“I wouldn’t want to serve with anyone who isn’t a volunteer.” This self-congratulatory platitude has been expressed to me personally, and I’ve seen it written in commentary. From where I stand, it’s one of the saddest of the many lamentable results of the end of conscription in 1973.
Dude, do you know how insulting and ignorant this is? It disrespects not only the millions of draftees who served honorably, tens of thousands with distinction, but also all of us who enlisted in an environment of conscription. If you believe this bilge, you’ve been had. You’ve fallen for a scam. You’re the victim of crude propaganda. You accept what’s transparently false and contradicted by recent history because it makes you feel special. And it doesn’t say much for your intelligence.
Educate yourself. It’s not that hard. You can start by reading the Medal of Honor citations of draftees, 32 from the Vietnam War alone. Many awards were posthumous. Now tell me you wouldn’t want to serve with those men. Come on. Look me in the eye and say that.
But maybe I’m being harsh. After all, the hype and the lies and the invidious comparisons have been unending — and the boilerplate is regurgitated ad nauseam by the political right as well as by the left. “The all-volunteer force is the best military we’ve ever had.” No, it’s not. When I took the enlistment oath in 1965, I joined the best military the United States has ever had — and it was superior because the draft pulled in the best either through conscription or enlistment. People of my vintage are loath to state the obvious because we abhor any implied criticism of the serving military. Unfortunately, the obverse is not always true.
The “best we’ve ever had” myth serves two self-reinforcing purposes, both socially destructive: It flatters the working-class whites and minorities who populate today’s military, and it exonerates the gentry for taking a walk. (Don’t bore me with exceptions to this generalization. That’s why we call them exceptions.) What Mark Shields wrote about America’s fashionable set 26 years ago is no less true today: You’re more likely to find Velveeta among their cheeses or polyester in their closets than you are to find an honorable discharge in their files.
The best-we-ever-had fable gained serious traction in 1990, during the buildup to the Persian Gulf War. With the end of the draft, Vietnam-era peaceniks found a war they finally could get behind. (Vicariously, of course.) Chin-pulling pundits lionized the all-volunteer force at the expense of those of us who served in Vietnam, The commentariat denigrated us as dazed, reluctant, drug-addled conscripts who presented the military with nothing but discipline problems. This slander gave cover to those who avoided service during the Vietnam War, and it rationalized an adventurous foreign policy for the newly bellicose — with other people doing the fighting.
It’s impossible to predict long-range military manpower needs, but it’s worth noting that the history of conscription in 20th-century America is a study in moral and administrative decline. The World War I draft was very fair, the World War II draft was somewhat fair, the Korean War draft was somewhat unfair, and the Vietnam draft was scandalously unfair. It’s not that conscription can’t be done right; it’s that we’ve lost the will to do it right.
To draft or not to draft is an argument for another day. This diatribe is limited to two injunctions: (1) To veterans and serving members of the all-volunteer force — wise up. Don’t disrespect draftees. To do so is unseemly, unfounded, and it plays into the hands of people who — unlike the aging cohort of conscription-era vets — have no real regard for you. (2) To the hip and the well-connected — shut up. Put a sock in your robotic and extravagant praise of service members you don’t know and never would rub elbows with. And stop comparing the Vietnam-era military unfavorably with the AVF. We’re on to your game. Capiche?
The writer, an anthropologist and a former journalist, served 15 months as a junior officer in a Seabee battalion in Vietnam. In 2007-2009, he served two tours as a civilian Army contractor in Iraq.