As you know, the hot topic of conversation around the office water cooler is that Swiss voters have chosen to retain their military draft. No? Maybe I’m hanging out at the wrong water cooler, after all, water and vodka do look the same. What happened, and why we should care, is that an overwhelming majority, 73 percent, of Swiss voters chose to keep requiring part-time service from each male citizen between the ages of 18 to 34. Women may serve voluntarily. It was the third such vote in 25 years and the majority keeps growing. Pretty soon it will be unanimous.
In a nation of eight million people, about 20,000 soldiers a year attend basic training for 18 to 21 weeks, then keep their uniforms and weapons at home to be ready for rapid mobilization and tours of duty. The Swiss government was all for retaining the draft, perhaps because the army’s reserves now stand at 155,000, down from about 625,000 just over a half-century ago. They don’t seem to need a navy.
This move comes at a time when most European nations and the United States are down-sizing their forces, although in Europe’s case there is not much left to downsize, and they are quite willing to fight to the last American. We spend more on our defense forces than the next 22 nations combined — some studies report more than the rest of the world combined. As an example, the British Army is about half the size of the U.S. Marine Corps.
Yet there are reputable voices that think we should restore the military draft. In June of last year, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the former commander of international forces in Afghanistan and source for Rolling Stone, called for reinstating the draft. “I think if a nation goes to war, every town, every city needs to be at risk,” he said at the Aspen Ideas Festival. “You make that decision and everybody has skin in the game.” He got a standing ovation, although it is not clear how many in his audience were draft bait. Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., has made several attempts to reinstitute the draft on the grounds that a small fraction is bearing a disproportionate burden in fighting the nation’s wars. But his bills die. Earlier this year, Rangel — who earned a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star for Valor after volunteering for the Army during the Korean War — introduced another bring-back-the-draft bill that also would require women to register. “Women have proven that they can do the very same tasks, military and non-military, that men can.”
We have had a military draft during several of our wars, but the Vietnam War left bad feelings about conscripting our young men, so we dropped it. This year marks the 40th anniversary since the draft ended, which brings us to Dwight Elliott Stone, then an apprentice plumber from California, who became the last draftee to be inducted. He served about 17 months and never had to go overseas. The draft during that time became a joke, with various ways to avoid going to war. Joining the National Guard or Air National Guard was one, staying in school was another: Harvard College, which had lost 691 alumni in World War II, lost a total of 12 men in Vietnam from the classes of 1962 through 1972 combined. Those classes at Princeton lost six, at MIT two. Then there was that super-hawk Dick Cheney, who got five deferments, saying he had “other priorities,” such as staying alive. Bill Clinton somehow weaseled his way out of uniform. I cleverly dodged the Army draft by joining the Marines, but the only civilian jobs my military experience prepared me for was that as a postal carrier walking for hours in all sorts of bad weather or becoming a Mafia hit man.
Bringing back the draft would cause several problems. We are already down-sizing the military, sending thousands of troops into a job market that is already weak. Where will they go? What will they do? If you are all for a smaller government and lower taxes, how are we going to train, feed, lodge and pay several million more people? What’s the cost of more M-1 Abrams tanks, more jet fighters and some more aircraft carriers? (We have 11 aircraft carriers. No other navy has more than one.) All those unneeded and unwanted military bases the Pentagon is trying to close will have to stay open. But we would save money on recruiting.
Studies show that three out of four American men of draft age are unfit for military duty – too fat mostly, drugs and/or a criminal record. In the current political climate, both sexes would go. What would that do to the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders? There is also the overhead. At the height of WW II in 1945, about 2,000 generals and admirals led a total of 12 million citizens in uniform. Today, we have about 900 generals and admirals and 1.4 million troops. Each top officer requires an office, aides, car, a chauffeur and afterwards a hefty pension.
Our current all-volunteer force is made up of generally better people. Not much fragging at last report. Nearly all of today’s enlisted men and women have at least a high school diploma. Many are college graduates as are virtually all officers. The all-volunteer military has consistently demonstrated its ability from Desert Storm to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. No, we don’t want to copy the Swiss. The idea of the government issuing all our young men and women a rifle or howitzer to take home and put in their closet rather boggles the mind, but it would cut down on the population of Chicago. Remember that line from “The Third Man”: “In Switzerland they had brotherly love — they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.” And a good army knife.
. Ashby is cannon fodder at firstname.lastname@example.org