The Sociopolitical Problem of the All-volunteer Military: The Military Draft

The Military Draft

“Conscription operated as a positive element in civil control because it resulted in the massive inflow and outflow of civilians through the armed services. Citizen-soldiers as enlisted personnel helped maintain linkages between civilian sectors and the military and were part of the long-term efforts to ‘civilianize’ the military”[1] – Morris Janowitz, “The All-Volunteer Military as a ‘Sociopolitical’ Problem”

On Sept. 16, 1940, as Hitler’s army swept through Europe and the Japanese Imperial Army and Navy laid waste to the militaries of the Pacific, Congress passed the Burke-Wadsworth Act, which signaled the United States first peacetime draft, creating what is now known as the Selective Service System and then more commonly known as the Selective Training and Service Act.[2] The Roosevelt administration had in previous years relied on the United States’ most preferred method of foreign policy, neutrality.[3] However, Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson and others advocating for military preparedness as it became apparent that war would come to the United States in one form or another drew the first Selective Service numbers from a glass bowl merely a month after Congress had approved the peacetime draft.[4] Initially, men between the ages of 21 and 36 were registered; however, though roughly 20 million men were eligible only half were qualified to serve due to low literacy rates and health concerns.[5] But, once the United States entered into the war by declaring war on Imperial Japan after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941 and Germany and the other Axis Powers shortly thereafter, the U.S. increased the draft eligible age to 37.[6] However, despite the shortage in 1942 black men were still not drafted due to racist assumptions of their inability to perform to standard.[7] But, merely a year later, black men were drafted though there was a limitation on the number and types of jobs they could perform.

Interestingly, though there was a great need for manpower, the Selective Service did and still does grant “conscientious objector” status to those with “sincerity of belief in religious teachings combined with a profound moral aversion to war.”[8] Quakers accounted for the bulk of those granted “conscientious objector” status, but, according to records, 75 percent of Quakers drafted during World War II elected to serve anyway. One of the many arguments against a military draft is imposing the federal government’s will over a person’s religious right to object to violence or in the case of Quakers and other religions such as Jehovah’s Witnesses to partake in any sort of government mandated program. Unfortunately, there were roughly 6,000 men who were imprisoned for not registering for the draft for which the vast majority were Jehovah’s Witnesses.[9] So, some of the reservations about a military draft are valid, but the political climate of the 21st century is vastly different than in the 1940s and much more inclusive and tolerant of even the most obscure religious beliefs. The Selective Service’s mission statement today expresses the desire “to manage alternative service for men classified as conscientious objectors,” but “with only a few exceptions. All male U.S. citizens and male immigrants residing in the United States who are ages 18 through 25,” are still expected to register for the Selective Service, despite the agency, essentially, amounting to much of nothing due to the All-volunteer military.[10] In total, during World War II, 34 million men throughout the country registered for the draft, but only 10 million served during the country’s 4 years of war.[11] So, if taken into consideration that the United States successful used volunteers, a small army and a military draft during war in past conflicts then why was creating peacetime draft necessary in 1940?

It’s important to understand that the United States had used a military draft in past wars beginning with the Civil War, during World War I and eventually World War II, but what made the Selective Training and Service Act so different was that it was implemented during peacetime. The Second World War, though debatable, began Sept. 1, 1939 when the world was introduced to Germany’s Blitzkrieg as their nation’s soldiers wept through Poland with relative easy. However, the most logical start date is July 7, 1937 when Japan, Germany’s ally, began its conquest of Asia by invading China. So, the writing was on the wall. Though the U.S. continued its historical policy of neutrality from the end of World War I and Wilson’s failure with the League of Nations, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Administration, with lessons learned from the War to End All Wars, knew that war would come to the United States; it was inevitably, so the nation’s first peacetime draft was simply a proactive step at readying the nation for war.

Initially, the Selective Training and Service Act wasn’t intended to continue on after World War II, so Congress let it expire in March of 1947.[12] However, after World War II the United States and the Soviet Union were left as the world’s two superpowers and as the Cold War ramped up it became imperative for the Truman Administration to have the appropriate access to manpower as the President and Department of Defense saw fit. No longer the mighty neutral power that only wielded its influence in the Western Hemisphere, the United States “needed to uphold its global commitments,” according to the Truman Administration, so it sought an extension of the Selective Service Act, which Congress obliged by reenacting it in June of 1948 for two years.[13] Volunteers in record numbers entered the military in the late 1940s, so the SSS was put on hold as Congress was set to let the Act expire in June of 1950.[14] However, the Korean War broke out and the Selective Service System reauthorized as the Universal Military Training and Service Act in 1951.[15] Roughly 1.5 million men were drafted to support the Korean War and an additional 1.5 million were drafted throughout the 1950s and start of the 1960s.[16] The system worked. The United States military had the manpower it felt necessary to wage a potential war with the Soviet Union; however, as the United States role shifted from advisors in Vietnam to full-on combatants, the Selective Service System was scrutinized as the amount of deferments to wealthy children and those in high academic standing began to rise along with the death tolls of the working-class soldiers, as Christian Appy refers to the soldiers serving in Vietnam.

Christian Appy wrote in his Working-class Soldiers that, “Class, not geography, was the crucial factor in determining which Americans fought in Vietnam.”[17] In fact, Appy goes so far as to say that even in the racially and domestically tumultuous 1960s that, “Class was far more important than race in determining the overall social composition of American forces.”[18] Furthermore, Appy wrote, “Roughly 80 percent [of soldiers who served in Vietnam] came from working-class and poor backgrounds.”[19] Appy’s main point of contention lays in the subjectivity in the local Selective Service boards that resulted in a disproportionate amount of the poor rural and inner city and blue-collar families bearing the burden of Vietnam. However, Appy’s reservations were merely a portion of the overall ineptness of U.S. foreign policy etc. that, ultimately, resulted in a failed war in Southeast Asia. But, that’s for a later chapter.

As antiwar sentiment spread throughout the country in a politically chaotic climate that also featured a plethora of other domestic issues that ranged from women’s rights to the rights of Black Americans, the Johnson Administration commissioned a study to help improve the military draft system.[20] The result was the 1967 Military Selective Service Act, which did little to quell anti-war sentiment, but rather flamed the fire further by rationalizing the deferment system.[21] Johnson, likely well aware of his Administration’s inability to connect with nation’s social and domestic movements, decided not to run for election in 1968. President Richard Nixon tried to fix the Military Selective Service Act by implementing the lottery that was used during World War II, it was too late and the nation had turned its back on the war, and, most unfortunately, the service members who, often reluctantly, served in Southeast Asia.

The Vietnam War concluded more than 40 years ago, and as the memory of the unpopular military draft during what is arguably the most contentious domestic climate in American history begins to fade from the collective memories of the Baby Boomer Generation some are now calling for the reimplementation of the military draft to replace the All-volunteer military in an attempt to alleviate the burden of war on the few who are currently waging it. Joseph Epstein, an essayist and editor who served as the editor for The American Scholar, has been one of the more vocal advocates for bringing back the military draft to replace the AVF. Epstein in a 2015 article for The Atlantic titled “The Tragedy of the American Military,” provides a brutal albeit sincere critique of the current military situation noting that, “The American public and its political leadership will do anything for the military except take it seriously. The result is a chickenhawk nation in which careless spending and strategic folly combine to lure America into endless wars it can’t win.”[22] Andrew Bacevich and other scholars share Epstein’s sentiment. Bacevich explains in The New American Militarism that “few of today’s most prominent war hawks have themselves spent even so much as a day in uniform.”[23] And though Bacevich and many others agree the current AVF needs to be reformed, they focus more on changing foreign policy than on advocating for any type of military alternative. Epstein’s critique is equally disparaging of American foreign policy post-World War II and especially post-Vietnam War, but he takes it further by advocating for the military draft.

It’s important to note that Epstein was a draftee who served in the Army from 1958 to 1960. Like Bacevich, Appy, Janowitz and the author of this thesis, Epstein is incredibly critical of the AVF stating that “ It’s unfair for a tiny percentage of Americans – less than one percent – to shoulder the burden of fighting wars; the American public isn’t knowledgeable enough on foreign policy; the draft could rehabilitate young criminal offenders; and, most of all, a draft would contribute to the ‘melting pot’ that makes America great.”[24]

However, before tunneling further down the rabbit hole, it’s imperative to note that the idea of returning to the military draft is incredibly unpopular. A Pew Research Center study conducted in 2011 showed that 75 percent of the American public supports reinstating a draft with only 14 percent of those polled ages 18 to 29 favoring the draft.[25] Though as previously mentioned in the introduction of this thesis that statistics don’t paint an entire picture, it does provide an interesting peek into the current psyche of the American public and the contrasts between the age groups. Twenty-nine percent of those polled in the study above 65 favored a reinstatement of the military draft.[26] A cynic would be quick to point out the obvious reasons for the disparity: older Americans would never be a part of a military draft whereas those between 18 and 29 are the prime age group for the military draft. However, the chickenhawkish attitudes are not only prevalent in the stuffy halls of Congress among the elder elite who have never served. It was widely reported in late 2015 and early 2016 that the majority of millenials favored sending ground troops into Syria and Iraq to fight ISIS in the wake of the Paris attacks.[27] The Harvard IOP Polling Director John Della Volpe said in an interview with NPR that the disconnect lies with “how the millennials’ feel about the government writ large.”[28] Volpe’s explanation as he delves into the millennial generations distrust of the government comes across as weak if not wholly disingenuous. Generation upon generation of Americans have been mistrusting of the government but still willing to serve if called upon; moreover, especially the Vietnam Era, if the general public felt a lack of certainty about waging war they were just as uncertain about committing. But not this generation, whereas a full 60 percent are willing to commit troops to wage war a full 85 percent of those polled were not willing to join.[29] However, Bacevich and others will argue that the attitudes expressed by those polled in the Harvard survey are merely the result of decades of U.S. mismanagement with its foreign policy; a foreign policy that would likely be vastly different if the AVF hadn’t been implemented in 1973.

Epstein further argues his point when he wrote, “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.”[30] Christian Appy expressed an almost identical sentiment in his Working-Class War when he wrote, “Many well-to-do Americans would have been more concerned about U.S. casualties had their own children been the ones doing the fighting.”[31] Though Appy wrote exclusively about what was wrong with the draft deferments etc. during the Vietnam War, the AVF has only exacerbated his concerns by providing still further alternatives for the more affluent from military service, which in turn has led to the lowest rate of veteran representation in Congress. In fact, despite President George W. Bush’s weak military service record during his brief stint in the Texas Air National Guard, there hasn’t been a military veteran in the Oval Office since President Jimmy Carter. All this is to say that there has been a growing disconnect due in large measure to a lack of representation by the countries decision makers. That sentiment by and large has become the sentiment of the American people.

Bacevich wrote, that “war is inherently poisonous, giving rise to all sorts of problematic consequences, and that military power is something that democracies ought to treat gingerly.”[32] That was the foreign policy held dearly by the generations previous to President Woodrow Wilson and those following up into the 1960s, but as the country continued its path toward world superpower the country’s foreign policy that was once exclusively only concerned about the Western Hemisphere had now extended itself worldwide. Of course, there are many issues related to this switch in foreign policy, but before delving deeper it’s important to turn the focus back toward the idea of implementing a modern military draft and why it is simply an unrealistic idea. Bacevich expresses his idea about the possibility of a modern military draft as “about as likely as reviving prohibition.”[33] However, he still expresses the idea that U.S. foreign policy and the current military system is broken, so rather than continuing the drum of war something needs to change.

Epstein writes, “The last war fought by America that had the durable support of the nation was World War II … the war was … vigorously supported because the troops who fought in it, owing to the draft, came from all social and economic classes.”[34] Again, as stated earlier, it’s easier for a nation to rally behind a war that touches so many. The arguments through and through have all focused on this area in particular: the AVF relies to heavily on a small population of American citizens to bare the burden of war. Therefore, as Michael Ignatieff of Harvard University concluded, war had become ‘a spectacle.’”[35] The current wars waged are as Epstein describes in is The Atlantic article merely a blip on the television screens of passengers in route from one mundane destination from another. The PTSD, death and ruined lives of the fellow Americans who sacrificed in the name of American foreign policy were simply too few for there to register an emotional affect on the average American citizen.

“I have never felt more American than when I was in the Army,” Epstein wrote in his The Atlantic commentary, “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.”[36] Epstein’s sentiments again underscore a common thread among the scholars and advocates of a new American military system that since the AVF, and beginning in earnest with the Vietnam War, the American military that was once representative of the entire country was now a separate, and very distinct subculture of the U.S. population that saw their core values and way of life different from the average citizen. Janowitz explains that, “The organizational format and the normative structure of the ‘new military,’ in contrast to the conscript force, displays an increased emphasis on its organizational boundaries and distinctive values.”[37] He argues that the distinction the military places upon itself fosters a climate of separateness from the civilian population that has ultimately resulted in a distinctly different subculture with the United States, a subculture that sees itself as superior of mind, body and spirit.

“I slept in barracks and shared all my meals with American Indian, 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.”[38] Some may chalk up Epstein’s recollection of his military service as nothing more than the aging memory of a patriotic intellectual facing his inevitable mortality by describing patriotic service as one of the climaxes of his life in a country no longer as enthralled with civic service as it had been in its yesteryear. But, by and large Epstein isn’t alone in his insistence that military service has often been the great equalizer that provides all walks of life a common commitment to the betterment of their nation, which would include a more cautious approach toward engaging in warfare.

However, the prospects of the United States reverting to the military draft are practically nil. As Robert Taylor, an American Military Historian and Department of Humanities and Communication head at the Florida Institute of Technology, said the AVF is “a two-sided coin.”[39] On one side, the much more positive side, the military of today is quite possibly the most competent the nation has ever fielded, and without a doubt the most educated in the history of the United States.[40] Almost all soldiers have high school diplomas and many have college educations, and those are of course are just the enlisted personnel who fill the ranks of the AVF.[41] However, perhaps the most important measure of an armed force, the AVF has proven itself on the battlefields of the Middle East as a fighting force without equal, though of course with the caveat that there are simply too few waging those battles. So, despite what appears a negative outlook throughout this thesis toward the AVF, it isn’t a reflection by any means of the service members that comprise that force. But why did the nation need the AVF when as Epstein and others contend the military draft was a benefit for the country by making military service inclusive? The answer to the question could be summed up simply with one word – Vietnam. However, the path toward the AVF implementation didn’t begin and end in 1973 when Nixon’s Administration reorganized the military. It’s important to understand the lead up to Vietnam and, ultimately, the consequences that lead to the creation of the All-volunteer military. Great Britain provided the United States the model in 1962 when it became the “first NATO nation to implement the all-volunteer concept, in part because of economic pressure.”[42] However, it wasn’t economic pressure within the United States but rather a domestic climate that was rapidly progressing away from the United States’ honeymoon period following the conclusion of World War II. Vietnam was the exclamation point on a decade of upheaval.

[1] Janowitz, pp. 437

[2] History.com Staff, “United States imposes the draft,” History.com (2009) accessed July 29, 2016 from http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/united-states-imposes-the-draft

[3] Ibid

[4] Ibid

[5] Ibid

[6] Ibid

[7] Ibid

[8] Ibid

[9] Ibid

[10] Selective Service System. Selective Service.gov accessed July 30, 2016 from https://www.sss.gov/

[11] “United States imposes the draft,” History.com

[12] Ray, Michael, “Selective Service Acts,” Encyclopedia Britannica (2016) accessed July 30, 2016 from https://www.britannica.com/topic/Selective-Service-Acts

[13] Ibid

[14] Ibid

[15] Ibid

[16] Ibid

[17] Appy, pp. 79

[18] Ibid, pp. 115

[19] Ibid, pp. 43

[20] Ray

[21] Ibid

[22] Epstein, Joseph, “The Tragedy of the American Military,” The Atlantic (January/February 2015) accessed Aug. 1 2016 from http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/01/the-tragedy-of-the-american-military/383516/

[23] Bacevich, The New American Militarism, pp. 161

[24] Bodenner, Chris, “Bring Back the Military Draft? Your Thoughts,” The Atlantic (May 27, 2015) accessed Aug. 30, 2016 from http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2015/05/military-draft/394133/

[25] “War and Sacrifice in the Post-9/11 Era,” Pew Research Center (Oct. 5, 2011) accessed Aug. 1, 2016 from http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2011/10/05/war-and-sacrifice-in-the-post-911-era/

[26] Ibid

[27] Khalid, Asma, “Millennials Want To Send Troops To Fight ISIS, But Don’t Want To Serve,” NPR (Dec. 10, 2015).

[28] Ibid

[29] Ibid

[30] Epstein, Joseph, “The Tragedy of the American Military,”

[31] Appy 47

[32] Bacevich, pp. 104

[33] Bacevich, “Why America’s All-Volunteer Force fails to win wars.”

[34] Epstein, “How I Learned to Love the Draft”

[35] Bacevich, “Why America’s All-Volunteer Force fails to win wars.”

[36] Epstein, “How I Learned to Love the Draft”

[37] Janowitz, pp. 148

[38] Epstein

[39] Moody, R. Norman, “After 40 years, return of military draft not in sight,” USA Today (July 23, 2013)

[40] Ibid

[41] Ibid

[42] Janowitz, pp. 436

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