Why Bringing Back the Draft Won't be Easy--And May Not Be Desirable





Mr. Greenberg is a visiting scholar at the American Academy of Arts & Sciences and writes Slate's History Lesson column.

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The draft is back—or at least back on the table. Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., is fronting a group of anti-war leftists sounding a theme more commonly heard in conservative and neoliberal circles: that in our anomic culture we need mandatory service to instill common values, provide a shared experience for young people of all races and social stripes, and equitably spread the burden of military service. Writing in the New York Times, Rangel recently urged a "return to the tradition of the citizen soldier," arguing that "if we are going to send our children to war, the governing principle must be that of shared sacrifice."

Cries like Rangel's have arisen in every war and quite often in peace as well. In 1940, inaugurating the first-ever peacetime draft, Franklin Roosevelt argued that the new policy "broadened and enriched our basic concepts of citizenship." A quarter century later, Lyndon Johnson called the draft "a part of America, a part of the process of our democracy." Indeed, appeals to patriotism and democracy have often accompanied the imposition of mandatory sacrifice.

Despite these fine words, though, conscription has always been—and probably will always be—a tough sell. The reason isn't that Americans crave an unjust system, although they haven't shown too much regret over the draft's inequities. Rather, the draft's perennial unpopularity stems from an abiding national regard for freedom from state coercion. For all Rangel's rhetorical bows to the "citizen soldier" and "shared sacrifice," his proposal addresses America's historic concern for equality but skirts its even more primary veneration for liberty.

Indeed, the notion of the citizen soldier of the Revolutionary War to which Rangel hearkens—the common man trading plowshare for sword to fight an imminent threat—actually points up the flaws in the argument for conscription. The Revolution's vaunted Minute Men were, after all, volunteers who needed no official prodding to take up arms against a threat to their liberty. The Continental Army certainly had its manpower problems—in the winter of 1776, Tom Paine decried the "summer soldier and the sunshine patriot"—but even in those trying times, states rejected George Washington's plea for national conscription. When individual states did hold drafts, they allowed wealthy conscripts to hire substitutes, who were predominantly poor and unemployed. Service was hardly a shared experience.

Whatever problems hobbled the Continental Army, the new nation's founders remained convinced that state encroachment on personal freedom was the greater danger. The Constitution's drafters conferred on Congress the power to "raise and support armies" but not to conscript citizens—an omission notably at odds with the practice in Europe. Virginia's Edmund Randolph, one of the few founders to raise the issue during the constitutional debates, argued that a draft would "stretch the strings of government too violently to be adopted." Such sentiments carried the day even when British troops invaded American soil two decades later. During the War of 1812, President James Madison sought a draft. But even though Secretary of War James Monroe promised it would be just a temporary, emergency measure, Congress opposed it, in Sen. Daniel Webster's words, as "Napoleonic despotism." It never got off the ground.

In the Civil War, both North and South continued to rely mainly on enlistment, although they did adopt conscription when the volunteers dried up. Even though the Civil War drafts were extremely limited—only 8 percent of Union's 2 million soldiers were draftees—they were far from successful. The Confederate government gave exemptions to those in certain occupations, sparking popular protest. Meanwhile, the delegation of such vast powers to the Confederate government baldly violated the principle of "states' rights" and undermined the South's rationale for its rebellion.

The North had similar headaches. Its practice of letting draftees buy their way out of service for $300—a laborer's yearly income—led critics to dub the conflict "a rich man's war but a poor man's fight." In New York, enforcement efforts, as anyone who's seen Gangs of New York will know, triggered ferocious riots that killed more than 100 people, including many young blacks who the conscripted Irish workers lynched as scapegoats.

Fifty years later, with Europe at war, Woodrow Wilson courted the animosity of isolationists left and right by pushing through Congress a sweeping (but temporary) conscription program. To ensure fairness, the law barred the hiring of substitutes and the offering of bounties for enlistees. But the draft's more fundamental flaw—its coerciveness—still fueled protest. Waves of conscripts, perhaps as many as 3 million, refused to register for the draft, and of those actually called to serve, 12 percent either didn't report or quickly deserted. Local vigilantes took to shaming or brutalizing resisters into service. Civil libertarians sued the government, arguing that the draft was unconstitutional under the 13th Amendment, which outlawed involuntary servitude, but in 1918 the Supreme Court upheld it as constitutional.

The draft was scuttled when peace returned, but in 1940, when Germany invaded France, FDR sought to resurrect it. Again, opposition was fierce; Sen. Arthur Vandenberg, for one, accused FDR of "tearing up 150 years of American history and tradition, in which none but volunteers have entered the peacetime Armies and Navies." But FDR won out, and resistance faded after Pearl Harbor. As it was in so many ways, the experience of the "good" war proved an exception to a historical pattern. Yet FDR's policies also set a precedent for the more questionable Cold War draft, which would last 25 years.

In March 1947, President Truman spoke of his "earnest desire of placing our Army and Navy on an entirely volunteer basis" as soon as possible—a desire that was clearly shared by a public eager to return to normalcy. But one year later, he reversed course, calling for universal service, and a House committee endorsed the proposal, citing the "serious deterioration in the international situation." Critics limited the peacetime draft to a two-year trial run, after which it would have to be renewed. But Cold War battle lines were hardening, and at each expiration date over the next decade, congressional opposition diminished.

It took the catastrophe of Vietnam to end the draft. By the late 1960s, the mounting body counts and anti-war sentiment made it increasingly hard for President Johnson to justify sending young men to die in battle. Until 1969, Maj. Gen. Lewis B. Hershey, the head of the Selective Service, blocked efforts to reform or end the draft, but when Richard Nixon assumed the presidency he saw draft reform as a way to silence the peace movement and steal the Democrats' thunder without a precipitous pullout. Nixon forced Hershey into retirement, set up a lottery to make the draft fairer, and indicated he would move toward an all-volunteer force (AVF). In a debate over whether to continue the draft in 1971 or adopt an AVF, it was Nixon and Gen. William Westmoreland who argued for the AVF, while leading Democrats in Congress such as Ted Kennedy and one Charlie Rangel pressed to keep the draft in place.

In an April 17, 1971, piece in the New York Times, Rangel argued that the proposed "volunteer" force would be "a lie." Poor minorities, in need of employment, would wind up volunteering and "doing the white man's dirty work," he wrote, while "white Americans could then sip cocktails and watch the black Hessians make war on their color television sets, just like the plantation owners who sipped mint juleps on their verandas and watched the darkies toiling in the fields." Rangel insisted then—as he insists about his calls for conscription today—that he wasn't being facetious to prove a point, that he believes a draft would be better than our current military.

But Rangel also wrote in his 1971 article, "There is only one way this country can get its young to loyally perform military service. It must begin to institute morally just foreign … policies." He may have been overstating the case; whether or not young people will gladly head into battle probably doesn't hinge on the justness of the war. But with this much Charlie Rangel surely still agrees: Without a just war, it's impossible to have a just draft.


This piece first ran in Slate and is reprinted with permission of the author. Click here to see a list of his other History Lesson columns in Slate.


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