12570 Mike Kennedy Reviews “Rough Draft” by Amy J. Rutenberg

Book Review: “Rough Draft” by Amy J. Rutenberg

Published by Cornell University Press, 276 pp. $37.95

Review by 12570 Mike Kennedy

12570 Mike Kennedy

In 1968, as the United States was caught up in the throes of unprecedented political and social upheaval, singer Joan Baez and her sisters Pauline and Mimi presented the world with an image that was carefully calculated to appeal to the fantasies of millions of young men, and one that was destined to become an iconic symbol of the Vietnam War. The photo of the three alluring, suggestively-clad young women seated side by side on a couch was prominently displayed on a poster emblazoned with the heading, “Girls Say Yes to Boys Who Say No”. As if the implied message of the poster wasn’t already sufficiently obvious, at the bottom it featured the subhead, “Proceeds from the sale of this poster go to the Draft Resistance.”

Fifty years later, the poster has become a much sought-after collector’s item, and surviving copies in good condition have been known to fetch as much as $2,000. But at the time the Baez sisters first posed for the photographer, over 500,000 of their fellow citizens were halfway across the world fighting an unpopular war that was tearing their nation apart. Many of them had been put there by a system of “selective service” that was originally designed to serve the manpower needs of the U.S. armed forces in an effective and equitable manner, but which by the late 1960’s had already become deeply unpopular, and was growing more and more resented with every passing day. In Rough Draft historian Amy Rutenberg traces the origins of the system of conscription that was first introduced in the WW II era, and shows how over its lifetime it became increasingly cumbersome, ineffective, and widely detested by citizens of the same nation whose interests it was supposed to serve.

Long before the turmoil of the Vietnam era, obligatory military service was a concept that had had a controversial and highly chequered history in the United States. During the Civil War, both the Union and the Confederacy had attempted to implement conscription; both encountered vigorous resistance to the notion, with opponents likening it to slavery. In New York City during the summer of 1863, opposition to the draft erupted in violence, with a week of rioting that left 120 people dead, and over 2,000 other injured.

Fifty years later, after America entered the First World War in the spring of 1917, the government again turned to a system of selective service after voluntary enlistments during the first few weeks of the war fell far short of what the Army needed. This time, while many Americans disagreed with the concept of compulsory military service, resistance was much more muted. Over the nineteen months of the war, 24 million men were registered for the draft, and slightly fewer than three million were actually inducted. Even then, compliance with the law was far from universal, as an estimated 500,000 men either failed to register or else did not respond to induction notices.

The modern day draft as we knew it traces its roots to the Selective Service and Training Act, which was signed into law by President Franklin Roosevelt in September 1940. Under the terms of the law, all American men between the ages of 21 and 36 were required to register for military service, and those who were inducted were liable for twelve months of active duty followed by not more than ten years of reserve availability. Administration for the system was delegated primarily to a network of nearly 6,500 draft boards scattered across the nation, and manned mainly by volunteers who were responsible for assessing and classifying individual registrants. This system was based on the premise that the volunteer board members would be in the best position to understand the prevailing conditions in their local areas, and make classification decisions accordingly.

As Rough Draft shows, even though Americans had been outraged by the Japanese treachery at Pearl Harbor, that did not necessarily mean that they embraced the notion of military service with a universal degree of enthusiasm. While large numbers of men did voluntarily enlist during the early months of the war, many others sought to defer their entry into the service by whatever avenues were legally available. Indeed, of the seventeen million men who registered for the draft in 1940 and 1941, approximately ten million would receive deferments.

There were a whole host of reasons for which prospective draftees could request, and be granted, deferments. During the early years of the war, married men, especially those with children, were routinely deferred because the social norms of the time attached high importance to their role in the home as husbands and fathers. Deferments were also granted to men working in industries deemed essential to the war effort, and to agricultural workers whose labour was needed to feed the nation. And, of course, those who could plead a reasonably convincing case that induction into the service would impose some form of undue hardship on their families could also generally obtain a deferment. Over the course of the Second World War, over 45 million American men between the ages of 18 and 64 were registered for potential military service; of these, approximately ten million were actually inducted before the draft was suspended in 1946.

After the war ended, some opinion leaders advocated for a system of University Military Training, suggesting that such a scheme would satisfy the manpower needs of the armed forces and provide valuable life skills and character training for the nation’s young men. Opponents of this notion, who were equally vocal in their views, argued that the concept of universal, compulsory military service ran contrary to fundamental American values such as the individual’s right to self-determination. Eventually, at the behest of President Harry Truman, in 1948 Congress passed the Selective Service Act, which required men between the ages of 18 and 26 to register for military service, and used a complex system of categories to classify registrants’ eligibility for potential induction. Initially, only a minimal number of prospective recruits were called, and in 1949, fewer than 10,000 men were drafted.

The onset of the Korean War in 1950 created an urgent need for manpower, and over the three years of the war, approximately 1.5 million men were inducted. However, once peace returned, the number of draftees dropped precipitously. In 1953, the last year of the war, 473,000 men were drafted; two years later, this number had shrunk by more than two-thirds, to slightly more than150,000. The huge drop in recruitment was due to a combination of factors, including a significant reduction in the overall size of the U.S. armed forces during the 1950’s, and improvements to military pay and benefits that prompted a dramatic jump in voluntary re-enlistment rates.

Even so, the draft would continue throughout the early years of the Cold War, and every year young men across the nation would receive the letter from the President calling upon them to do their time in uniform. One of the most famous draftees of the era was none other than the rock ‘n roll sensation Elvis Presley, who was inducted into the Army at age 23 in March 1958. Claiming that he wanted to prove himself, Presley turned down the offer of a cushy posting with the Army’s Special Services, and instead served two years with the 3rd Armored Division in Germany before being honorably discharged in the spring of 1960. While in the service Presley attained the rank of Sergeant, and it was in Germany that he first met Priscilla Beaulieu, the 14 year-old stepdaughter of an Air Force officer, who he would later marry in 1967.

The system that had evolved by the time of the Vietnam War was the result of numerous compromises aimed at reconciling conflicting points of view about who should be subject to the draft, and balancing the manpower needs of the military with those of a rapidly changing civilian economy. For example, one school of thought asserted that selective service should focus primarily on youths in the 18 to 20 age group because it was believed that removing people at that stage in their lives from the civilian world would cause the least amount of disruption to the economy.  Opponents of this notion countered that many young men in their late teens had not yet fully matured into adulthood, and consequently lacked the emotional stability needed to handle the rigors of military service. Eventually, it seems, those in the former group won out.

Likewise, in an era where it was becoming increasingly clear that science and technology were becoming vitally important to both the civilian economy and the nation’s defence, it was decided to extend deferments to college students for the duration of their studies. Initially, this policy was applied mainly to students in fields that had a direct connection to national security; in particular; those enrolled in STEM programs. Later, the practice of granting educational deferrals was extended to all college students, regardless of their area of study. A similar rationale was used to make deferments available to teachers, as it was believed that they could serve the nation much more effectively in the classroom rather than on the battlefield.

Perhaps not surprisingly, as time went by and the system evolved, more and more draftees tended to be drawn predominantly from the lower socioeconomic rungs of American society. This situation posed few problems as long as the nation was at peace. But as the Vietnam War began to heat up in the mid-1960’s and soon thereafter started to fall out of favor with the general public, the demand for military manpower soared and with it so too did opposition to the draft, especially among the more privileged classes of Americans.

One of the most tragic chapters in the history of selective service must surely be the story of Project 100,000, an initiative launched in late 1966 by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. The program was initially promoted as a venture intended to support the “War on Poverty” that was part of President Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” agenda. The stated goal of Project 100,000 was to induct men who did not meet the physical and mental standards normally required for enlistment, and provide them with remedial training and other assistance that would supposedly transform them into competent soldiers. It was suggested that a hitch in the service would provide these men, the overwhelming majority of whom were drawn from the bottom of the barrel of American society, with the basic skills and the sense of discipline and purpose they would need to improve their lot in life and become productive future citizens.

As Rough Draft notes, the reality was that Project 100,000 was a well-intentioned but nonetheless desperate and poorly-conceived attempt to help satisfy the ravenous appetite for new recruits caused by the rapid deepening of the Vietnam War. It is true that many of the men inducted under the program were provided with much-needed health care, education, and vocational counseling at government expense. This was supposedly intended to help rectify the deficiencies which had otherwise disqualified them for military service, and prepare them to eventually re-enter civilian society with skills that would make them readily employable.

But statistics reveal a different and deeply troubling side to this story. Approximately 80% of these “New Standards” men were streamed into the Army or the Marine Corps, the two services where they were most likely to see frontline combat. Many struggled with the demands of basic training, and because of their learning disabilities, by 1968 the Army had barred Project 100,000 inductees from more than half of its advanced training courses. Data also shows that relative to other soldiers, the Project 100,000 men were twice as likely to be court-martialled for disciplinary offences, twice as likely to be discharged from service under conditions other than “Honorable”, and worst of all, far more likely to die if they were assigned to a combat unit, which is where many eventually wound up. The problems associated with the program were so acute that one Congressman went so far as to publicly denounce it as “genocide”.

As the war ground on and became ever more controversial, the authorities looked for ways to make the selective service system appear to be fairer and less vulnerable to abuse. It was hoped that this would be accomplished by changes such as the lottery system introduced in late 1969 that supposedly made draft calls more “random”. But as time went by, reaction to the draft, mirroring public opinion on the war itself, became increasingly divided. One the one hand, when Uncle Sam came calling many thousands of American men dutifully stepped up to the plate and served without complaint, even if they were reluctant to do so. But many others were equally determined to stay out of the military if they could, and showed no hesitation about availing themselves of every means, legal or otherwise, to avoid taking the first step on a journey that they feared might eventually turn into a one-way trip to Southeast Asia.

Draft avoidance could take a variety of forms. Some men sought to game the system either by seeking multiple deferments until they passed the age of draft eligibility, or else by joining the reserve component of the military, which would have precluded deployment to Vietnam. Still others were more openly defiant, refusing to register, failing to report for physicals, or burning their draft cards. As Rough Draft discusses, during the latter years of the Vietnam conflict a whole cottage industry of draft counseling centres had sprung up across America. Run out of church basements, college unions, civic centres, and other community gathering places, these centres were staffed in the main by pacifists, war resistors, and civil rights activists, and advised untold thousands of young men of the tricks and tips they could use to beat the draft.

At times, those who were reluctant to serve could go to seemingly extraordinary lengths to ensure they would not be inducted. A case in point is that of James Fallows, a 21 year-old Harvard undergraduate who reported to the Boston Navy Yard in the spring of 1970 for a physical exam. Determined to beat the system, Fallows had starved himself for months, and by the time he arrived for his physical he carried barely 120 pounds on his emaciated six-foot frame. Of course, the examining military physicians promptly rejected him as being underweight. Other young men reportedly resorted to even more extreme measures to ensure they would be medically disqualified, such as travelling to Mexico to pay for surgery intended to deliberately ruin otherwise healthy knees. Rough Draft notes that in the end, Fallows was one of more than fifteen million men of his generation who legally avoided conscription.

The days of selective service were numbered when, in March of 1969, newly-elected President Richard Nixon announced the creation of the President’s Commission on an All-Volunteer Armed Force. Chaired by former Secretary of Defense Thomas Gates Jr., the commission’s members included a mix of retired senior officers, business leaders, and academic luminaries such as the economists Milton Friedman and Alan Greenspan. When the commission tabled its final report a year later, its members unanimously endorsed a move to an all-volunteer force. Such a transition, they argued, would compel the military to compete for talent on the open market by offering better pay, benefits, and working conditions. This, they believed, would help the services to attract a better quality of recruit, reduce turnover, and achieve greater stability and consistency of personnel. The end result would be a more professional standing force that would be better prepared to defend the nation, and ultimately cost less to run than one that was heavily reliant on conscription.

In response to the commission’s recommendations, selective service was allowed to die a quiet death. Beginning in January 1972, the Pentagon reduced draft calls to zero, and in June, Nixon announced that draftees who were still in the military would no longer be sent to Vietnam. Finally, in the summer of 1973, the law authorizing selecting service was allowed to expire. Several years later, in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the U.S. government flirted briefly with the notion of reviving the draft, when in the summer of 1980 President Jimmy Carter reinstated the requirement for men to register. But although American men between the ages of 18 and 25 continue to be obliged by law to register with Selective Service, no one has yet been actually called to serve in the nearly 50 years since the move to the all-volunteer force.

As an overall assessment, Rough Draft offers a comprehensive, well-researched analysis of the history of conscription in the United States in modern times. However, one important question this book leaves unanswered is, how well might a system of compulsory military service work in the environment of the 21st century ? Selective service was originally conceived in an era when most ordinary soldiers performed comparatively simple duties, and raw recruits could generally be brought up to an acceptable level of competence with a few weeks or months of intensive training. But in today’s world, where the technology of warfare has become infinitely more complex and some military occupations require advanced education and lengthy periods of training, it is highly debatable whether a system of mandatory service would be workable, especially in a time of national emergency when rapid mobilization for war becomes imperative.

Nevertheless, this is a book that offers a great deal of valuable food for thought, especially in terms of considering the relative value of military service as a potential means of social engineering, and assessing the role of conscription as an element of defence and public policy. Accordingly, Rough Draft is recommended as useful reading for Ex-Cadets and serving officers who have an interest in these issues.

One Comment

  • Dennis Perkins

    October 5, 2020 at 2:08 pm

    I appreciate this informative review. As someone who answered Kennedy’s call to “ask what you can do for your country, I volunteered for the Marine Corps and fought in Vietnam. The story of those who were drafted took place in a parallel universe, and it is one I need to understand.