military draft

David Warsh: Was ending the draft a big mistake?

On June 5, 1917, young men in New York City registering for the draft during    World War I    .

On June 5, 1917, young men in New York City registering for the draft during World War I .

SOMERVILLE, Mass.

The news was intriguing:  billionaires George Soros and Charles Koch, polar opposites in much of their philanthropic activism, had joined forces to provide seed funding for a new foreign policy think-tank. The Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft is to be dedicated to promoting restraint in the use of American military power abroad. The initiative was first reported by Stephen Kinzer in The Boston Globe, enthusiastically if cautiously seconded by Daniel Drezner in The Washington Post, its plans described in some detail by David Klion in The Nation. The name comes from an 1821 speech by John Quincy Adams.

Wherever the standard of freedom and Independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will [America’s] heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.

The institute is expected to open its doors in November, with Andrew Bacevich, of Boston University, as president.

The news coincides with the appearance of a striking new account of the creation of an all-volunteer army, in 1973, to replace military conscription in the United States.  Richard Nixon espoused the measure as part of his successful campaign for the presidency in 1968, against the backdrop of the Vietnam War.

In The Economists’ Hour: False Prophets, Free Markets, and the Fracture of Society, by New York Times  reporter Binyamin Appelbaum writes:

The world changes and it’s hard to say why. The United States ended conscription in 1973 because an insecure man named Lyndon Baines Johnson doubled down on a losing hand and because it kept getting harder to teach recruits how to operate new military technology and because the voting age dropped to eighteen and because young men in an increasingly prosperous nation did not want to fight. But it is also true that the United States ended conscription because Milton Friedman persuaded [campaign adviser Martin] Anderson who persuaded Nixon, who won the 1968 election

Congress traditionally authorized a draft as part of a decision to fight a war, The Selective Service Act was passed in 1917, as America prepared to enter World War I.  It served as a model for the Selective Service and Training Act of September 1940, the nation’s first peace-time draft, which was considerably extended after Pearl Harbor. The second peacetime draft, the Selective Service Act of 1948, was passed as the dimensions of the Cold War became apparent. It ceased to be operative after 1973 but was reinstated by President Jimmy Carter in July 1980, in response to the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan.

Since then, the volunteer army has been employed in Grenada, Panama, Kuwait, the Balkans, Afghanistan, Iraq and in countless small-unit actions in Africa and South America. Civilian contractors were employed in numbers roughly equal to the military in large-scale deployments in the Balkans, Iraq, and Afghanistan, according to Appelbaum.

Did a measure designed to remedy one quagmire by professionalizing the military lead to the creation of new quagmires in Afghanistan and Iraq, by making the armed forces easier to deploy?  Wikipedia says that no one has been prosecuted for failure to register for the draft since 1986. Did the end of the obligation to serve weaken the bonds of civil society?  The law is still on the books.  Women aren’t required to register: here’s why.

Bacevich is the author of several powerful books critical of America’s interventionist tendencies, beginning, in 2007, with The New American Militarism:  How Americans Are Seducd by War  (Oxford). He says, “I long ago concluded that the creation of the all-volunteer force is the principal source of evil in contemporary American society.”  Look for an increasing level of debate.

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Environmental economist Martin Weitzman’s splendid life and tragic death are related  here by The New York Times, here by the The Washington Post,  and here by The Economist.

David Warsh, an economic historian and veteran columnist, is proprietor of Somerville-based economicprincipals.com

      


The keg, a joint and hoping for a high number

Read  about Denis O'Neill's memoir about being at college (Dartmouth)  in 1969 when the last lottery for the military draft was held. Animal House meets geopolitics meets the hippies meets Scott Fitzgerald meets the State Police. The book  is called Whiplash: When the Vietnam War Rolled a Hand Grenade Into the Animal House. My number was 361. My friend Steve Perry's was seven. He was killed a few weeks after arriving in uniform in the Republic of Vietnam.