The Magazine

An Army of 50 Million?

The surpassingly dishonest draft debate.

Dec 11, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 13 • By WINSTON GROOM
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One of the most cynical political tricks played in the 2004 presidential campaign was the false rumor, started by Democrats, that if George W. Bush was reelected, he secretly planned to reinstate the military draft. Clearly, this was aimed at striking fear into the American student population and their frightened mothers, in order to mobilize them to go out and vote for the antiwar candidate, John Kerry.

Of course there was no truth to the Bush draft rumor, which nevertheless whipped across the Internet, and then onto cable news talk shows and into newspaper columns. Fact was, at the time, there were two bills before Congress to restore the draft, but both were sponsored by liberal Democrats--Charles Rangel in the House and Ernest "Fritz" Hollings in the Senate. No Republicans supported them, and certainly not the Bush administration.

Rangel had started on his project a year earlier, when he made a series of baseless charges to the media claiming that the U.S. military was filled with a disproportionate number of blacks and Hispanics who were being sent overseas to die in Iraq while white youths were safe in their schools and colleges. When all statistics proved this assumption false, Rangel changed his tune and proclaimed that the draft should be renewed, coupled with a requirement of universal national service, so that all draft-age citizens would be required "to serve their country"--a laudable notion on its face, but a screwball idea from a practical point of view.

When it failed to push Kerry over the top, the idea looked like it had died the quiet death that it deserved. Instead, Rangel has succeeded in stirring the whole thing up again--this time as incoming chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. Many of Rangel's own party view his idea of renewed conscription with a wary eye, including Democratic speaker-designate Nancy Pelosi, who drolly characterized it as "a way to make a point" about social inequality.

Politics aside, let's look at why so-called "universal military service" is a nutty idea: Presently there are about 50 million American men and women of draft age, between 18 and 28, with about 5 million more reaching draft age every year. (One must assume that women would be drafted equally with the men; in these times, how could they not be?) Now just ask yourselves: What on earth would the U.S. military do with all these people? They would all have to be housed, fed, clothed, transported, schooled, counseled, medically cared for--and you'd have to pay them something, wouldn't you? Otherwise they'd be slaves. Those costs alone would dwarf all the current entitlement programs in America.

And how could they even be trained and supplied? (At the very peak of World War II, the largest war in history, the U.S. military had about 16 million service men and women, and our relative taxes were higher than they had ever been.) And what about this: Presently there aren't nearly enough training tools--tanks and other military vehicles, planes, ships, artillery pieces, missiles, rifles and other weapons, communications devices, etc., let alone instructors--to possibly begin to instruct and equip all those millions of people in the armed forces.

So an additional taxpayer expense would, by necessity, be to multiply all of our present military bases (just when we're trying to get rid of as many of these dinosaurs as possible) as well as to multiply all the above-mentioned equipment by about 500 percent. And we would go positively broke doing it, just as the Russians did.

Even assuming this vast horde of 50 million--or let's just say half of that, 25 million, by the time you've weeded out people for one reason or another--were all uniformed, trained, and ready to go fight, the question then becomes: Where is it they would go, and with whom would they fight?

Fortunately, the threat of huge global land conflicts such as World War II, or some great war in Europe with the Soviet Union or in Asia against Communist China, has faded into oblivion. As it did, military planners tailored our fighting forces to the all-volunteer professional military we have today.

Therefore, we would be left with this: Millions of newly drafted servicemen and women, languishing around U.S. bases, grousing about their two years of conscripted service, instead of being able to educate themselves or find useful and productive jobs.

Rangel and his followers suggest that maybe those who didn't want to fight could be put in some sort of Civilian Service Corps. And what exactly would they do? Maybe they would come out and mow my lawn, but I doubt it.

Possibly what these draft-renewal advocates have in mind, instead of the ridiculous notion of enlisting everybody of draft age, is some kind of return to the old end-of-the-Vietnam-war-era "draft lottery." Under this system, males (and now presumably females, too) upon reaching the age of 18 would each get a number and the highest numbers would be the only ones conscripted, as the military's needs dictated. But that would even be worse. To muster the 1.5 million active servicemen now on duty, you would only be conscripting about one percent of those draftees of eligible age. Some "universal service" that is!

And wouldn't those million or two young folks whose luck was to find themselves conscripted resent being dragooned into the military while the vast majority of their friends or classmates got the chance to go on with their lives and get ahead of them? What kind of soldiers, sailors, airmen, or Marines would they make? Especially since the two years of active duty Rangel is calling for would scarcely afford enough time to acquire the raw basics of the new and complicated military science.

Any way you look at it, if there is a renewed draft, the only fair and sensible way will be to go ahead and conscript everybody who is physically and mentally eligible. And then we, the American people, will be up to our eyeballs in superfluous and ineffectual military personnel at a stupendous and wasteful cost to the taxpayers--and to achieve what? Forced patriotism? Social engineering?

The U.S. military's mission has changed dramatically. I served as an officer in Vietnam, 1966-67, mostly with the First Brigade of the Fourth Infantry Division (the very same brigade that finally captured Saddam Hussein, I'm proud to say). But one thing I learned was that too many of the drafted soldiers did not perform as well as those who had volunteered. Quite a few of them didn't want to be there, and their attitudes showed it; a lot of them wound up in the stockade. Their hearts just weren't in it--and who could blame them? They would likely have fought hard and well in a "popular war" such as World War II, but Vietnam wasn't popular, and most felt they had been victims of the bad luck of the draw.

What has happened since World War II, Korea, and Vietnam is that the military has become highly technical and specialized. The insides of a Vietnam-era tank looked pretty much like an enclosed bulldozer. Today, the insides of our main battle tank look like the control room of the Starship Enterprise, and it takes years of specialized training to work the thing properly. Same goes for the complicated machinery of "smart bombs," missiles, and electronics in the Navy and Air Force. And just about the time our new conscripts finally got the hang of it, their obligation would be up and we'd have to start all over again.

The American public apparently is not long willing to accept high battle casualties, and the only way to achieve this in modern combat is through the use of highly sophisticated weapons that take years to learn how to operate efficiently. Our present-day specialists are volunteers in an all-voluntary military. Many, if not most, expect to make a career out of it, and are willing to spend a good part of their lives to learn their trade. They don't want or need to be turned into anybody's political football. Not a single senior officer presently serving in the U.S. military thinks a return to the draft would be anything but a wasteful disaster.

Yes, if you begin drafting people into the armed forces again, you can probably train them to shoot a rifle, salute, march and drill, load an artillery piece, or swab the deck of a ship, just like in the old days. But the old days are gone. You won't get the dedication and special ability of the professionals we already have. What you will get instead is a gigantic, useless mob of half-trained malcontents whose skills are half-a-century outdated. The world already has too many militaries like that.

Winston Groom is the author of Forrest Gump and 14 other books, including four military histories.