On the Draft

In Pursuit of Equity: Who Serves When Not All Serve? Service, Burke Marshall, Chairman

Report of the President's National Advisory Commission on Selective
U.S. Government Printing Office, 219 pp., $1.50

The Wrong Man in Uniform

by Bruce K. Chapman
Trident, 143 pp., $3.95

At no time in its history has the draft been opposed, evaded, defied, studied, and pronounced upon with such energy and persistence as it is today. We now have the report of a Presidential commission proposing extensive reforms, another report by a Congressional commission endorsing most of the present system, and a book presenting the case for replacing the draft altogether by a voluntary army. Yet none of these proposals really deals with the reason why the draft is now a hot political issue: the war in Vietnam.

This war, more than most wars in American history, remains unpopular even with many who do not oppose it. Yet the Administration has been able to wage the war without serious political challenge, in part because of the power to conscript. Many young Americans, still raised to value personal liberty and democratic consent, feel forced by the draft to contribute to a war which they oppose and which is certainly not of their making or liking. Among men of draft age particularly, there is a mood of anger, resistance, and cynicism, and a rapid decline of the draft’s legitimacy. And for many left or liberal “doves,” opposition to the war and opposition to the draft have become synonymous.

But for a much larger group, including Republicans and even some hawks, the war has served only to make visible the draft’s inequities. Even now with over 400,000 American troops in Vietnam, the military needs—indeed, can use—only a minority of those eligible for the draft. Thus some men are conscripted for combat, while the majority remain free. Among men who are qualified—as the Marshall Commission points out—those who are white, middle class, and college-educated are likely to escape the mud and death in Southeast Asia, while those who are black, poor, and “unsuitable” for college die on battlefields at a rate double that of their proportion in the population. The economic and social biases of the draft seemed tolerable during cold war; to diverse groups, for various reasons, they are a disgrace during hot war.

SPEAKING WITH A TRADITIONAL American outrage about bumbling and inequality, Bruce K. Chapman documents in The Wrong Man in Uniform, current complaints about the Selective Service System. Many abuses arise in the name of local autonomy. The bureaucratic jungle described by Chapman consists of over four thousand local draft boards which decide the fate of millions according to obscure criteria. Chapman finds great variation, from state to state, in the proportion of men who are classified as I-F or who are, for a variety of reasons, deferred from serving. In one state, married men are vulnerable; elsewhere they are not. Peace Corps volunteers are deferred in New York, but drafted in Kansas. Illinois gives special consideration to mortuary trainees, but not Alabama. The system as a whole creaks with age, inbreeding, and inefficiency. Draft board members, the Marshall Commission documents, are all male, mostly veterans and white-collar workers, and virtually all white—only 1.3 per cent are Negro. Twenty-two…

This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $99.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

One-Week Access — $4.99

Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.