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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 per cent of board members are over seventy years old; the average age is fifty-eight. Although Congress intended that Selective Service be controlled by civilians, its top officials are heavily military in orientation and training.

Recently, the system has begun to stumble over its own manipulations. A year ago, General Hershey claimed that the I-A pool would be exhausted shortly, and that, therefore, some students would have to lose their deferments. Draft boards began demanding reports on class standings, and hundreds of thousands of students rushed to take the Selective Service qualification test. Some were reclassified; thousands enlisted; thousands more engaged in anti-draft and “anti-ranking” sit-ins. But no manpower crisis did appear; by June, 1966, it was clear that Selective Service had simply overestimated its needs by more than a third! According to Chapman, last Spring’s crisis was the result of the temporary loss—in the bureaucratic “pipelines”—of 500,000 men classified I-A. Whether this is so or not, the entire sequence of events dramatized the draft’s power to touch even the university sanctuary. General Hershey may have meant to relieve political pressure by publicizing the potential vulnerability of students. But the effect was to provoke students into opposition to the draft—despite the fact that they have been among its chief beneficiaries.

A reader of Chapman’s book concludes, correctly, that the present Selective Service System creates a great many absurd inequities because of decentralization as well as the deferment system itself; that it creates enormous uncertainty and unnecessary anxiety for millions; and that it is, moreover, inefficient from the military point of view, since it fails to recruit men with a stable commitment to service.

WHAT CHAPMAN and similar critics miss is that the Selective Service System is designed this way—its “flaws” are not accidental, but viewed by its administrators as necessary to its effective operation. For, over the years, General Hershey has evolved the idea that Selective Service functions not primarily for the “delivery of manpower for induction…. It is in dealing with the other millions of registrants that the System is heavily occupied, developing more effective human beings in the national interest.”* Occupational and student deferments, therefore, are tools to deal with the “ever-increasing problem of how to control the service of individuals who are not in the armed services.” In short, young men unfortunately desire to determine their own careers; such unreliable and unpredictable impulses can and must be disciplined and “channeled.” Selective Service describes the process:

Educators, scientists, engineers, and their professional organizations…have been convincing the American public that for the mentally qualified man there is a special order of patriotism other than service in uniform—that for the man having the capacity, dedicated service as a civilian in such fields as engineering, the sciences, and teaching constitutes the ultimate in their expression of patriotism. A large segment of the American public has been convinced that this is true….

It is in this atmosphere that the young man registers at age 18 and pressure begins to force his choice….

The psychological effect of this circumstantial climate depends upon the individual, his sense of good sportsmanship, his love of country and its way of life. He can obtain a sense of well-being and satisfaction that he is doing as a civilian what will help his country most….

In the less patriotic and more selfish individual it engenders a sense of fear, uncertainty and dissatisfaction which motivates him, nevertheless, in the same direction. He complains of the uncertainty which he must endure; he would like to be able to do as he pleases; he would appreciate a certain future with no prospect of military service or civilian contribution, but he complies with the needs of the national health, safety, or interest—or is denied deferment.

Throughout his career as a student, the pressure—the threat of loss of deferment—continues. It continues with equal intensity after graduation. His local board requires periodic reports to find out what he is up to. He is impelled to pursue his skill rather than embark upon some less important enterprise and is encouraged to apply his skill in an essential activity in the national interest. The loss of deferred status is the consequence for the individual who acquired the skill and either does not use it or uses it in a non-essential activity.

The psychology of granting wide choice under pressure to take action is the American or indirect way of achieving what is done by direction in foreign countries where choice is not permitted. [Italics added]

There it is—the lives of American men could not be better described. Are you in a state of perpetual worry about military service? Do you feel yourself pushed into a way of life against which your deeper impulses rebel? Would you rather be a poet than a graduate student in English, an organizer in the ghetto than a law student? Would you like to lumberjack or bum around Europe or “tune in and drop out” or just be free this year? Your anxieties and frustrations are not accidental; US government policy, as interpreted by General Hershey, creates them. And if you happen to rub your eyes and ask, “Tell me, again, what exactly are our objections to totalitarian collectivism?” the answer is really very simple: the American way is the indirect way.

SEVERAL YEARS AGO, some Republican congressmen began to sense the political potential in the inequitable, inefficient, and undemocratic Selective Service System, and to demand its abolition and replacement by a volunteer army. Similar proposals were urged by a few Democrats like Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin. Barry Goldwater suggested, during the election campaign of 1964, that a volunteer army was feasible. In response to these early stirrings, President Johnson ordered a study conducted by the Department of Defense. Never fully published, the Pentagon study argued essentially in defense of the present system and against a volunteer force, primarily because of the huge sums needed to hire an army of sufficient size.

But these arguments have not silenced an increasingly articulate and cohesive Republican campaign against conscription and for a volunteer army. Chapman, a leader in the “Progressive Republican” Ripon Society, has provided ammunition for several representatives such as Thomas Curtis and Donald Rumsfield, as Congress has moved toward a major debate on the draft this session. On this issue, liberal Republicans find common ground with Gold-water conservatives. Professor Milton Friedman, Goldwater’s economic advisor, judges that the price of a volunteer army would be substantially lower than Pentagon estimates; and he is supported by the economist Walter Oi, who prepared part of the Defense Department’s study. Friedman argues further that men in the armed forces support much of the real cost of the draft by a hidden “direct tax” on their labor, which they are forced to contribute at a price far below its true worth. The pay of an army private, Chapman asserts, is little more than that of a Rumanian peasant on a collective farm. Housing, especially for men with families, ranges from deplorable to insipid; post amenities are primitive; social life, rigid and sterile. Give men freedom to choose, pay them a decent wage (say, $5,000 as a minimum), improve their working conditions, offer fringe benefits—in short, apply the techniques of effective business practice—and you will produce an efficient, stable military work force at a socially acceptable cost, and remove a major source of compulsion from the lives of young men.

IN RESPONSE to this developing Republican position, to widespread criticism of the stand-pat Pentagon report, and to growing student protest, President Johnson recently appointed the “blue-ribbon” Commission headed by Burke Marshall to conduct still another study. The result is a recommendation which would essentially abolish General Hershey’s channeling system. So many young men turn eighteen every year (1,800,000 now and over 2 million by 1970), that student and occupational deferments are no longer needed to ensure adequate supplies of manpower in “essential” occupations. To deal with the problem of how to select the minority of available men needed for the military, the Marshall Commission proposes what amounts to a lottery. Their system of random selection is designed to make everybody feel a lot better: it will strike only a fraction of the young, even during a war as large as the present one; it will reduce the political problems of current inequities by drawing, with equal arbitrariness, from all races, areas, economic levels. At the same time, complaints about “uncertainty” can be eliminated by drafting younger men first who, in the view of the military, are more malleable anyway.

  1. *

    These and the following quotations are taken from the Selective Service Orientation Kit memo on “Channeling.” April, 1965, available from Chief, Public Information, Selective Service System, 1724 F Street, Washington, D.C. We are indebted to Jean Carper and Peter Henig for drawing our attention to these statements. More detailed analysis of “channeling” may be found in P. Henig, “On the Manpower Channelers,” New Left Notes, January 20, 1967; and in a forthcoming book on the draft by Jean Casper, (Bitter Greetings, Grossman).

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