The Draft: No Solution to Social Inequality

Progressives are drawn to Charlie Rangel’s call for a draft, but a draft only inducts people. Class determines what job they will be assigned once they are in the military and, often, how happy they will be.
by Steve Gilliard, AlterNet
“You bet your life,” says Charlie Rangel when asked if he’s still prepared to reinstate the draft. With the Democratic takeover of the House, the 18-term representative from New York is slated to chair the powerful Ways and Means Committee giving him a powerful seat from which to push his legislation.

As recently as August, word that the Marines were calling up their last line of reservists had reignited draft chatter for the first time since Rangel’s previous draft push during the run up to the 2004 elections. “This move should serve as a wake-up call to America,” said Jon Stoltz, former Army captain in Iraq and head of, who called it “proof that our military is overextended,” and “one of the last steps before resorting to a draft.”

There’s a temptation among progressives and liberals to view the draft as a potentially positive force, both in bringing about an end to the war and in evening the playing field in terms of whose children actually have to fight. Unfortunately, to the extent that it ever was true, this simply isn’t the case anymore. The draft will only pull more unfortunate men and women from the ranks of the underprivileged and underrepresented…


The Vosges Mountains, Fall, 1944

They had been in classrooms only a few months ago, now they were tramping down some muddy road in a strange place, flinching from explosions. Annoyed by their flinching, someone would explain they were outgoing rounds, nothing to worry about.

Shipped overseas, sent to a replacement depot, greeted with indifference by their new platoon mates, expected to be dead or wounded in a few days, they were infantry and all their problems boiled down to surviving the German Army. Thousands would find themselves in Belgium, France, Italy, the Pacific, fighting on the front lines.

Casualties in Normandy had been higher than the Army planned for. Eisenhower was desperate for manpower. He sent one memo asking for 100,000 Marines. The Navy didn’t have them, but the Army had two large untapped pools of men, the Army Specialized Training Program and the Air Cadets. Both were ended and their men sent to where the need was greatest, facing the Wehrmacht in France. The ASTP was designed to create a class of Army bureaucrats, the future administrators of ruined allied countries and the defeated Axis states, but too many had been trained. The same with the Air Cadets. The Army had overestimated the clerks they needed and underestimated the infantry required to win the war. Eisenhower was so desperate for bodies that soldiers facing court martial were often sent to front line units. Late in the war, they created black platoons to serve in white infantry units.

Most came home to start or resume educations under the GI bill, changing who ran America. Once, college was reserved for the rich and the lucky. Now, all that was required was an honorable discharge. So whether you were a Marine armorer (Art Buchwald), a sailor (Pat Moynihan), air crew (Howard Zinn, Joseph Heller) or an infantryman (Norman Mailer, Kurt Vonnegut, Mel Brooks, Malcolm Forbes), you had a radically different future ahead of you: college, a mortgage, a middle class life after a childhood of poverty. Even if you were wealthy, combat service was a key to social acceptance and political success among the masses.

When we talk about the draft, it is through the prism of World War II and the GI Bill. We see the mass armies of World War II as leveling — one where people served without class distinction.

This is Hollywood’s fantasy.

In reality, rich kids gravitated to the Navy and Air Corps, or the OSS, the Office of Strategic Services. They didn’t sign up to be Rangers or Airborne, much less infantry.

It was the GI Bill, not the army, which made for a more equal America. There isn’t space to discuss the fight for the GI Bill here, but it was a struggle to extend it to every soldier, regardless or race or social background or service. And in the end, it was probably the most revolutionary legislation passed until the Civil Rights Act of 1964. No other bill did more to change the face of America.

Charles Moskos, who is a draft proponent, has stated that the class structure of the US Army has not changed since the Revolution, poor and working class soldiers led by middle class officers.

In the historical reality, immigrants and minorities have always filled the ranks of the US military.

The Union Navy was half black. The draft in the Civil War was limited by 179,000 blacks enlisting. Many of Custer’s troops were immigrants; at least two Italians who barely spoke English were killed with him.

So when many people talk of the draft, they talk of the images of war movies and not the reality of the US Army.

First, class rules the draft. Howard Dean’s back problem was only noticed because he had regular medical care. If his father had been a bus driver, the odds are high he would have spent a year in Vietnam. The medical exemptions for the draft will still exist and they will still be used to avoid military service. It then influences who gets what job in the military. College-educated kids would be far more likely to get staff jobs, while the poor would be shunted into the combat arms, regardless of testing. The draft has nothing to do with the assumption of risk. It is the testing which determines which jobs are open. And the poor and unconnected get the combat arms.

The vast majority enlist to find a trade and want nothing to do with combat. Before the current manpower shortage, the combat arms were very selective as to who they took. The idea of cannon fodder has never been really true in the U.S. Army and was especially untrue in the modern U.S. Army until Iraq. Those with personal issues or the excessively aggressive made for poor combat infantrymen.

Second, it creates discipline and control problems. Now, 39 percent of enlistees fail to complete their first enlistment. With draftees, they have to tolerate a far higher level of indiscipline because of the coercive nature of the draft. It is far harder to evict draftees than volunteers, and bad conduct discharges can make finding work extremely difficult in the civilian world.

People believe that a draft would limit political options and create a leveling between classes.

The first is unproven. After all, there was a draft during the Vietnam War, the other, highly unlikely for any number of reasons.

What about National Service?

Well, when Universal Military Training was proposed in 1948, it was unpopular and quickly rejected by Congress during the Berlin Airlift.

National Service would be worse than a straight draft. If given a choice of the Army or civilian work, the vast majority taken into the Army would be the poor and unskilled. The Duke Class of 2008 would be working in offices and the poor kids would be humping rifles. Anyone with an option to avoid the Army would and those who couldn’t would be sent to the colors.

The military isn’t a jobs program, and it isn’t an easy solution for social inequality.

Why do people believe this? There are two factions, one who wants to see the risk spread to more corners of society, and others, who think that the Army can create social equality.

The problem with this thinking is that the rich and well-off just pick other services without much physical risk of injury. The Navy has long been the choice for America’s upper class. All three Kennedy brothers who served in World War II chose the Navy — Ted Kennedy was drafted into the Army during Korea, but stayed in the US.

What pro-draft people choose to ignore is that a draft only inducts people; intelligence, education, health, prior experience all influence what they do in the military. In the all-volunteer army, people have been able to choose a job suited to their abilities, which means, for the most part, happier, more effective soldiers. Of course, the promises of the recruiter and the reality of the Army are two different things, but a draft would force people into jobs the Army wants them to do.

Moskos and others have argued that having college students spending time in the Army would create a social exchange of sorts. That ignores the current composition of the Army. Before the recent personnel shortage, the number one reason for enlisting was college education. Of course, the catch was that only men (women are barred from the combat arms) who joined the combat arms (infantry, armor, artillery) would earn the most money for college. But Guard and Reserve units are filled with college students and college graduates. Most of them joined the Guard and Reserve after active duty service. The current Army is probably the most socially balanced sent into the field.

What Moskos meant to say is that the middle class would then become soldiers. However, except for the 35 years of the 20th Century draft, 1917-18, 1940-1973, generally, middle class avoided military service except in wartime, and the rich have always avoided military service. In 1864, the Harvard-Yale boat race continued without pause. The Union didn’t need those men, or the men on the Western Frontier.

So how do we get a more responsive, socially representative military? Not by sweeping up the kids Michael Moore depicted in Fahrenheit 9/11, or their college-bound counterparts. Volunteer service should be cherished, not disdained. What the military needs after the Iraq War are better benefits, a real GI Bill with a full ride for college, real health care. You’ll get more middle class kids who want to avoid the debt of loans signing up for that. A draft goes against the traditions, beliefs and practices of the United States.

For 201 years of the 236 the United States has existed, men and women have volunteered to serve their country. A draft may seem like a quick social solution, but it is anything but. It is unfair and would impact those who get the least from the society disproportionately, as it has in the past.


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