Young men registering for military conscription in 1917

I’ve built a pillow fort here under the National Affairs Desk as I know there will be incoming.

In 1972 I went in the next to the last draft. It was the only lottery I ever won. It seems America has always had a love/hate relationship with the draft.

In the first draft during the Civil War you could pay someone $300 to serve in your stead if you were drafted. This enabled  the wealthy and middle class to avoid conscription. In July 1863, there was a massive riot over the draft in NYC. President Lincoln had to deploy needed troops to finally quell it. The historical consensus is the working class and poor were reacting to the ability of the better off could avoid service as the bloody war nearly demolished the lower strata of society. Needless to say the draft was unpopular.

Following the Civil War the draft was shelved until WWI.

As the US prepared to join the war to end all wars in Europe there was only 98,000 or so men on active duty with about 27,000 men in the National Guard. Seeing the horrendous casualty rates of trench warfare Wilson and the War Department knew the Army would be quickly decimated. Over initial Congressional opposition the Selective Service Act of 1917 was passed.

There were five classifications based on vocations deemed necessary for the war effort. All though were eligible to be drafted as the need arose. By September 1918, nearly 24 million men were registered. Four million were drafted with around 2 million actually serving in Europe.

Both my maternal grandfather and great uncle were drafted. My great uncle was blinded in a gas attack in France. The American Expeditionary Force suffered 264,00 casualties with 122,00 deaths. Fifty percent of those were KIA. The rest died from disease, mainly the Spanish Flu outbreak. Following the war the draft was once again shelved.

Then came WWII.

As usual, America had retreated back into isolationism following WWI. Most of the US military was demobbed once the war was over. With the rise of the Axis our military was once again woefully unprepared  for what was coming. In spite of the strong isolationist mindset of most of America began to recognize the gathering dark clouds was the oncoming storm.

The draft was resurrected in 1940, the first time this nation had a peacetime draft. It was for men between 18 and 45. Those drafted had to serve a year. Then came December 7, 1941. After that if  you were drafted your term of service was the duration of hostilities plus six months. There was a laundry list of classifications. In spite of that by war’s end 50 million men had registered and 10 million were drafted. The anger following Pearl Harbor also caused   massive enlistments. But, as in WWI a large number of the troops were draftees. This pattern would continue.

As we moved into the Cold War the peacetime draft became a permanent component of military readiness. During the Korean War, from 1950 through 1953 1.5 million men were drafted into a two year hitch. Following the Armistice polling found 70 percent of Americans felt the draft was handled fairly.

The draft became a normal right of passage for American men. This acceptance continued into the Sixties. The draft also kept up a steady stream of enlistees to avoid the draft. People saw this as a way to get a better MOS and better postings. I saw this phenomenon myself among my friends when I was eligible.

Then came Vietnam.

During the peacetime draft deferments had exploded. These were designed to deal with more draft eligible men than were required. Deferments were also worked by lobbyists to protect certain segments of the population their employers wanted safe. These deferments were also the seeds of the drafts end.

As we slid into the Vietnam quagmire the grunts in the field were more and more those without the ability to get a deferment or avoid military service altogether. As the draft exploded with troop increases, men enlisted in service branches or specialties hoping to reduce or avoid their chances of combat. As the war heated up the burgeoning Anti-War movement grew.

It started with women and draft age men who were seeing Vietnam as the pointless, destructive political proxy battle between the U.S., Soviet Union and China it was. Even those who had deferments joined in draft resistance. Every American male of draft age was required to carry a draft card with classification on it. In the growing demonstrations these cards were burned as a show of defiance.

Many with moral issues over the war that weren’t recognized for Conscientious Objector status left the country. Others, to avoid Vietnam, joined the Reserves or National Guard. That was a good bet as only about 15,000 were deployed. Some of those were ones who missed too many weekends. The three TV networks led the news every night with Vietnam bringing the horrors of war into America’s living room. Daily inflated body counts of the Cong and a recitation of  number of U.S. casualties were reported on screen by Cronkite and the rest of Murrow’s boys. This was war the way America had never seen it.

Deferments were abused. People with the money became professional students. The not so spiritual went to seminary. The one’s whose family had connections found deferments because of the ability to apply political pressure on local Draft Boards. One thing that angered many who were most vulnerable to the draft were the ones who had the deferments protesting in favor of the war. Mitt Romney, among others, come to mind.

Vietnam split the nation in ways not seen since a century before. Like the Civil War families were split. WWII and Korean veterans despised the protesters. Between the Civil Rights battles and the massive anti war actions America was teetering on the edge of chaos. The chasm was society wide becoming an us versus them mindset. Anger and contempt spread like a virus wending it’s way into the very fabric of what we were as a nation. The shockwaves still rumble  in the background.

As the war dragged on draftees became more minority and poor white. Everyone knew a kid in the area who was in Nam. They’d gone to Highschool with their kids. Dated their daughter. Delivered the paper. Pumped the gas into the Chevy. Protests grew larger and larger bringing the draft’s inequalities to the arguments. A growing number were demanding an exit from and an answer to why we were in Vietnam.  Reported atrocities by troops forced even supporters to wonder what the hell were we doing there.

Support in Middle America began to evaporate. Nearly every neighborhood had a coffin come home or knew a family it happened to. Americans were feeling the pain and horror as the casualties came home. The war was being seen by voters as a travesty. Opposition mounted.  LBJ was driven out of office as peace talks collapsed. Nixon ran and won as the one to end the war. In early 1972 Nixon faced the political realities of widespread opposition to the draft by a majority of Americans as he ceased sending draftees to combat.

In 1971, there was a Senate filibuster to defeat an extension to the draft or end the draft altogether in an attempt to force an end to the war. After a bitter fight in the Senate it failed. The Senate was feeling the heat from their constituents. There was a move to investigate the idea of an all volunteer military. In an attempt to increase enlistments pay was increased and the Army started running TV ads. In December 1972 the last of those born in 1952 were drafted. Secretary of Defense Mel Laird ended the use of the draft. The draft lottery continued through 1975 in case it was needed.

Since 1980 all American men and green card holders between 18 and 25 must register with the Selective Service. Every soldier since  December 1972 has been a volunteer.

The reasons people volunteer is as varied as they are. Those with limited futures enlist for a trade and maybe college later. Opportunity is a driving reason for men and women. Many join out of a sense of patriotism, wanting to serve their country. The military has become the most integrated segment of American society. Women are now fully members of their chosen branch of service. The Armed Forces are a ticket to a better life for many who looked at the ride from behind the gates..

The all volunteer military has had unintended consequences.

Since the end of conscription only 0.5 percent of the American citizenry has served in the Armed Forces. In the mid 1970s, 70 percent of Congress were veterans. Now it’s 18 percent. And few of them have children serving. Thus we have a Congress making decisions about projection of military power with no understanding of what being in our military means. The sacrifice of the families during deployments and the realities of combat are foreign to them.

We have the most professional, best trained military on the planet. It’s a force manned by dedicated American warriors the likes of the world has never seen. Many of those in uniform are second or third generation soldiers. Along the way we’ve lost the idea of the citizen soldier who serves as needed then returns to civilian life.

With the meager numbers of those taking on the burden of protecting us we now have two sets of citizens. Those who’ve served and those who haven’t. We see it in so many not understanding what has been endured. Some of the self absorbed feel the military is for losers who can’t cut it in the “real” world. A lot of the public’s idea of supporting our troops is a magnet on their mini van.

With so few serving we’re seeing a disconnect between realities. During WWII most of America’s production was war related. Food stuffs, gasoline and consumer products were rationed. Everyone knew someone or a family of a soldier in Europe or the Pacific. During Vietnam we saw the same street level knowledge of the reality of war. Defense ate up 45% of the Federal budget. Today, defense cost is around 20 percent.

The echoes of Vietnam are still rumbling through the American Dream like demented aftershocks. Even today politicians are terrified of voting against a military adventure for fear they’ll be seen as weak on Defense. Those fears extend to the bloated Defense budget for the same reasons. I really can’t recall budget fights over it since the early 70s.

Since the liberal wing of the Democratic Party was at the forefront of opposition to Vietnam, the Party has never quite been able to shake the perception of being weak on military matters. It doesn’t help the Republicans cudgel the Dems on that at every opportunity. Everyone votes to support the action du jour. Because of this we’ve had interventions over and over since 1975. Here are a few. Beirut twice. Grenada. The raid on Tripoli. Panama. The Gulf War. Somalia. Haiti. Bosnia. Kosovo. Then Iraq and Afghanistan.

A lot of these were attempts to show we were over our Vietnam hangover by flexing our muscles. We are striding the world unrestrained because without involvement or sacrifice by society there is no cry of why. No one to say enough.

We no longer see the effects of combat affecting America in in the extensive ways we saw in the past. War for Americans is shaped by movies and video games. We see reports of drone strikes on the news. We are told of the cutting edge technology used by our troops.

The Hollywood Special Ops are on the big screen achieving a successful mission with single minded skill is an entertainment staple. People have lost touch with the horror of war. An IED going off. Suicide bombers breaching the perimeter. An RPG downing a Helicopter.  The endless wars we’ve been in for the better part of this century are relegated to the back pages as a candidate’s emails are all over the front page. Our troops doing their mission simply don’t affect day to day life. There is no form of national sacrifice.

Our leaders who’ve never served a day continually beat the drums of war. Casually calling for boots on the ground. They seem to forget in their rhetoric the young men and women they put in harm’s way are wearing those boots. Their constituents, removed as they are from service themselves, cheer on intervention as a get tough display of American might. Anyone calling for caution and use of force as a last resort are considered Un American. We have forgotten as a nation what war is.

We have forgotten we sent our forces to war in 2002-3 without enough body armor or armored vehicles. Those who made the decisions were those who never served. We have a President who conflates reckless military actions with no policy in place as showing the world we’re the tough guy sitting alone in the bar. The guy others avoid because no one knows what will set him off.

For the good of the nation, to end bellicose use of power, there is something we need to do. We need to bring back the draft. Yep, I said it.

We can’t continue to expect so few to serve bearing the burden. When the US geared up and invaded Afghanistan and Iraq Active Duty, Reserves and the Guard were deployed. We didn’t have a standing Army large enough for these missions and fulfill our other commitments. For years we kept redeploying those troops. Over and over. Regime change became the new war to end all wars.

We are falling into being a nation with a professional soldier segment of society. In other places like South America and Africa we’ve seen that seldom ends well. I’m not saying the U.S. is ripe for a coup but who knows what the future holds. Thankfully the tradition and idea of civilian control over our Armed Forces runs deep in our collective national psyche.

Had there been a draft when we staggered into Afghanistan and Iraq, with the consequences shared by society as a whole, would these wars still be going on after 15 years? Would there be politicians brave enough to even consider unilateral military action in Iran or Syria? If there was any kind of shared sacrifice would we blithely skip down the yellow brick road to misadventure after misadventure?

This century’s wars have seen unprecedented tax cuts as conflict ramps up. Throughout our history that never happened. We are coddled and isolated from the effects of war. Our leaders bleat about the treatment of veterans as they gut programs for them. It’s far past time for this to stop.

Let’s bring back the draft. This time around we can do it fairly. If you’re over 18 you are drafted. Only a few deferments for absolutely necessary occupations or extreme, well-vetted hardship. Or perhaps the Israeli model of  mandatory service. Everyone 18 and over, both men and women, are required to serve in the defense forces.

The only exemptions are for mental health, physical health and having a criminal record. With some tweaks we can adapt this for American use. Either serve in the military or public service. Everyone has to do it. Rich. Poor. Men. Women. All races and creeds.

If we as a nation want to fight a war, everyone must share in the costs. Maybe then we’ll stop using the sword as the first response. Maybe the politicians will hesitate before committing the blood sacrifice of our youth.  Once more we’ll have the citizen soldier. Once more we’ll see the shared experiences that bind a nation together.

Maybe then.