Revive the Draft? Bite Your Tongue!

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Revive the Draft? Bite Your Tongue!

Published in somewhat different form in the Daily Record, November 10, 2017

Have you learned nothing, journalist Clyde Haberman? You’re my age, plus four years. You, like me, are of the Vietnam generation, the last generation to face the military draft. We of all people should know that forcible conscription is something this nation must never, never, never, never reinstitute. Yet there you go, in the pages of the New York Times on October 24, rising to John Kelly and Sara Huckabee Sanders’ bait. John Kelly pities anyone who didn’t share at firsthand the reality of military service and sacrifice, and Sanders says you shouldn’t get into a debate with a four-star general (one who has that experience). These bits of chest-thumping non-sequitur make you go weak in the knees and suggest that we should maybe all have that experience again, and so maybe we should bring back the conscription.

Oh, you do temper it a bit, and say other forms of national service should be acceptable alternatives too.

Let’s Talk

Really? We need to talk about all of this.

Have you truly forgotten, in this season when Ken Burns’ magisterial Vietnam War refresher documentary is unspooling on DVRs everywhere, what usually happens when our national leaders make war? Well, then, I’ll remind you. They tell us that the cause is just, that our military brass are wise and skilled, that victory is just around the corner. And by the time it comes out that most of it is lies, thousands of our countrymen will have died, more will have been wounded, and most will be scarred forever by the memory of what they faced and did. And as to accountability, forget it. The leaders never face accountability. Robert McNamara and William Westmoreland and President Johnson died in bed, unlike a schoolmate of mine, one of the 23 names from my smallish hometown on that wall. And many of those 23, I’m sure, had no choice whether to face the risk so deceitfully demanded. That is what the draft does.

The draft deprives a conscript of perhaps most important choices anyone as a human being and a citizen could ever make: whether to expose oneself to mortal danger, whether to kill, and whether to lend one’s body and skills to policies made by politicians.

I am not saying it is wrong to choose enlistment, even though swearing the oath will deprive one of the power to make these choices going forward; obviously armies and navies would not work if soldiers and sailors could preserve such autonomy while in uniform. And we do need armies and navies.

Let’s Not Be Orwellian

But the inalienability of an individual’s preliminary decision whether or not to participate is a matter of paramount national values articulated in the Declaration of Independence. The protection of a young person’s right freely to say no goes to our nation’s very reason for being: to assure that “all men” receive protection of their “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” in a land where the laws operate only by “the consent of the governed.” As a lawyer, I could certainly frame an argument that the draft preserved those values. But as a human being, I know that that would be an Orwellian “freedom is slavery” argument. The draft you and I knew made a mockery of young men’s lives, liberty, and pursuit of happiness, and by definition the draft was indifferent to the consent of those it governed at that moment.

Have you forgotten all this, Mr. Haberman? Why, apart from wanting us all to be able to thump our chests like John Kelly, do you turn your back on that lesson? It’s not as if we need the draft; our needs for military personnel have been met with volunteers even as we’ve plowed through two endless wars.[1]

So what, then, is your argument? It seems to be that bringing compulsory service back would assure that the middle and upper classes have some skin in the game. You suggest we might not have had those endless wars we’ve had in the all-volunteer era, had the likes of you and me had to send their sons and daughters off to play in that lottery we call war. Well, again, remember Vietnam, Mr. Haberman. There were better-off folks who did not serve, like Donald Trump and (full disclosure) me. But though some deny it, the statistics bear out that the service and the dying did, if somewhat unevenly, involve all classes,[2] and – do you remember this part? – the War still went on and on and on. Nobody could stop it, regardless of the class distribution amongst the warriors, and regardless of the fact that halfway through, the War lost popular support, especially among the better-off classes.[3]

And Let’s Not Violate the 13th Amendment

As to requiring alternative service, this would just establish a regime of involuntary servitude, rightfully unconstitutional under the 13th Amendment. And it is well to remember John Kenneth Galbraith’s comments about the economic effects of the draft:

The draft survives principally as a device by which we use compulsion to get young men to serve at less than the market rate of pay. We shift the cost of military service from the well-to-do taxpayer who benefits by lower taxes to the impecunious young draftee. This is a highly regressive arrangement that we would not tolerate in any other area. Presumably, freedom of choice here as elsewhere is worth paying for.[4]

The exact same principles would apply in the case of young people impressed into public service, which would be one of the “other areas” of which Galbraith wrote. If we had to pay youngsters what their civilian service would be worth, we would in effect be adding millions of decently-compensated employees to the public payroll every year. Morality and principle aside, I seriously doubt we could afford it. And shame on us if we forced young people to work during what should be some of the most productive years of their lives, and didn’t pay them right.

Many of those we honor this Veterans Day served because of the draft. Yet we honor them because, whatever compulsion may have led them to do it, they still served to preserve our Constitution and our values. And paradoxically, one of the ways we can best honor the values they served for is to make sure that no one else faces that compulsion.

The draft was an abomination we must never revive. Bite your tongue, Mr. Haberman.


[1]. It seems to have been true that at the outbreak of the Iraq war, recruitment by volunteers could not keep pace with demand, in either quality or quantity. See Fred Kaplan, The Dumbing-Down of the U.S. Army, Slate (October 4, 2005). However, the manpower needs of U.S. armed forces, from both a quality and quantity point of view, were being met again by 2009, as chronicled in a carefully-written paper by Louis G. Yuengert, America’s All Volunteer Force: A Success?, at 57, Parameters 45(4) (Winter 2015-16). This balance of supply and demand came about in large part because we do not need so many military personnel any more. “Compare 1971 (during the Vietnam War), when the armed forces totaled about one-sixth of the male population 15 to 24 years old, with 2003 (a time of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan), when armed forces were only one-fifteenth of the male population that age and an even lesser share of the total population (because by then large numbers of women were serving in a wide range of military occupations). “ Casey B. Mulligan, Ideas, Costs, and the All-Volunteer Army, New York Times, January 14, 2015. During Vietnam, in turn, we had far fewer personnel on active duty (9 million) than we did World War Two (16.1 million). And of course now we have women filling the roughly 10% of military jobs involving combat from which they were excluded before.

[2]. Clearly, there was a substantial bias in the Selective Service system during Vietnam, a bias active in deferments as well as the practices of some draft boards, that made the conflict more of a “working man’s war” than one might have expected based upon all military-age men’s abstract equality before the law. But there were plenty of better-educated and more affluent draftees. 76% of the men sent to Vietnam were from lower or middle/working class backgrounds. This necessarily implies that 24% of the total 2.7 million troops sent there, or just under 750,000, were from higher-class backgrounds. Many of the different class outcomes were actually caused after men were drafted, not before. Then as now, statistics demonstrate that through the armed forces’ sorting of inductees into military occupational specialties, higher social status military personnel have tended to be heavily protected from the risks of combat. See Alair McLean, The stratification of military service and combat exposure, 1934–1994, Soc Sci Res. 2011 Jan; 40(1): 336–348. That said, on an anecdotal level, it is worth noting the comment of former Veterans Affairs Secretary Jim Nicholson, who recalled his own experience as a company commander in a Vietnam infantry unit that brought together soldiers of different backgrounds and education levels, noting that the draft “does bring people from all quarters of our society together in the common purpose of serving.”

But even granting that more affluent and whiter men were somewhat spared from the full effects of the draft even when on paper they were drafted, it would be simplistic to say that for that reason, their parents’ generation was left less inspired than it would otherwise have been to exert political pressure to stop the war. As I can well recall, there was enormous angst amongst our parents. Even where well-to-do families were successful in keeping their boys from being drafted, a great deal of family effort was often required to qualify for a deferment. And bad things happened to young men without deferments who resisted. Reportedly in 1972 alone, there were 200,600 prosecutions for refusing induction. 210,000 Americans went to Canada, as I would have done had I been left with no alternative but induction. It would be far beyond naive to think that such things had no influence on the anti-war fervor among their parents.

There may not have been a target hung on the professional and upper classes, but they were fully conscious of how at-risk their sons were. And yet the War continued. The notion that the draft would keep unpopular wars from being waged is conclusively refuted by Vietnam.

[3]. By the third quarter of 1968, the War’s fourth year, according to the Gallup organization, a majority of the U.S. public opposed it. Without a doubt, the vanguard of disapproval and resistance was on the nation’s college campuses, where present and future members of the professional and wealthy classes congregated.

[4]. Quoted from Walter Y. Oi, “Historical Perspectives on the All-Volunteer Force: The Rochester Connection,” in Professionals on the Front Line: Two Decades of the All-Volunteer Force (Washington, DC: Brassey’s, 1996), 46, as cited in Yuengert, Note 1, above at 59. This passage is quoted as well in many other places.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn

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