Why We Need the Draft Back
By Noel Koch
Thursday, July 1, 2004; Page A23
As a speechwriter for President Richard Nixon, I wrote the legislative message proposing an end to the military draft. The president sought to end the Vietnam War in a way that would advance what he regularly called "a full generation of peace." In the late 1960s, America's cities were set aflame by the civil rights revolution; in the early '70s, the campuses of the nation's universities were in similar peril. The draft was a target of antiwar protests. The president made a tactical retreat, ending it. He later regretted the move, urging that the draft be restored.
The subject has surfaced since Vietnam but never, until now, with much force. In fact, there are few good arguments against the draft and a surfeit of good ones for restoring it. The most obvious is that we do not have enough men and women in our armed forces. Reliance on reserves and the National Guard is creating strains along the socioeconomic spectrum and is not an endlessly sustainable expedient. If we are to fight elective wars, as we are told we must, we need more men and women on active duty.
But there are other good reasons to return to the draft. I joined the Army in 1957. Members of my family had served in every conflict since the Civil War, and service was expected, as was getting a job, getting married and having a family. We were lower middle class and uneducated. I left high school without a diploma. College was not something to which my family aspired. It never occurred to us that we could go.
The draft shattered class distinctions. It mixed high school dropouts with college graduates, rich with middle class and poor. To be sure, the draftees weren't happy to be in the Army, and they were even less happy to be rubbing shoulders with those of us who volunteered. There was friction from basic training through advanced training and, with lessening heat, into assignment to our permanent duty stations. Name-calling was a regular feature of our lives: We were "lifers," "losers," "GIRBs" (GI rat bastards), etc. We had our own names for the draftees. But the educated learned to value those without college degrees, and the uneducated, helped along by the GI Bill, discovered that higher learning might be within reach after all.
This homogenizing process didn't end with education. It extended to the broadening of cultural horizons. I learned to appreciate Bach and Handel listening to the records of a draftee friend. He enjoyed my rendition of "The Duke of Earl" down the center of our hooch near Tan Son Nhut Air Base.
Class lines blurred and so did racial lines. The military did more to advance the cause of equality in the United States than any other law, institution or movement. Not for nothing did "Bro" come into common usage in the Vietnam era: "Who sheds his blood with me shall be my brother."
The draft furthered the work begun during the Civil War. It advanced the business of making us one people. The draftees may not have liked being pulled away from the careers that awaited them and being thrown in with people they probably wouldn't have associated with otherwise. But over the two-year span of their service, there were sea changes. The disaffected became the committed, became leaders who demanded the best of others and especially of themselves. They saluted with a snap indistinguishable from any other.
When they took their discharges and went home, they had an investment in America not shared by those who did not serve. Try to find a draftee who regrets his service to America. After a time they were not "draftees" at all; they were American soldiers -- part of the fabric of the nation, committed to its values and their preservation.
The resurrection of the draft, so vitally necessary to restore the depth of ready manpower we need in our force structure, is self-justifying despite the arguments of a succession of defense secretaries who feel obliged to defend our "volunteer military" with technical arguments that mask political squeamishness.
But the nation also needs a draft because it is one proven mechanism to bring unity to our rapidly separating parts. It needs a draft to provide that common civic grammar that encompasses those who have served and their families and friends. It needs a draft to honor, and to even out, the sacrifices we call upon our young to make for our nation.
Finally, America needs this fund of experience to expand the pool of people likely to find their way into the corridors of power and, when they get there, to bring with them a bone-deep appreciation of the true costs of conflict. Thus might we reduce the risks of counsel from those who have never had to learn the difference between a war and a cakewalk.
The writer was special assistant to President Richard Nixon from 1971 to 1974. He was assistant secretary of defense and director for special planning at the Defense Department from 1981 to 1986.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company