Almost every important American social movement of the recent past has articulated in one way or another through U.S. military service policy. The modern Civil Rights movement won a landmark desegregation order from President Harry S. Truman in 1948, the final, most seminal, and most cherished of its exclusively Executive Branch victories. The anti-Vietnam War protest movement was intimately connected to the draft, especially as combat dragged on beyond the reprieve granted by a typical II-S student deferment. The buoyant hopes of second-wave feminists who sponsored the Equal Rights Amendment began to falter when opponents forced voters to contemplate “drafting mommy.” And one of the signal achievements of the gay civil rights movement was the end of the military’s “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy in 2011.
Yet despite its importance as a staging area for great social struggles over more than half a century, U.S. military manpower policy receives relatively little attention. The last serious public debate about military service took place at the dawn of the Cold War, when lawmakers appeased a host of interests by rejecting calls for Universal Military Training and instead imposed a “universal draft registration” obligation on young men when they reached the age of majority, and allowing for subsequent draft calls to run with broad student deferments.
When the long Vietnam War mobilization exposed the injustices of this Cold War model, President Nixon made a campaign promise in 1968 to abandon the draft, a political calculation that, as historian Beth Bailey relates, unleashed an unwieldy (at times confused) process that resulted in the advent of All-Volunteer Force in July of 1973. Since that time, most military leaders have hailed the AVF as the means for a welcome upgrade in the talent and motivation of U.S. armed forces recruits. When President Carter reacted to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1980 by reinstating mandatory male registration for the draft, an obligation that had been abolished by President Ford in 1975, public reaction was mild to nearly mute. Despite expectations and previous history, entire wars could, in fact, be fought by the AVF. A decade later, the volunteer model briefly troubled some military and political observers when it gave President George H.W. Bush the ability, with only modest popular support, to field a large military force in the first Gulf War, but those troubles dissipated when the war produced a smashing U.S. victory.
Since then, the U.S. military has shifted critical invasion duties to the National Guard, partly on the justifiable premise that war should engage the home-front. At the same time, the current wave of neo-liberalism, supported both by market fundamentalists on the Right and self-expression, imperial “I” advocates on the Left, has reworked the U.S. fighting force so thoroughly that private contractors now assume much of the non-fighting burden of war and account for much of its cost.
The result is that the world’s mightiest and most active military power fields a fighting force derived largely from a highly circumscribed set of people. The active duty force in particular is heavily biased toward the working class, minorities, and, increasingly, immigrants or first-generation Americans. This is nothing new: The draft, combined with a broad student deferment, produced much the same result. A young Elvis Presley, who, before he became famous, tried to make a living in the country’s budding post-World War II trucking industry, fit the typical background of peacetime draftees when he was called up. Today military recruiters would consider someone with his profile but without his fame to be a prime candidate for service.
Without much reflection or argument, the United States now supports the professional “large standing army” feared by the Founding Fathers, and the specter of praetorianism they invoked casts an ever more menacing shadow as the nation drifts toward an almost mercenary force, which pays in citizenship, opportunity structures (such as on-the-job technical training and educational benefits), a privileged world of social policy (think Tricare), and, in the case of private contractors, lots of money. Strict constructionists of the Constitution frequently ignore one of its most important principles—that the military should be large and powerful only when it includes the service of citizen-soldiers. This oversight clearly relates to the modern American tendency to define freedom using the neo-liberal language of liberty, shorn of any of the classical republican terminology of service. We would do well to remember Cicero’s most concise summary of a constitutional state: “Freedom is the participation in power.”
Others voices have bemoaned the increasing isolation of the military world within society. Most of these critiques suggest that society suffers when it is ignorant of the military’s organization, function, and virtues. In this view, the republic is harmed, if not endangered, when the outlook and priorities of the military diverge significantly from those of the national elite. One commentator recently went so far as to claim that U.S. political dysfunction generally could be treated effectively by restoring the draft. Dana Milbank of the Washington Post claimed in a November 29 column that:
There is no better explanation for what has gone wrong in Washington in recent years than the tabulation done every two years of how many members of Congress served in the military. . . . Because so few serving in politics have worn their country’s uniform, they have collectively forgotten how to put country before party and self-interest. . . . Without a history of sacrifice and service, they have turned politics into war.
Milbank and others are focused on what universal service, military or otherwise, can do for the country, but what is almost never discussed is the good that universal service can do for the military. Yet quite arguably the Armed Services suffer by missing out on the rejuvenating service of soldiers who have no intention of making the military a career. The millions of men and thousands of women who served in World War II, for instance, helped place the U.S. military on a modern footing—by accident, by cajoling, and by retroactively imposing reforms.
To be sure, many of the most profound changes in the military were wrought by the sheer imperatives of war. President Roosevelt cheered the changing of the guard of the nepotistic and backward commanders who assured him, in the early days of war, that cavalry would be the essential instrument in the defeat of Hitler’s ground forces. In their place came leaders like George Marshall, who proved skilled at managing complex theatres of war abroad and navigating bureaucratic battles at home. Under determined command and with unqualified support, the U.S. Armed Forces grew to unprecedented strength, mobilizing millions both in and out of uniform to splash battleship after battleship into the ocean and to build the world’s first atomic bombs.
Some transformations prompted by the war came about incidentally but worked an enormous effect all the same. Draftees inducted before Pearl Harbor groused about their service, none more so than those of German descent from the Midwest, some of whom had distinct sympathies for the Nazis. The Army decided to temper this discontent by mixing units geographically, rather than relying on soldiers’ local ties to build unit morale and effectiveness. This decision gave us the stereotypical military unit known to us through the era’s popular culture, the kind that invariably included a loud-mouthed Brooklynite, a poor Southerner, and a quiet but supremely competent Midwesterner.
The sociology supporting Hollywood’s imagination was indeed striking: Geographical mixing altered life in the military by shifting behavioral expectations overnight from those defined by local mores to a more collegial appraisal. The American nation became much more unified as a result of the social interactions of military service during the war. A lot of young men not only saw the world; they also saw their own nation from the vantage point of their peers, and occasionally in receipt of propaganda, from that of their enemies.
Thanks in part to the power of these collegial bonds and their worldly exposure, millions of “Joes” emerged from their military service with profound reservations about the Armed Forces. Many were not shy about voicing those reservations as complaints. One of the most memorable was the string of protests over the military demobilization scheme that left thousands of long-serving men stranded in Europe after the cessation of hostilities. But Joes had a lot more on their mind even after they returned home. Thousands of former soldiers offered their advice to the Doolittle Commission of 1948 (so-named after its chair General James Doolittle, the famous squadron leader who executed an audacious carrier-borne air raid over Japan in 1942). Doolittle’s postwar enterprise, nicknamed the “Gripe Commission”, convened to collect the opinions of now-demobilized Joes and make recommendations to the military.
On the whole, veterans expressed overwhelming disapproval of the caste system that pervaded the military, most often (but not exclusively) conveyed to them by means of the different treatment officers and enlisted men received. Joes bristled at an officer’s expectation to be saluted off base and out of uniform. They were irate over the fact that “leave with pay” was extended to their superiors but not to them. And the different style uniforms often worn by officers left them wondering whether enlisted soldiers’ service was less valued. The Doolittle Commission endorsed all of these criticisms (with General Doolittle also offering some remarks about military desegregation), and the Army was first to respond by abolishing these offensive and unnecessary practices.
Undoubtedly the most important result of this now-neglected episode of our history came from the recommendation Doolittle put forward regarding military justice, the venue in which distinctions drawn between officers and enlisted soldiers were most repugnant. It did not take a law degree to find the military’s dispensation of discipline un-American. In many instances, enlisted men were accorded no due process rights when charged with an infraction. Officers lived by a different, more lenient set of rules. Their peers often judged them in secret trials, and many violations committed by officers went unnoticed or, even worse, noted but unpunished.
The backlash against hierarchical relations governing military justice ultimately gave birth to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, signed into law by President Harry Truman in 1950. As Tulane law professor Edward Sherman points out, this move was part of a larger wave of reform in various countries to bring military rules more in line with civilian law and with evolving international norms in the postwar era.1 In this light, U.S. efforts were the least drastic, eliminating categorical distinctions between enlisted soldiers and their officers but leaving prosecutorial investigation and powers under command intact, as opposed to investing an independent (possibly civilian) body with these responsibilities.
This persistent American anomaly lies at the heart of the dispute between rival versions of military sexual assault bills now pending in the U.S. Senate: Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s proposal assigns prosecutorial powers outside of the chain of command, while Senator Claire McCaskill’s bill, supported by the Pentagon, retains the current system of command control. Supporters who argue for keeping courts martial under the chain of command maintain that it is essential to discipline, but other observers who note the many tools at the military’s disposal suggest that this particular feature does more to enhance the power of a commander, perhaps even entrench her personal preferences, than it does to keep soldiers in-line. And yet this line of thinking defending command discretion is echoed among those who dismiss a return to service by citizen-soldiers when they argue that democratic values have no place in an authoritarian environment like the military. Will soldiers ordered to “charge” take a moment to debate that tack, or will infantry ordered to march demand to know why and where-to before doing so?
The historical record rejects these musings. In fact they are deeply disrespectful of the valiant service record built up by our nation’s uniformed heroes who fought in times of draft. Acculturation to military life was not easy for even the most motivated of inductees, but they did it, and the military was much better for it. From the service of its citizen-soldiers in World War II, the U.S. Armed Forces emerged with an ethos that was more consonant with a democratic society.
As our society has strayed from obligations for national service, the military, too, has strayed from these values. Today we need only glance at the headlines for distressing signs of an insular military culture that works to undermine its own legitimacy. Corruption involving military contractors may still be the exception rather than the rule, but the culture of sinecures and fiefdoms that allows the worst abuses to flourish is now the norm. Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates gave a sardonic but pointed critique of military perks when he mentioned that his next-door neighbor Mike Mullen, then the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had troops tending to his lawn as a job benefit. Even though he was his neighbor’s boss at work, Gates only had a leaf blower at home (which the Secretary put to use, he joked, by blowing all of his leaves onto the general’s property). In a sense, blowing the leaves onto someone else’s lawn is what all civilian Americans have been doing when it comes to military service. The Armed Forces have responded, understandably enough, by building up a system of perks and personal powers which sometimes includes “leaf collection.” When onerous chores are laid at someone’s front door (and no one peers over the fence to take a good look), it can’t be surprising the house devolves into a manor, fetishizing hierarchy to the point of autocratic control.
Others have made the case for universal service, and their proposals most often consist of an array of choices between social or military service, usually tilted toward the former. They talk about the need to deepen social trust through a service culture and, in some formulations, a need to spread equity among young Americans as a remedy to growing inequality. Many have been mindful, too, of the view of most of our officer corps that in a high-tech age the U.S. military neither needs nor can afford to babysit huge numbers of short-timers with no enthusiasm for being in the force. That is not a point to be casually dismissed. But by the same token, it may be that the politician’s temptation to cavalierly engage in military interventions could be better controlled by a deliberative landscape shaped by national service. If so, that’s not a trivial benefit, and it may outweigh any of the tactical considerations usually cited as objections to universal service.
I for one believe that universal service would be a good thing for the military. Our history suggests as much, and recent headlines ought to invite the discussion. We need a more republican country, and we need a more democratic military.
1 Edward F. Sherman, “Military Justice Without Military Control,” Yale Law Journal (June 1973).