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All-Volunteer Army?

No–but not the present system either.

Barry Goldwater is for it, so is George McGovern. William F. Buckley, Jr. supports it, so does John Kenneth Galbraith. Robert Taft, Jr. likes the idea, so does Allard K. Lowenstein. So, too, in principle, does Richard M. Nixon, as he reiterated in his draft message last week. They all favor an all-volutneer army. Now, backed by the unanimous support of a Presidential Commission headed by former Defense Secretary Thomas S. Gates, the end-the-draft advocates have succeeded in directing the nation’s gaze towards the beguiling goal of what, it is claimed, would be a painless military. Alas, it is a prospect that under present conditions is neither attainable nor particularly desirable. Unless we turn our gaze from this alluring distraction, and look instead towards other reforms, we shall be left with a military system that is little better than the one we have. 

Like Gaul, the coalition supporting an all-volunteer army is divided into three parts: the ideological conservatives, the ideological liberals, and those who, for want of a better term, might be called middle-class pragmatists. (Richard Nixon falls into this last-mentioned category.) The conservatives quite persuasively contend that conscription is a gross infringement upon individual liberty. The liberals, tormented by Vietnam, maintain with equal persuasiveness that no one should be compelled to fight in a war that is immoral, undeclared, and non-defensive. In addition, the liberals see an end to peacetime conscription as a way to limit the military’s size, and thus its power. The middle-class pragmatists put forward a number of largely technocratic arguments for an all-volunteer army. Their underlying objective is not to control the military more firmly but to quell the restless students.

Like many of the Republican efforts that have come before it, the Gates Commission report is a fusion of the conservative and pragmatic viewpoints. It closely reflects the known positions of Commission members Milton Friedman, the conservative economist, and Stephen Herbits, a young law student who helped a group of moderate Republican congressmen write a book about ending the draft. The Commission’s report also parallels the views of Martin Anderson, the 32-year-old White House staffer best known for The Federal Bulldozer, a stinging critique of urban renewal, and as the author of Nixon’s statements on the draft.

What troubles me is not that these advocates are improperly motivated, or that a “professional” army, if established, would be a terribly dangerous or objectionable thing. The disturbing aspects of the pleas for an all-volunteer army is their lack of contact with social realities. We are asked to believe that, simply by paying the price, we can make the injustices surrounding military service vanish. Such is not the case.

In the length report of the Gates Commission, for example, there are several statements such as the following: “A force made up of men freely choosing to serve should enhance the dignity and prestige of the military. Every man in uniform will be serving as a matter of choice rather than coercion.” The magic word “all-volunteer” is used to conjure up visions of a highly motivated force of gung-ho professionals, unplagued by malcontents and ready to heed the call to action with nary a moment’s hesitation. This kind of fighting force, we are told, is both desirable and feasible. By raising the basic pay levels for first-term enlisted men, beefing up the recruiting corps and buying more advertisements in the media, we could have such an army by as early as mid-1971. President Nixon in his message expressed doubts about the ’71 date but asked Congress to give a 20 percent pay boost to enlisted men with less than two years service and pledged to move steadily if cautiously along the path to an all-volunteer army.

One senses that the Gates Commission (not to mention Nixon) forgot to talk to any GIs who did enlist during the past decade or two. The kind of army it envisions might well be worth thinking about if we were still in the 1930s. Then, the army was small—microscopic by current standards—and unemployment was high. Recruiters were literally turning people away. Today they’re not so choosy. Even aided by pressure from the draft, recruiters are beating the bushes like hungry car salesmen, promising one thing or another to induce adolescents to sign up. Many a naive young man enlists with strange impressions of what awaits him. Others are accepted who shouldn’t be in the military. The volunteer who signs up, or thinks he signs up, for airplane mechanics and then finds himself in an infantry platoon is not always a happy soldier. Nor is the youth who volunteers because a judge offered him a choice between the army and the county jail. Nor is the so-called New Standards man—accepted since 1966 under Project 100,000—with a fifth grade reading ability, who falls humiliatingly behind his buddies in training. Nor is the runaway, or the kid from a broken home.

Statistics bear out the fact that volunteers are not appreciably happier in the army than draftees. For example, despite bonuses for reenlisting that run as high as $10,000, the Army’s reenlistment rate for first-term volunteers is only 14.6 percent. This compares with a reenlistment rate of 7.4 percent for draftees.* Sixty percent of the AWOLs now prisoners in military stockades are volunteers, as are about the same percentage of deserters known to be in Canada and Sweden. In short, the army is chock full of volunteers who would like to “unvolunteer,” Regular Army men who are impatiently counting their days till separation and who resent their loss of liberty as much as any draft.. (Indeed, some volunteers are even more embittered than draftees because they were led to expect something over than they got.)

The conservatives and particularly the pragmatists would have us believe that by eliminating coercion, we would wipe out the indignities associated with military service. But an all-volunteer army would not eliminate the indignities of military service so much as it would remove them from the sight of those who prefer not to see and experience them—primarily the sons of the educated white middle class. The Gates Commission talks glowingly of upgrading financial compensation and other conditions of service so that participation in the military becomes “a rewarding opportunity, not...a burden.” If military service could really be made a rewarding opportunity, there would be little reason to do away with the draft. The truth is that military service is, and for the foreseeable future will be, a burden, and the lot of the enlisted man will remain, to varying degrees only, unpleasant. 

An all-volunteer army would put an end to peacetime induction, but in so doing would transfer the burden of military service to those who are most susceptible to being induced. These would primarily be the poorer, less educated and less sophisticated segments of our youth population. It is argued, in a somewhat elitist tone, that these young people would have the most to gain from military service, or at least have less to lose. (The truth of this statement is in itself a sad commentary on our society.) But is it proper that our nation should be defended but hose who have been favored by it the least? Is not the burden of common defense something that all segments of society should share equally, or at least run an equal risk of sharing? And how much justice is obtained by ending conscription, but replacing it with a recruiting system that feeds on the poverty, ignorance and gullibility of our most disadvantaged youngsters?

There is no such thing as a large painless military. The more socially just course lies not in trying to hide the pain, or transfer it, but in sharing the pain and seeking through reform of the army, to reduce it.

How can the military be reformed? This is the major question, and although no comprehensive answers can be offered here, some suggestions are possible on how we might begin.  

The first and most timely target for alteration is the Selective Service Act, which is due to expire next year. Student deferments, as the President recommended to Congress, should be eliminated. Beyond that, there are two major areas where the law should be changed.

First, a numerical ceiling ought to be placed upon the number of men the President can induct each month. Our deepening involvement in Southeast Asia reveals the helplessness of Congress in the face of Presidential faits accompli. The Constitutional authority of Congress to declare war has been brushed aside by Presidential spokesmen as “outdated.” Defense appropriations bills are spirited through the Capitol in such a manner that few can be opposed to “supporting our fighting boys who are already over there.” Never in the long hand bloody history of escalation has there been a handle Congress could grab, a point where it could stay, “Stop.” As the Senate Foreign Relations Committee stated in its National Commitments report last year: “The concentration in the hands of the President of virtually unlimited authority over matters of war and peace has all but removed the limits to executive power in the most important single area of our national life. Until they are restored the American people will be threatened with tyranny or disaster.” 

Much of the blame lies with Congress itself. Six times it has approved or extended a Selective Service law which gives to the President the power to conscript men “whether or not a state of war exists,” without any effective limitation on the number that can be drafted or the use to which they can be put. It is incongruous, but nonetheless true, that if the President wants 20,000 men in February to be trained for deployment to Asia, he merely snaps his fingers; if he wants $20,000 to combat poverty in West Virginia, he must fight like hell for the appropriation. 

It is time that Congress remedied the situation by withdrawing the blank check on the nation’s manpower it has given the President for nearly 25 years. This can be done by establishing a fixed monthly ceiling on the number of draftees, and providing that no additional men can be inducted without Congressional “appropriation.” Thus, Congress might authorize the President to draft up to 10,000 men per month. If at any time the President wanted more than the authorized number of draftees, he would have to come to Congress stating the size and purpose of his request. He might be required to do this monthly, or perhaps only quarterly. In either case, Congress would retain the power to review periodically the President’s use of the draft.

The second area where the Selective Service law ought to be amended is in its definition of conscientious objection. Here again, the problem should be viewed in relation to the President’s almost unchecked power to make war. Congressional safeguards are not the only ones that have become enfeebled. The people’s ultimate safeguard—the electoral process—has also been shown to be virtually irrelevant. (“We are not about to send American boys nine or ten thousand miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves”—Lyndon B. Johnson, 1964.) If the old Constitutional checks and balances have been eroded, new ones must be created which can be enforced. At the same time, if conscription is to be continued, some protection must be afforded the individual against an over-eager invasion by the Executive of his fundamental liberties. 

The present law defines a conscientious objector as one who “by reason of religious training and belief, is conscientiously opposed to participation in war in any form.” Though the Supreme Court ruled in 1965 that it was not necessary to believe in a Supreme Being in order to be classified as a conscientious objector, the whole notion of conscientious objection in America (though not in England) is too narrowly associated with religious pacifism. Conscientious objection—at least to undeclared, non-defensive wars—should be a basic political right having nothing to do with how or whether a man worships God. This, in essence, may be what the Massachusetts legislature meant to say when it enacted the recent law prohibiting the use of Massachusetts soldiers in undeclared wars  “outside the territorial limits of the United States.” This is the perspective from which Congress ought to view the subject when the draft law comes up for renewal.

Congress can, and should, create by statute the right of an individual not to participate in undeclared, non-defensive wars. This right would obviously be broader in its application than the existing right of religious pacifists to be excluded from combat; yet it would not be a universal right. It would apply only to those who objected to a particular war for reasons of conscience (i.e., some test of sincerity would be required). It would not apply in peacetime; it would not apply to wars in which the nation was under direct attack. Moreover, if Congress saw the need to mobilize the country and to make a declaration of war, the right of conscientious objection could be suspended (or limited once again to religious pacifists). 

A major difficulty in establishing a basic right of conscientious objection to the draft is that, for some subliminal reason, conscientious objection is widely considered to be a radical idea. Quite the contrary: nothing is more conservative and traditionally American than the right of the individual to be secure from unauthorized encroachments of Presidential power, as we have so often heard from William F. Buckley, Jr., Barry Goldwater and others. It is also said that a provision for conscientious objection to undeclared and non-defensive wars would “legalize draft-dodging.” So it would—under certain conditions. But so, too, would an all-volunteer army, and on a far larger scale.

What is more astonishing than the fact that there is resistance to the idea of redefining conscientious objection is that so little consideration has been given to it. The Gates Commission, judging from its report, did not even blink in the direction of conscientious objection. Yet as an alternative to an all-volunteer army—tan alternative that does not go nearly so far in excusing citizens from the burden of military service—the idea of the draft cum conscientious objection to undeclared, non-defensive wars has much to commend it. (It is interesting to note that Great Britain provided for non-religious and even non-pacifist conscientious objection during, of all things, World War II. Despite the dire threat to their survival as a free people, the British were able to recognize that honorable men could have reasons of conscience for not participating in that particular war, and that such men were not necessarily either cowards or traitors. The government’s position, as stated in a 1944 Ministry of Information booklet, was forthrightly put: “We hold that a man whose deepest feelings are outraged by combatant military service should not be pressed into such service. Not only will he suffer, but also—a point frequently overlooked—the Service will suffer.”

Beyond the initial goal of amending the Selective Service Act lies the larger problem of humanizing the army—of structuring and maintaining a competent, defensively-oriented military that causes minimum damage to individual integrity. Several smaller countries (Switzerland, Sweden, Israel, West Germany) have resolved this problem with varying degrees of success. In the United States the problem was briefly tackled after World War II, but never fully pursued. There is no better time to take up the task than now.

The two things that most degrade the enlisted man are his total lack of power over his own life, and the constant attack by the army on his personality. The former is to a large extent inevitable; the latter is not.

From the moment he is drafted or induced into the military, the young enlisted man is stripped of the power to make decisions. This powerlessness extends from matters of the most vital concern to him, such as avoiding death, to the most trivial details of daily existence. He is told when to get up, what clothes to wear, how to walk and talk—and ultimately, whether he must carry a rifle in the rice paddies or sit behind a desk in North Carolina. Before the army he was relatively free; once in the army he is faceless government property, shaped, wrapped, and shipped to arbitrary destinations.

The GI is willing to accept much of this because he recognizes the necessities of a large military organization. He is less willing to accept the concerted assault upon his private being. In basic training, he is yelled at, denounced, humiliated and punished in a calculated effort to destroy his self-esteem and individuality. In place of his previous identity the army attempts to construct a new one—that of the obedient servant and perhaps killer.

When training is over, the war between the GI and the army over the GI’s personality becomes quieter—a kind of war of attrition. The army ceases to attack. Still, a soldier need not call for violent overthrow of the United States government to trigger a repressive response. An unbuttoned uniform, a disrespectful word, sideburns a quarter of an inch too long, a letter to a Congressman—any of these is sufficient. The variety of tools available to the army for personality control would require a small catalog to list. They range from denial of weekend passes to assignment of miserable details, from orders to ship to Vietnam to fines, demotions, courts-martial, stockades and several different types of bad discharges. On occasion, too, there is resort to sheer, extra-legal brutality. If a youngster doesn’t know what fear is, he quickly finds out.

There is no simple way to go about humanizing a military machine. The American army is an old and powerful institution, fixed in its ways and peculiarly resistant to change. Congress alone, even if it were willing, could not bring about the needed shifts in officer attitudes and company-level practices. The major pressures for change must come—and they are coming—from GIs themselves, aided by a concerned and alert public. One way not to begin, in my opinion, is to move to an all-volunteer system. There is nothing civilian society would like more to forget about than the army. The attentions of Congress, the press, the federal courts and anxious parents would drift far from the indignities of military life the moment that life was proclaimed to be voluntary. There would similarly be less popular concern about the uses to which volunteer soldiers were put. How many would care, and how deeply, about the Vietnam war if their sons and brothers were not being conscripted to fight it?

At the same time, an end to the draft would shield the army from the influx of citizen-soldiers who are the yeast of internal change. The army needs Yossarians, Ronald Ridenhours, independent-minded R.O.T.C. junior officers and J.A.G. lawyers—soldiers who do their jobs but who are not committed to the cover-your-ass system, whose loyalties are to civilian, not careerist values. Given the absence of countervailing powers within the military, it is the civilian-in-uniform who is most likely to point out, articulate and test the areas for change.

More truthful recruiting practices would of course diminish much subsequent bitterness. Also, training should concentrate on building up a soldier’s military skills and not on destroying his sense of individual worth. Following training, the army’s control over the individual should be limited to those aspects of conduct which are directly related to combat effectiveness or to foreign policy (when a soldier is stationed in a foreign country, there is a legitimate national interest in supervising his behavior). The GI’s recourses against abuses of power must be strengthened. This can be done, perhaps, through the installation of congressionally-appointed civilian ombudsmen on major military bases. Soldiers’ representatives, elected directly by the enlisted men, could speak for the GI before the commanding general and the ombudsman. (The West German Bundeswehr has a system similar to this.)

In addition, Representatives and Senators should keep a more watchful eye than they do on commanders who infringe upon soldiers’ rights; such commissioned officers should not be perfunctorily approved when their promotions come through Congress.

In short, there are a number of philosophic reasons, as well as considerations of social equity, which argue against a large all-volunteer army under present conditions. But beyond these is the fact that the country faces a choice between further isolating the military or bringing it more closely under civilian scrutiny and control, between professionalizing the army and reforming it. If the draft can be modified so that limits are placed on the power of the President to conscript, then an army within which there is some freedom and ferment would be the safest, most humane, and most worthy kind of army for our young people and for a healthy democracy.

*The Gates Commission distinguishes between draft-induced and what it calls “true” volunteers—men for whom the draft is not a factor in enlisting. No reenlistment statistics are available that differentiate between the two types of volunteers, but obviously the reenlistment rate for “true” volunteers is somewhat higher than the rate for all volunteers. A good estimate is that it runs around 20 percent. This means that 80 percent of even the “true” volunteers—still the overwhelming majority—get out of the army at their first opportunity.

This article appeared in the May 9, 1970 issue of the magazine.