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The Political Costs of Filling the Ranks

by Michael S. Foley on May 14, 2004

In this season of quagmire war and political campaigning, President Bush has a manpower problem. The Pentagon has announced that troop levels in Iraq will remain at 135,000 until the end of 2005. Thus, with the American military stretched to unprecedented limits, one of the most pressing questions in the presidential campaign will be the riddle of who will fill out the ranks of those stationed in Iraq and fighting the ongoing war on terror.

Once again, we feel the lingering shadow of the Vietnam War. Over the last few weeks, against the backdrop of the Iraq war’s heaviest fighting and as images of flag-draped coffins and tortured prisoners remind us of Vietnam, we have also heard the first sustained discussion of the price being paid by reservists and National Guard troops in Iraq.

Observing that 40 percent of the American force in Iraq is made up of middle-class and working-class “weekend warriors,” Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) has raised the prospect of bringing back the draft. Calling the war on terror a “generational challenge,” Hagel called for a long-term strategy in which the burden of fighting the war would be distributed across all segments of American society.

Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon understood this dilemma. In 1965, when Americans had been living with a “peacetime” draft for nearly 20 years, Johnson mobilized manpower for the escalating Vietnam War by dramatically increasing monthly draft calls. Unlike Bush, he chose not to call on huge numbers of reservists and Guard troops for fear of the political fallout. Americans accustomed to the draft as a seemingly permanent part of Cold War American life were more likely to protest mobilizing middle-aged men with jobs and families than younger, single draftees.

But the Vietnam era draft produced tremendous resistance because it allowed deferments and exemptions to the privileged while channeling the poor and minorities into service in Vietnam. In short, the draft did not redistribute the burden of service any better than today’s reliance on reservists and Guard troops. As a result, thousands of men openly defied draft laws and welcomed prosecution. And tens of thousands evaded the draft by leaving the country, faking illness or using connections to get appointments in . . . the reserves or National Guard.

Consequently, when Richard Nixon took office in 1969, he recognized the political costs both of the draft and of mobilizing reserve units. He first moved toward a more equitable draft lottery and then eliminated conscription altogether in favor of the current all-volunteer force.

The difficulty today, however, is that in the multi-front war on terror, the all-volunteer force is stretched so thin that the Bush administration is now extending the tours of Guard and reserve units in Iraq — sometimes notifying them days before they are to come home that they’ll have to stay another three or six months. Morale, by all accounts, is slipping. According to one Illinois National Guard soldier in Iraq, the uncertainty of when troops will rotate our of Iraq “is killing us . . . It’s like checking on a turkey in the oven 24 hours a day.”   

Yet Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld insists that the administration is not even considering reviving the draft. No doubt he understands the political costs of such a step.

Continued reliance on unprecedented numbers of reservists and Guard troops carries political costs, too. The Vietnam War showed that resistance within the military is sure to develop, particularly if the war’s objectives are not altogether clear to those fighting it.

By 1968, civilian peace activists increasingly allied themselves with dissenting GIs and returning veterans, sometimes by granting sanctuary to AWOL servicemen in churches. Later, GIs and veterans became the most common and reputable face of the antiwar movement.

What should concern the Bush administration is that, today, a movement among military families and GIs against the Iraq war is growing. As tours get extended, as the strain grows on reservists’ families and employers, this is sure to become a political problem for both presidential candidates. All over the Internet — at the web sites for Bring Them Home Now, Military Families Speak Out, and the Vietnam Veterans Against the War — there are dozens of stories from disillusioned servicemen and women and their families. And in recent weeks such stories have often appeared in the mainstream press.

The timing of this growing manpower crisis could not be worse for George W. Bush and the presumptive Democratic nominee, John Kerry. As each tries to look tough on national security, both must be aware that there’s no appealing manpower option: either keep using alienated reservists and Guard troops, or institute conscription on a population of draft-age men who, unlike their 1960s counterparts, have not been conditioned for the possibility of military service.

It’s a losing proposition. Whether or not Bush and Kerry face the issue in the campaign, whoever wins will have to make an unpopular choice after the election.


Michael S. Foley is an assistant professor of history at the City University of New York's College of Staten Island and author of "Confronting the War Machine: Draft Resistance During the Vietnam War" (2003).