By Lynn Ashby 8 Nov. 2010
Defense Secretary Robert Gates recently addressed students at Duke University beginning with: “It’s a relief to be back on a university campus and not have to worry about football. The first fall I was President of Texas A&M, I had to fire a longtime football coach. I told the media at the time that I had overthrown the governments of medium-sized countries with less controversy.”
Then the former Aggie Prez got to his newest controversy: since our best and our brightest won’t join the military, should we bring back the draft? This is not an empty threat. New York Rep. Charles Rangel, in making his fifth attempt to restore the military draft, bemoaned America’s “total indifference to the suffering and loss of life” of our troops. “So few families have a stake in the war,” he said, “which is being fought by other people’s children.” Rangel, who has his own ethics problems, knows more about war than most of his colleagues: he received the Bronze Star for heroism in combat in Korea, plus the Purple Heart.
But back to Gates’ address. He noted that, from America’s founding until the end of World War II, this country maintained small standing armies that would be filled out with mass conscription in the case of war. In the late 1930s, even as World War II loomed, the U.S. Army ranked 17th in the world in size, right behind Romania. The Cold War ended that traditional downsizing when America retained a large, permanent military by continuing to rely on the draft.
With the end of military conscription in 1973, the makeup of the military changed. Of roughly 750 classmates in the Princeton University class of 1956, with the draft in place, more than 400 went on to serve in the military. By 2004, only nine Princeton grads put on a uniform. That same year of 1956, more than 1,000 cadets were trained by Stanford University’s ROTC program. In 1968 students burned down the ROTC building, and today there is no ROTC program at Stanford.
A recent survey of Harvard’s Class of ’70 found that only 56 members had served in the military, just two in Vietnam. However, less than half responded to that survey. Incidentally, one Harvard grad who went to Vietnam, as an enlisted man, was Al Gore. To be fair, approximately Harvard 1,200 alumni have been killed in war, and 16 former students earned the Medal of Honor.
“Institutions that used to send hundreds of graduates into the armed forces now struggle to commission a handful of officers every year,” Gates said. In 1969 Columbia, Harvard, Yale, Brown, Dartmouth and several other schools banned the ROTC programs from their campuses because the faculty opposed the Vietnam War. Then they opposed Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. That policy seems to be fading, so the profs will have to come up with yet another reason to ban the ROTC – all the while begging for Defense Dept. grants. The ban in Cambridge was particularly ironic because the “Harvard Regiment” was mustered in January 1916, with more than 1,000 student members that became the very first unit of the Army’s new Reserve Officers Training Corps.
Where does the military get its officers these days? The usual: the South and the Mountain West. The state of Alabama, with a population of less than 5 million, hosts 10 Army ROTC programs. The Los Angeles metro area, population over 12 million, has four. The Chicago metro area, population 9 million, has three.
The military doesn’t want to restore conscription. But the flip side of this all-volunteer, standing armed forces is a division between the military and the civilians. A bird colonel in Afghanistan recently said, “A decade of combat has made us very hard. It has made us an incredibly strong Army. I believe we do have a warrior class in this country.” No one wants a warrior class. A career Army officer once told me that his ROTC-trained soldiers were a constant flow of undisciplined civilians whose short-term, loose attitude was something the regular Army needed.
With a draft, we would put every 19-year-old man and woman (yes, woman – equal rights) on the federal payroll, and we’re already broke. Look who the Pentagon would draw from: 17 to 24 year olds of whom about 75 percent are ineligible to serve due to health and weight problems, i.e., they’re too fat to fight.
The military response to 9/11 meant that, for the first time in a century, America is fighting two long wars — indeed, the longest in American history – without conscription. But few of us are affected: none of our major wars has been fought with a smaller percentage of this country’s citizens in uniform full-time — roughly 2.4 million active and reserve service members out of a country of over 300 million, less than one percent. Do you have a single family member in uniform? Know anyone at all who didn’t come back?
Still, Texas has a dog in this fight. Almost 500 young Texans have now been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. The first U.S. military death — nearly nine years ago — was a soldier from near San Antonio. The 1,000th killed in Afghanistan was Marine Cpl. Jacob C. Leicht of near Kerrville. In recent months, an average of one Texan per week has been killed in the wars.
When President James Madison proposed conscription for the War of 1812, New Hampshire’s Daniel Webster rose on the House floor to ask: “Where is it written in the Constitution, in what article or section is it contained, that you may take children from their parents, and parents from their children, and compel them to fight the battles of any war in which the folly or wickedness of government may engage it?”
Excuse me, Rep. Webster, it’s right there in the preamble: “…provide for the common defense…” although right now our defenders are not very common.
Ashby is draft dodging at email@example.com