A few years ago I received an odd letter from a stranger. He said that he had read my capsule biography in Contemporary Authors and noticed it made no mention of military service in the Vietnam War. I had been of the right age to serve. Why hadn't I been drafted? There was no explanation of why the writer was interested in me, or whether he regularly scanned reference books for information about the military histories of little-known authors. He said nothing about himself. The letter was brief and entirely to the point.
In answering his somewhat aggressive question, I said truthfully that I had no idea why I had not been drafted. I had been ordered to report for a physical in 1965 but was immediately granted an occupational deferment. I was twenty-three and had just accepted a job teaching composition at the University of Hawaii. My deferment lapsed three years and two jobs later, at the height of the war, after which I was classified 1-A with eight more years of eligibility according to the law then in force. My draft board always knew where I was, yet it never bothered me again. In 1973 the draft ceased to operate, and, like most other young American males, I heaved a sigh of relief.
I could have said a great deal more, but how much information does one owe a stranger who writes out of the blue--especially a stranger who presumably supported the Vietnam War and suspects (correctly) that his addressee was opposed to it? I could have told him I still have the draft card my local board sent me after I registered at the age of eighteen, complete with a nine-digit number and an immature but recognizable version of my signature. I could have told him that in 1967, along with an unknown number of other draft-eligible men spending the summer in Europe, I signed a pledge saying that if called, I would refuse to be inducted as long as the Vietnam War continued. I could have told him that none of my three brothers and hardly any of my friends were drafted either. I could have told him to get lost.
Like most people my age, I had thought very little about this ancient history for almost thirty years when, as war against Saddam Hussein began to seem probable in the fall of 2002, a scattering of liberal Congressmen and columnists called for restoring the draft in order, ostensibly, to distribute the potential burden of combat more equitably. Most were men in their sixties or seventies who had served in earlier wars. One of them was Representative Charles Rangel, a Korean War veteran who noted that few members of the House or Senate had children of their own in the armed forces. As he explained in a New York Times op-ed column:
Service in our nation's armed forces is no longer a common experience. A disproportionate number of the poor and members of minority groups make up the enlisted ranks of the military, while the most privileged Americans are underrepresented or absent. We need to return to the tradition of the citizen soldier--with alternative national service for those who cannot serve because of physical limitations or reasons of conscience. This plea aroused momentary attention but no immediate action. The Pentagon announced that the all-volunteer forces were working fine, while most commentators dismissed what they saw as a transparent ploy to make waging war prohibitively difficult.
Because young men subject to the draft had provided such a reservoir of antiwar opinion during the Vietnam era, proponents seemed to calculate that reviving the eligibility of their sons today would make almost any armed conflict politically impossible. Rangel hinted as much in his article. Adding their daughters to the mixture--a possibility about which he was silent--would create even greater havoc with public opinion. Women have never been subject to conscription in the United States. When the Carter administration asked Congress to reinstate registration (but not the draft itself) in 1980, it proposed requiring both sexes to comply. Congress refused to go along, and since that time men alone have had to register when they reach the age of eighteen. This durable form of sex discrimination would probably not survive judicial review if it ever became consequential again. The result would be upwards of four million new recruits, male and female, every year--a number that would wreak chaos on the Defense Department, which currently manages an active-duty force of 1.4 million uniformed personnel and about half as many civilian employees. Even in the peak year of the Vietnam War draft, 1966, the armed forces inducted only 343,000 men, a fraction of those eligible.
Having threatened indiscriminate jeopardy for the young, those who were proposing a new draft not surprisingly found that their natural audience, the peace movement, had minimal interest in it, and even before the war in Iraq began, it fell back out of public consciousness.
As James c. Miller, III, a University of Virginia economist and future director of the Office of Management and Budget, wrote in 1968, "The volunteer army is an issue that cuts across political and foreign-policy lines; it counts among its supporters 'hawks' and 'doves,' liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans." He added presciently, "It is an issue that is coming to the fore of American life."
Any serious proposal to restore conscription thirty years after its suspension would dramatically expose splits not just between but among liberals and conservatives. People who in a former life had supported the Vietnam War would find themselves on both sides, grouped in each case with people who had passionately opposed it. Advocates of conscription usually argue, like Rangel, that equity demands universal liability to military service; that the volunteer force disproportionately (though not predominantly) attracts the poor and the nonwhite; and that the upper middle class should not be permitted to avoid the dangers faced by members of the enlisted ranks in time of war. Of course, the conscript army as it existed in the 1960s was vulnerable to precisely the same charges--witness my deferment and that of my brothers. Many of the criticisms now made of the volunteer army are nearly identical to those formerly made of the draft. In order to avoid such inequalities, a new draft would presumably offer few deferments of any kind. For purists, universal liability would mean universal service. More likely, a lottery system would reduce the actual recruits to a manageable number. In order for the armed forces to mirror American society with any degree of fidelity, volunteering for the enlisted ranks would probably have to be forbidden, in which case a professional officer corps would preside over an...