Draft created 'citizen soldiers' A retired colonel argues that conscription clearly was a force of social good

October 04, 1998|By Laird B. Anderson

Now that the hype over the movie "Saving Private Ryan" has cooled, it's time to reflect on the men who stormed the shores in Europe and the Pacific during World War II, and the military draft, which ended 25 years ago.

The draft's "Greetings" letter started in 1940 and called 93 percent of the 10.5 million men who served during World War II. The draft, the bugle call with origins dating to the citizen-soldier militia of the American Revolution, tore millions of men from civilian life during the wars in Korea and Vietnam. It died in 1973 when President Nixon, with a stroke of the pen, ended the long-held ideal of conscription as a civic duty held in high esteem.

While "Saving Private Ryan" is brutally vivid in representing the sacrifice of those conscripted warriors, historian Stephen E. Ambrose's book "Citizen Soldiers" probably comes closer to giving a full picture of the young men who fought and died during the assault of the Normandy beaches.

In his moving account, Ambrose makes the point that, with all the planning, the "one thing that mattered above all others was human. America had the numbers of men and could produce the weapons for a mass army, and transport it to Europe, no question about it. But could she provide the leaders that an eight-million-man army required - the leaders at the people level, primarily captains, lieutenants and sergeants?"

The answer, of course, was yes, and most lined up for induction without protest. The young officers and non-commissioned leaders in this hastily marshaled citizen army were, by and large, also nonprofessional, men who came from the conscripted ranks.

Now we have a professional, but dramatically smaller, all-volunteer army that is considered by many to be the best in the world, better educated since 1973 and more diverse in gender and race.

These volunteers are as patriotic as those who were drafted and served in past wars. They are well trained, well equipped and focused on their mission. They are the steady core who have acquitted themselves well, with augmentation by part-time warrior-reservists, as in the Persian Gulf war and the tedious peacekeeping roles in Bosnia and other squalid and dangerous places.

Whatever the reason for enlisting in a professional army today - a steady job, an income with educational benefits, travel, adventure - some scholars continue to wonder whether the draft fostered good citizenship and patriotism.

This debate is reflected in a recent headline: "Socially and Politically, Nation Feels the Absence of a Draft."

The story, however, is more complex than the headline, and emotions can run deep in assessing the impact of the draft on American society. While many of the declining number of old soldiers, many of them draftees from the 1940s and 1950s, spin tales of their induction and service days and belong to patriotic veterans organizations, newer veterans, many embittered by the Vietnam experience, shy away from public discourse.

There's no doubt that the draft was a social force, which many consider positive. I was a product of ROTC, but over the course of my active and reserve military career, I commanded or was associated with many who had been drafted. We didn't sit around discussing the philosophy of citizen service to the nation, but I heard little griping about the circumstances that brought these people into the military. There seemed to be acceptance - some of it grudging, to be sure - that this was one of life's blips on the screen.

Draftees were part of a rich mixture of men from all segments of American life, a blend of diverse backgrounds in terms of race, economic conditions and education. High school dropouts and college graduates from rural areas, cities and all walks of society went through the frightful rigors of basic training together.

Some analysts say this experience and subsequent service, during which many learned skills that carried over into civilian life, forged a bond of shared pride and discipline that tempered class lines and created a stronger sense of responsibility to society. Today, fewer than 10 percent of the general population are military veterans, compared with slightly more than 13 percent in 1973.

Analysts are conflicted about the political impact of the demise of the draft and tend to make evaluations in general terms.

Some point out that only 35 percent of Congress members today have worn military uniforms because there has been no draft for a quarter-century and no compelling reason to volunteer for enlistment or officer training. Therefore, it's reasoned, they lack the direct appreciation of what it means to be a soldier, particularly when considering the military budget and the projected needs of the armed services. (In 1973, 77 percent of the members of Congress had served.)

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