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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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.