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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.

The Commission proposes to centralize the selection system, replacing idiosyncratic local draft boards with computers that will apply uniform national standards to all registrants. In addition, the Commission recommends the creation of several hundred regional appeals boards, its members to be representative of “all elements of the public,” including women, and to serve for no longer than five-year terms. The Commission wants to see local boards function mainly to help registrants appeal their draft status (presumably those with hardship cases, or those wanting to avoid the draft by becoming career officers); it wants to make sure that the claims of conscientious objectors are handled expeditiously (in part, probably, because the present system can be used to stall the draft for up to two years); it wants to make sure that the public understands the working of a new, improved System. In short, the Marshall report would modernize Selective Service by making it more uniform and equitable, more impersonal in its selection, and more inclusive of a wide spectrum of society in its operation. It is a clean, almost surgical effort to eliminate the most laughable and disgusting particularities of the draft as we know it. Besides, it has the distinct virtue that most of its central proposals can be implemented by Presidential fiat and without awkward Congressional debate.

But the Marshall Commission Report implies no departure from the present goals and priorities of American society. It does not suggest how a country which devotes its public resources largely to war can deal with the fundamental problems of social inequality. Instead, it implies that military institutions can be used to patch over the effects of racism: thus, it wants the military to make special efforts to recruit and “rehabilitate” poor youths who are ordinarily rejected because they do not meet induction standards. All eighteen-year-old men would undergo physical, mental, and moral tests. “This universal testing,” the Commission comments, “would meet social as well as military needs.” In other words, draft registration can be used as a framework for a program of regimented social rehabilitation.

The Marshall Commission would seem to reduce government interference in the lives of young men by abolishing the privileged treatment now given to students and workers in certain occupations. But what will its impact be? The pressure now generated by America’s international posture—to coordinate individual lives and careers to plan “manpower utilization”—seems more irresistible than the Marshall commission can acknowledge. In the long run, it is unlikely that people will tolerate a system in which a fraction of the young make supreme sacrifices because they have lost a game of roulette. Waiting in the wings are proposals for vast programs of “national service,” in which youth will be “expected” to serve as police cadets, teachers, job corpsmen, peace corpsmen, and so on—if they are not inducted. The Commission wants to draw sharp distinctions between military service and “national service,” and seems to consider the latter politically impossible at present and of dubious constitutionality. But by reducing the vulnerability of many young men to military service, the Marshall proposal will make national service seem more desirable than ever to those who wring their hands at the individualism, the “lack of patriotism,” and the “privatism” of young people.

ONE OF THE MAIN HAND-WRINGERS, Margaret Mead, describes national service at work: “Every individual, including the physically handicapped, the mentally defective, the emotionally disturbed, the totally illiterate, would be registered, and every one of these, according to their needs or potentialities, would be assigned to types of rehabilitation, education, and different kind of service with different sorts of risks, benefits, and requirements.” Oddly, despite this description, national service advocates persist in calling the system “voluntary.” To deal with at least two-million new men annually (to say nothing of women), the system would require an enormous federal bureaucracy, fantastic expenditures for training and maintenance, and expansion of service opportunities beyond anything now imaginable. Besides, service is probably best rendered by those who freely give it.

Above all, national service—perhaps servitude is a more appropriate term—would mean an enormous jump in the degree of control by a central authority over the lives of Americans. Assignments to the military, to service, or to rehabilitation would finally be made not according to individual ability or interest, but by a centralized manpower planning commission, according to established definitions of national priorities. In this light, national service can be seen as the present draft writ large: “channeling” no longer applied “indirectly”—the “American way”—but by compulsion. The system becomes a machine, in which men are considered as a “national resource,” to be developed, channeled, enriched, molded, utilized, exploited, and above all, nationalized—in the public interest, to be sure. This is a high and totalitarian price to pay for “socializing” unruly youth, controlling early marriage, and eliminating the “sense of unfairness” people feel about the draft.

The Marshall proposal is, in fact, the most suitable design for an America which intends to consolidate and extend its world-wide military power. Sophisticated strategists in the national leadership believe that continuing commitments to “stop communism” and to contain revolutions wherever these occur are militarily and technologically feasible. There is, however, the problem of how the American people will take to the role of world policeman. How will we react to fairly continuous war of one sort or another run by a huge military establishment? One danger, of course, is an outbreak of irrational and irresponsible mass jingoism, which could push toward a nuclear confrontation with the “enemy.” At the opposite pole, disruptive protest and disaffection might prove embarrassing or worse. The Marshall plan meshes nicely with the “Great Society” at home: it requires no mass mobilization of the populace, and it enables the draft to affect only a random fraction of the young. A volunteer army would accomplish the same results. But the Marshall Commission rejects a voluntary system, primarily because it is not sufficiently “flexible” to meet the possibility of “crises” which require “the rapid procurement of larger numbers of men.” That is, a voluntary system might inhibit escalation of wars like the one in Vietnam.

The Marshall Commission is probably right in thinking that the volunteer alternative is impossible within the context of present American foreign policy. For although it makes small-scale military operations even more simple (hardly anyone will worry if a few thousand hired hands are shipped off), it does require a somewhat smaller military force than the Pentagon has grown accustomed to having at its disposal. More important, what if escalation becomes necessary? Congress would then have to consider reinstituting conscription; public debate would then ensue; normally secure National Guardsmen and Reservists might have to be called, and months might pass before the new system got men into the field. From the perspective of the liberal establishment, which the Marshall Commission perfectly represents, the volunteer proposal combines the imperialist flavor of a mercenary army with the isolationist quest for a mechanism to restrain strong (irresponsible, interventionist) presidents. The Marshall proposals are thus the right ones, if one conceives that the most important problem is how to maintain a huge military force, capable of a variety of overseas activities, while keeping the American population at peace.

BUT FOR THOSE, who are opposed to American interventions and are in favor of disarmament and radical social change in countries where the US stands against it, the draft debate as it is crystallizing becomes increasingly frustrating. How can a choice be made between a system based on Russian roulette and a professional army? Both perpetuate the illusion that Pax Americana is possible. The volunteer army, its opponents say, might intensify caste barriers among the young; it could become a black and poor man’s army, could increase the insulation of the military from civilian control (though we already have, in effect, a professional army—with access to conscripts). On the other hand, the volunteer army does seem to offer the slim chance of restraining the president by making mobilization more difficult and more a matter for congressional and public debate. It does remove the undemocratic effects of the draft. Furthermore it would free many men now bound to school by the channeling system to pursue their talents in their own way. It would make it possible for them to move off the campus in order to make something of the thousand of opportunities for catalyzing social change in American communities. The voluntary system is better than the Marshall Commission’s draft; just as the Marshall proposal is better than continuing the present system. But all of these proposals avoid the real problem, which is the nature of American foreign policy. A debate about how to raise an army cannot help but be sterile, and finally unreal, if it evades the question of how that army is to be used.

Ignored by all these proposals, the question of fighting a dirty little war agitates young people in America, who increasingly refuse to participate in the Vietnam war. Thousands avoid the draft by subterfuge or by managing student, law, or divinity deferments. Mohammad Ali’s struggles with Selective Service, chronicled on every sports page in the nation, have educated more young men on how to evade the draft than all the anti-war organizations together. Richard Paterack, a former VISTA volunteer, continues his service to Americans in Canada, where he aids hundreds of others who are also fleeing conscription. David Harris, President of Stanford University’s student body, said recently that going to jail “should be considered a normal part of growing up in America.” Many are demonstrating the truth of Harris’s statement: the “Fort Hood Three,” who have refused orders to go to Vietnam; Specialist Fourth Class Harry Muir, grand-nephew of former Navy Secretary Josephus Daniels, who has refused to wear his uniform; David Miller, the first man to be jailed for burning his draft card; David Mitchell, also jailed after American judges, who established the Nuremberg precedent, rejected his defense based on it. And an increasing number of “We Won’t Go” groups, some of them organized by Students for a Democratic Society, have declared their intention to resist the draft and are, in defiance of the law, organizing others to do so.

Those resisting the draft express a new mood, a different conception of heroism. It is a mood in some ways projected by John Kennedy shortly after his World War II service. “War will exist,” he said, “until that distant day when the conscientious objector enjoys the same reputation and prestige that the warrior does today.” The Marshall Commission has dimly perceived something of the force—and threat—of this mood:

The majority felt that a legal recognition of selective pacifism could be disruptive to the morale and effectiveness of the armed forces. A determination of the justness or unjustness of any war could only be made within the context of that war itself. Forcing upon the individual the necessity of making that distinction—which would be the practical effect of taking away the Government’s obligation of making it for him—could put a burden heretofore unknown on the man in uniform and even on the brink of combat, with results that could be disastrous to him, to his unit and to the entire military tradition.

Exactly. If individuals are free to make up their own minds about whether or not they will participate in a nation’s wars, that would indeed undermine the very goals the Commission’s report is so carefully designed to serve.

It seems to us, then, that the issue of the draft comes down not simply and narrowly to how we raise an army. Rather, it is whether the nation will give priority to personal freedom and to building social equality, or to maintaining a policy requiring military intervention on a world scale. In trying to raise this issue, perhaps the self-exile, the draft-card burner, the conscientious objector, and the war resister expose what the new draft proposals mask.


Draft Resistance December 21, 1967

Old Enough to Vote May 18, 1967

  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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