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America's Modern Military: Who Serves and Who Doesn't
By W. D. Ehrhart
"A standing army, however necessary it may be at times, is always dangerous to the Liberties of the People. Soldiers are apt to consider themselves as a Body distinct from the rest of the Citizens."—Samuel Adams, 1776
For most the first 165 years of American history, the United States maintained only a minimal standing army when not engaged in a war. The figures—before, during, and after each of our significant wars through the end of World War II—look like this:
Since 1948, however, our standing army has been considerably larger than previous peacetime periods, varying from half a million to a million and a half. When we include the Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps, our standing military has added up to between one and a half million and three million at any given time.
During the Revolutionary War, various states attempted to institute military drafts, but efforts were not very successful; there were many loopholes and even flagrant refusal. The burden, not surprisingly, fell disproportionately on the poor.
There was no federal national draft until 1863, but again this was only partially successful; exemptions were available by purchase or by hiring a substitute. Again, the burden fell disproportionately on the poor, and in any case, this draft was disbanded at the end of the war.
The federal government did not attempt a national draft again until 1917 and US entry into the Great War (only later called World War I). It was somewhat more equitable than the Civil War draft, but farmers, the poor, and people of color were still more likely to be drafted. Like the Civil War draft, when the Great War ended, so did this draft.
The first peacetime draft in US history did not occur until 1940; it was put in place in anticipation of US entry into World War II, and it remained in place through 1946.
As the Cold War heated up, however, the federal government instituted a second peacetime draft in 1948. This draft remained in place continuously until 1973 through both the Korean and Vietnam Wars as well as periods of peace in between.
Finally, in 1974, the government ended the draft entirely and went to the so-called All-Volunteer Force (AVF) that we still have today.
Why was there a peacetime draft at all? Was the threat from the Soviet Union so dire? Or did it have more to do with the post-WWII transformation of the United States from a world industrial power to the global giant: economically, politically, militarily? Did it have to do with maintaining what had become, after 1945, an American Empire? And why disband the draft in 1973? If the reason for a peacetime draft was fear of the USSR, why end the draft while the USSR was at the height of its power?
Perhaps it had more to do with reducing—indeed, eliminating—domestic opposition to US foreign policy and the use of the American military to enforce American will on the unwilling.
Certainly, it is well known and well documented that by the later stages of the American War in Vietnam, opposition to the draft as inherently unfair to the poor and minorities led first to a switch from the old deferment system to a somewhat more equitable lottery system, and then to an end of the draft altogether.
At the same time, by the early 1970s opposition to the Vietnam War had reached critical proportions even within the military itself. Reference, for instance, Colonel Robert D. Heinl, Jr.s' "The Collapse of the Armed Forces," Armed Forces Journal, June 1971. Resistance to the American War in Vietnam was widespread by then, and the breakdown within the military was catastrophic.
The US military and the US government both wanted (and needed) docile and obedient soldiers who would not question their role in whatever circumstances in which they might find themselves along with an American public who would not question whatever wars and adventures the government wished to undertake.
In this regard, the attacks on 9/11 were a boon to the creation of a pliant citizenry that would not question the exercise of US military might, but the process of creating a pliant citizenry and an unquestioning soldiery began in the 1970s.
Currently, the US military maintains 800 bases in 70 countries worldwide with US forces stationed in another 60 countries. What are we doing in all these places? Most Americans do not know and do not care.
Instead, we "honor our military" by having 16 Medal-of-Honor winners participate in the ceremonial coin toss at Super Bowl LII, by giving a service person his or her very own Flyers jersey at every home hockey game, by staging military flyovers at the start of NASCAR races, and all sorts of other public displays that in fact do nothing to benefit active duty military personnel or veterans.
What am I supposed to do with Delaware's Vietnam Veterans Memorial Highway? I still have to pay the same $4.00 toll everyone else pays when I use the Delaware Turnpike. We have been at war continuously since October 2001, yet who among us has sacrificed anything? For most of us, life goes on day after day without the least awareness that a very small number of our fellow citizens are at war: as of May 2016, 5,500 in Iraq; 9,800 in Afghanistan; we are not told how many in Syria, and who knows where else? Not long ago, several US soldiers were ambushed and killed while on a military operation in Nigeria. Nigeria?! But who cares?
Americans are further isolated from the military by two additional and newer developments. One is the use of mercenaries in place of American soldiers: as of May 2016, there were 7,770 hired contractors in Iraq, and 28,600 in Afghanistan (more than three times the number of our uniformed service personnel). And make no mistake, these "contractors" are mercenary soldiers, hired guns.
The second development is drone technology, which allows us to kill at will with no risk to the killers, no US casualties, no fuss, no muss, no bother. During Barack Obama's presidency, the US launched drone missiles nearly once a week, week in and week out for eight years. God only knows what's happening during the Donald Trump presidency, but who cares?
So who serves in the US military today? Who enlists? Let me tell you about my students at the Haverford School in suburban Philadelphia. I have taught there for 17 years. In that time, approximately 1,600 young men have graduated from the Haverford School. Not one single young man has gone directly from high school graduation into the US military as an enlisted soldier, sailor, airmen, or Marine. Not one.
This year, it will cost a family about $37,000 to enroll their son in my school for a single year of high school. And if he wants to eat lunch, that costs extra. Our clientele are generally well-heeled, educated, and focused on their own success and the success of their children.
We do offer scholarships, and nearly 40% of our boys are receiving some amount of scholarship aid, some of them up to 100%. But even the scholarship kids, once armed with a diploma from my school, have options that are often not available to many young people in the US. Every one of our boys gets into college somewhere. They don't all go to Harvard or Stanford, but they all go somewhere.
A few of them go to one of the service academies every year, where they will get a free education and a guaranteed job as an officer, not as an enlisted private starting at the bottom of the ladder. A few have opted for ROTC and eventually have been commissioned as officers. But the overwhelming number of the boys I've taught will never serve a day in uniform in any capacity, let alone risk their lives for "freedom" or the Koch brothers because they have other options.
So why should they or their parents care what the US government is doing out there in the world in their names and with their tax dollars? It isn't their children on the pointy end of the stick and isn't ever going to be. Today's US military is largely inhabited by people who have far fewer options than my students have, who need money for college and can only get it by enlisting first, who have few prospects for any decent job that pays a living wage. A few are that much smaller number of young people who are looking for adventure and excitement ("Be All You Can Be," "An Army of One," "A Force for Good," etc.), and who have had drummed into them the ethos of the "warrior," the Band of Brothers mythology foisted on the world by England's King Henry V by William Shakespeare.
The wrong people learned the wrong lessons from the American War in Vietnam and learned those lessons very well. Today, the consequences of US foreign policy have been completely removed from domestic politics. And those who do the bidding of our policymakers and their masters come by and large from those strata of American life with the least political clout, the least voice in American affairs, the least influence on how and why they are being asked to risk their lives, or to what end.
It is a sorry situation, and with the fox in charge of the henhouse, it isn't likely to change.
[Originally delivered as a talk for the Temple University Dissent in America Teach-In Series on February 16th, 2018.]
W. D. Ehrhart is an ex-Marine sergeant and combat veteran, and holds a PhD from the University of Wales at Swansea, UK.