fight for, they will present themselves for service.


          The volunteer army is proof of this.  It has worked pretty well to date, particularly in view of the diminished need for bodies in a modern military.  If at this point voluntarism as a means of replenishing even the scaled-back ranks required today seems to be losing effectiveness, the fault probably lies not in the hearts and minds of the potential volunteers, but in the hearts and minds of their leaders, who cannot or will not present a convincing case for enlisting to fight today’s wars.


          With good leadership, with Eisenhowers and Roosevelts, young men and women will predictably enlist in acceptable numbers.  With bad leadership, the discipline of the enlistment market will act as a check.  It would be both foolhardy and morally wrong to remove that check.  Vietnams happen when Presidents and generals can rely upon conscripts to fight bad wars.  Normandies happen when Presidents and generals do the right thing, and when Presidents and generals do the right thing, the volunteers will be there.


Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn


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