A Military of the Willing Works Best

Sgt. David Grimes with Marine Corps recruits on the rifle range at Parris Island in 2002.
Sgt. David Grimes with Marine Corps recruits on the rifle range at Parris Island in 2002. (By Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)

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By Berl Brechner
Thursday, December 21, 2006

Should we revive the military draft? There's been a lot of talk about it lately.

Conscription, as a social exercise, might instill discipline and respect while getting people to mix with all types and classes of their fellow Americans and perform a patriotic duty. It might also serve the political goals of some who oppose the Iraq war.

But if the purpose of the armed services is to be an effective force for defending and protecting the nation, and winning wars when engaged, I have to say this: The draft wasn't great when I got caught up in it 37 years ago, and it would be even worse today.

On March 24, 1969, I reported for duty at a draft board office in downtown Washington, as ordered by the government. I was processed into military service in Baltimore, assigned to the Army (two very surprised individuals of the 30 or so in my group were randomly picked to become Marines) and bused overnight to Fort Bragg, N.C. Eight weeks later, I was a soldier -- a graduate of Army basic training. And two years to the day after being drafted, I was a civilian again (but still available for recall for six more years, though no such call ever came).

I have no regrets about my service, though my view may be colored by the fact that I never went to Vietnam. (Drafted college graduates who could operate a typewriter generally ended up, despite their combat training, in some administrative capacity.) I learned about military discipline, doctrine and process; met and worked with an array of people I would not have met otherwise; and gained viewpoints different from those that college had provided. Looking back, I regard it as an honor to have served.

The reality of the moment, however, was that I didn't want to be there, didn't believe in the war being fought and despised the concept of conscription. And as it turned out, the Army didn't really want me either, or most other draftees for that matter. That was because as a group, with a questionable fight on our hands, we tended to be uncooperative, sometimes obstreperous (occasionally considered subversive), unmotivated and underpaid -- yet still expensive, since the military invested four to eight months, including advanced training, in readying us for a commitment of two years.

Of course plenty of draftees were brave, aggressive and dedicated, and many died for their country. Everyone in the military recognized and respected that fact. But as a whole, the system didn't work well, and on June 30, 1973, the last draftee of the modern era was sworn into service.

The numbers in the year I was drafted were staggering: 283,586 men drafted in one year, principally for service in only two of the fighting forces. By comparison, enlistment in the non-officer ranks in the Army and Marines combined in fiscal 2006 totaled 112,972.

The ending of military conscription in 1973 wasn't just one more bit of fallout from an unpopular war. It had a lot to do with the real needs of the military. Cohesiveness, effectiveness and cooperation are best found in people who have made a decision to be where they are. The high-tech battlefield is best operated by soldiers who, after extensive training and field experience, use their advanced skills for some reasonable period thereafter.

A draft fits none of these needs. Army jobs for non-officer troops are categorized into more than 200 military occupational specialties. Infantrymen are 11Bs (some used to call them one-one-bullet-stoppers), and my guess is that the percentage of the Army in that classification is a lot less now than in my years. The new Army jobs carry labels such as "Multiple Launch Rocket System Operational Fire Direction Specialist" and "Satellite Communication Systems Operator/Maintainer."

An army has to have the right people to do the jobs that the mission and the equipment require. In Vietnam, when there were a lot more Redeye missile launchers available than trained Redeye gunners, clearly the system had broken down. More technology creates personnel demands different from those a draft was intended to fill. The two world wars required a draft. For the kind of fighting our services do now, we're better off without one.

And one more thing: We've had the latest version of the Selective Service System in place and registering potential draftees since 1976. Only males, at age 18, are required to register. For conscription into a military that now prides itself on its equality of opportunity, shouldn't we start registering women, too?

The writer has been a magazine editor and broadcasting executive.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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