Calls for military draft promote illusion of equality
NEW YORK — No idea excites self-styled reformers, whether liberal or conservative, more than calls to revive the military draft. In the run-up to the invasion of Iraq last year, Rep. Charles Rangel (D) of New York lobbied for conscription. Last week, it was Sen. Chuck Hagel (R) of Nebraska. Both contend that a draft would spread the burden of sacrifice more justly than our all-volunteer armed forces and make jaded Americans own up to the brutal toll war exacts.
Those seduced by Senator Hagel's call should take note of how deep opposition to the draft has been throughout US history. The idea certainly appeals to Americans' traditional concern for equal treatment. But it often romanticizes the extent to which conscription has been equitable in practice.
Aversion to the draft dates to the Revolutionary War. The Minute Men needed no official orders to rebel against British rule. But the reliance on volunteers sometimes crippled the Continental Army, as in the winter of 1776, when Tom Paine disparaged the "summer soldier and the sunshine patriot."
But although Gen. George Washington wanted national conscription, the Continental Congress denied his request. The select states that did draft soldiers let well-born conscripts hire replacements, who were usually poor and jobless. Military service hardly forged the bond that today's draft advocates imagine.
A decade later, the Constitution's framers broke with European practice and omitted from the founding document any reference to conscription - conferring on Congress alone the power to "raise and support armies." A draft would "stretch the strings of government too violently," argued Virginia's delegate Edmund Randolph. Even when war came, in 1812, Congress refused to allow what Rep. Daniel Webster of New Hampshire warned would amount to "Napoleonic despotism," despite President James Madison's pleas for a draft.
The Civil War did see limited use of the draft by the Union following a drop in enlistment. But again, the policy was hardly fair. Because draftees could escape service for $300, then a hefty sum, critics charged that the conflict had become "a rich man's war but a poor man's fight." Ferocious antidraft riots in New York City killed more than 100 people in July 1863.
Although the World War I draft law prohibited hiring substitutes, the inherent coerciveness of the policy still sparked enormous dissent. An estimated 3 million young men refused to register, and of those called up, 12 percent either didn't report or deserted. Civil libertarians even went to court to argue that the draft violated the 13th Amendment ban on involuntary servitude, though they lost before the Supreme Court.
Even Franklin Roosevelt faced hostility in trying to impose a draft as World War II neared. Sen. Arthur Vandenberg (R) of Michigan accused the president of "tearing up 150 years of American history and tradition, in which none but volunteers have entered the peacetime Armies and Navies." And although FDR prevailed, the public expected that peace would end the draft, as it did after World War I. Indeed, in 1947, President Harry Truman proclaimed his "earnest desire of placing our Army and Navy on an entirely volunteer basis." Only after the "red scare" set in did Truman allow the unprecedented peacetime draft to continue.
Until Vietnam. By 1969, antiwar sentiment reached record highs, with critics charging, among other complaints, that the jerry-built system of deferments forced the lower classes to face combat disproportionately. Entering the presidency, Richard Nixon endorsed draft reform as a means to quiet the movement. He forced into retirement Maj. Gen. Lewis B. Hershey, the head of the Selective Service who opposed draft reform, and created a lottery to make the draft fairer. Ultimately, he put in place today's all-volunteer force.
Since then, every deployment of US forces has triggered high-minded calls to revive the draft, invariably in the name of fairness. But conscription in the US has never been a model of fairness. Indeed, if 225 years of skepticism toward the draft offer any lesson, it's that entrusting our defense to soldiers who actually want to fight is, ultimately, the fairest way to keep the peace.
• David Greenberg is the author of 'Nixon's Shadow: The History of an Image.' He teaches history at Yale University.