When the Army Was Democratic

Soldiers in Korea.jpg

Interim Archives/Getty Images

Somewhere north of the Chongchon River, while fighting with the 2nd Infantry Division, Sergeant First Class Major Cleveland, weapons squad leader, points out a communist-led North Korean position to his machine gun crew, Korea, November 1950

At a recent event in Aspen, Colorado, General Stanley McChrystal, former commander of the international force in Afghanistan, said that the United States should go back to the draft in order to continue waging its wars. “I think we need a national service,” he said. McChrystal argued that a professional army is unrepresentative of the citizenry, and if a government goes to war, “everybody [should have] skin in the game…every city, every town, needs to be at risk.”

As someone who served in the conscript army back when the draft was a part of life for nearly every young American male, I understand the general’s sentiment and feel some sympathy for it. But I cannot think that he is so far out of touch with his country as to fail to understand that the restoration of American national morale, unity, and sense of solidarity and patriotism he wants to see would come not as the result of universal national military service, but as the condition that makes universal service possible.

McChrystal made his comments during a debate over polarization and social division in the United States, discontented and alienated youth, inequality, and loss of national unity. According to an account in the Financial Times, the audience—the kind of people who go to Aspen conferences—stood up and cheered, and McChrystal got more applause at the end of the session than any speaker on the platform. But short of an attack on the country from Mars, or from those hordes of New Caliphate Muslim jihadists some conservative circles fear as a menace to all of Western Civilization, restored military conscription is impossible in today’s United States.

The US had national service from September 1940, just before World War II, until 1971, when the Vietnam War was ending. It was accepted with patriotic resolution at its start, and hated by its end. I am of an age to have put on my country’s uniform in high school ROTC in 1942, when I was fourteen years old. I put it on again for the Korean War, and did not take it off for the last time until 1958, after limited active reserve service. That was a total of sixteen years.

I can’t say that I enjoyed military service, but I learned a lot, about myself and about others—including the young black men who made up a good half of my all-southern, and mostly rural, basic training company (where I was not only the sole college graduate but probably the only high school graduate). This was just two and a half years after President Harry Truman had ordered the army desegregated. The regular army—which has always been essentially a southern institution—hated and feared the consequences of that order, but said “yes, sir” and did it, producing undoubtedly the biggest and most successful program of social engineering the United States had ever experienced. It also created what remains today the most successful route of social and professional ascension for talented young black males from poor communities that the country has ever known.

The army, in my opinion, did more to desegregate the United States than the civil rights movement of the 1960s. From 1948 on, nearly every able-bodied young man in the United States served and lived side by side with Americans of all colors, all in strict alphabetical order, in old-fashioned unpartitioned barracks, sleeping bunk to bunk, sharing shelter-halves on bivouac, in what amounted to brotherly endurance of the cold, heat, discomfort, and misery of military training—and following that, of service. The kids I trained with—and they were kids—were nearly all of them scheduled to become infantry replacements in what was commonly called Frozen Chosin.

When their war was over, the survivors, white and black, didn’t go home to Georgia and hang out together on Saturday nights. They hardly saw one another again. But those two years changed them. It certainly changed many of the younger generation of white southerners who served and who a decade and a half later were ready to accept desegregation, even though they disliked it. A man-to-man respect existed for their black contemporaries.

Of course you can get killed in the army. That’s the down side of it. You can get parts of you blown off. Today you can get PTSD, which we didn’t know about then, but experienced, as has every army in history. I was a military romantic, but the unthinking benevolence, or inefficiency, of an Adjutant General’s service clerk spared me the logical result of some things I did, for which I am now grateful that I have no old soldier’s tales to tell.


A few years later, I saw something of that army again in Vietnam (as traveler and writer), which is where national military service was destroyed.

What destroyed it? In World War II and the Korean War everybody served. It was a draft, it was patriotic, but it was also the manly thing to do. In Vietnam, by the time the Americans’ war had been going for a few years, the army had many fewer white faces in them than had been the case in the Korean War. By the time I was there, cynicism about the war was part of nearly every conversation, not only among troops and non-coms but also with junior officers and, off the record, with many who were not so junior. Nobody really believed that the war was being won. Why were we there?

Cynicism was spread by the fact that soldiers who had a daddy in Congress or other elective office in America, or in the executive branch of the US government, were few to be seen. Others missing were those university students who had decided to sign up for that divinity doctorate he hadn’t considered before, or who had a marriageable girlfriend who would get pregnant fast, or whose father or uncle was a big man in a small town and knew the members of the draft board, or was a big man in corporate America who knew a congressman—or who simply had a sympathetic doctor, or, like the honorable vice president of the United States from 2000 to 2008, found himself with “other priorities,” or who, like the president of the United States in that same administration, had found an ironclad stateside National Guard berth for the duration.

Counterinsurgency war is inherently corrupting of soldiers. It by definition is waged against militant civilians operating in a civilian environment. For the soldier it is a war against civilians and civilians automatically are seen as potential enemies. Women and children were part of it. When I was there, the war was one of body counts—a policy of high cynicism that inspired hypocrisy among our troops. We were using high technology—ruthless bombing, napalm, Agent Orange to clear fields of action—against peasants. As Iraq and Afghanistan have since demonstrated, counterinsurgency breeds cold-blooded assassinations (the Phoenix operation in Vietnam), torture, atrocity, and increasingly cynical or defiant justifications of all this from people in higher—even the highest—places.

All of this killed national service. The reality of Vietnam was responsible for the fragging, the over-aggressive infantry leaders found with the fatal wounds in the back rather than the front, the desertions. A perverse public opinion that blamed the war on the soldiers that fought it made service seem dishonorable. This too killed national service.

That’s why when peace came, the West Point army demanded an all-professional army, and got it. If it had to fight another war, it wanted no disciplinary problems, no malingering, no fragging. It wanted an educated, well-trained professional force, that would accept multiple deployments, do as it was told, and create no scandals for the press.

It got the all-volunteer peacetime army, and for many years, during which military service usually consisted of manning Cold War defenses in Germany, Korea, and Japan, it seemed to work. What the Pentagon did not fully appreciate at the time was that the all-volunteer peacetime army was just the thing to become a new wartime army, capable of fighting a war, largely to public and political indifference, as in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Up to Vietnam, the United States Army had been a people’s army. When the country thought it had to fight a war, it raised an army of citizens. The citizens defended the country and its beliefs, often making family and economic sacrifices to support the war effort. They enabled America’s wars. They also prevented them. The army was a democratic army, and the government was compelled to recognize and respect the popular will and the will of the civilian soldiers and ROTC and OCS officers who manned it. What fundamentally was destroyed in Vietnam was the democratic army. The all-volunteer professional army enables undemocratic wars, ideological in nature and inspiration, and, it would seem, without real end.

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