If you are a middle-aged adult, chances are you have a lot in common with Bruce Scott.
Like the Vestavia Hills High and UAB grad, you may be married, have children (he has four) and a job (he’s a financial adviser).
But you are not likely to describe yourself in another way that Scott has defined himself for most of his adult life: as a soldier.
That means that since 9/11, the 50-year-old National Guard lieutenant colonel has had to do something that most of you have not done: seen a tour of duty in two wars – the one that U.S. forces have largely left behind in a now chaotic Iraq, and the one they are about to leave in Afghanistan.
And during his tours of duty, Scott has felt a disconnect between himself and the rest of American society. So have many of his fellow soldiers, who would readily agree with what Scott once heard a general say: “The American military is at war but our nation isn’t at war.”
As a nation, we have an all-volunteer military, and that military has been busy since 9/11. Because it has been so busy while the rest of us go about our business at home, there are some people, among them former Army generals such as Stanley McChrystal, veterans and students of the military, who say we ought to return to something that the volunteer system replaced during the Vietnam War: a draft.
Among their arguments: it would be a fairer system, in which more people share the burden of service; it would teach errant youngsters self-discipline and what it means to be a citizen; and it would make presidents think longer and harder about when and how to use our armed forces. On the counter side, there are those who say we have the world’s best military because its ranks are filled with volunteers who have become professionals at what they do.
“I’m not saying that a draft will never be necessary,” said Maj. Gen. Perry Smith, adjutant general of the Alabama National Guard. “However, because enough citizens of our nation, and our state particularly, have the desire to serve and a willingness to sacrifice, to me, it doesn’t look like a draft will be necessary in the foreseeable future. We’ve been able to fill our ranks with volunteers through our recruiting force.”
From 9/11 to May 31, more than 2.6 million men and women have done overseas tours of duty in the U.S. military, and most of them have served in and around Iraq and Afghanistan. That group includes nearly 44,000 service members with Alabama ties. The national figure amounts to less than one percent of the total U.S. population, and the Alabama figure is less than one percent of the state’s population. And what those figures do not show is how many times the soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines have deployed.
Scott is troubled by this picture. “We don’t truly understand the cost of war until all of us have skin in the game, and we don’t,” he said. “Less than one precent of the population does, and it’s by choice, and it’s looking less and less like the rest of the population every year, from what I can tell.”
It’s not that the U.S. or Alabama’s population is indifferent to those in the military. “Support Our Troops” bumper stickers are still common sights on the bumpers of motor vehicles. And church congregations, civic clubs, and school classes have sent tons of letters, holiday cards, care packages and other items to deployed troops.
That support does not go unappreciated, though it is not the same as being part of the military. But the notion of returning to establishing something like the draft – in which more citizens would be in the military – and possibly giving those drafted an alternative option of service in civilian sector has not been the subject of much debate in the halls of Congress.
In April, Weld queried the nine members of the Alabama congressional delegation on the idea. None has responded. Only two of those nine – U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions and 6th District U.S. Rep. Spencer Bachus – have been in the military, Bachus in the National Guard and Sessions in the Army Reserve. In the Congress as a whole, only 19 percent of U.S. House and Senate members have served. In 1977, according to the Air Force Sergeants Association, that percentage was 80 percent, and some have argued that the partisan division now afflicting the nation’s capital might not be as strong if more legislators on either side of the aisle had worn the uniform.
Weld also put a question on the draft to the candidates who were hoping to succeed the retiring Spencer Bachus. On the Republican side, state Rep. Paul DeMarco of Homewood was the only one to reply, saying through a spokesman that he had not served in the military and preferred “to retain the current volunteer-based system.”
The Democratic hopeful, Avery Vise of Pelham, who also said he had not served, was more expansive. Saying “it is appropriate that all citizens be asked to serve their country in some way,” Vise said he favored “a hybrid system that would allow individuals to choose either military service – to the extent military positions were available – or some other national service, similar to AmeriCorps perhaps.
“I do not envision the non-military option as necessarily being a full-time job, but rather as a significant ongoing volunteer assignment for a fixed period with some type of benefit for participating – on the job training or tuition assistance, perhaps – and/or a penalty for failure to do so,” Vise added. “I would not want to use such a program as a substitute for what otherwise could be private-sector jobs.”
Congress is a long way from getting into such details, because it is not even close to considering changes in the current military system.
“At the end of the day, we’re not gonna have a draft,” said Birmingham-Southern President and former Marine Corps commandant Charles Krulak, who says an all-recruited force would be a better way to describe today’s U.S. military. “It’s a pipe dream of guys like Stan McChrystal and a few congressmen and senators. Just never gonna happen…because the American people don’t want it to happen. They’re not happy with the wars we’re in. They don’t feel like they have any say over what a president does or does not do. It’s like pushing a wet noodle up an incline. It’s over, it’s done and it’s not gonna come back. The only way it could possibly come back is if we have a World War III.”
So talking about reviving something like the draft or a hybrid system of obligatory military or civilian service for able-bodied Americans is like trying to grow flesh on a stone-age skeleton. But that does not mean the subject has not been on the minds of everyday people. Over the past few months, Weld has raised the issue with former draftees, teachers, current members of the military, relatives of slain service members and those hoping for a military career.
Some who are now part of the volunteer system, or were part of it until recently, say it is working the way it is supposed to, while others are not so sure. Others, including some who have served under the draft and the volunteer system, say the nation’s ills, be they political or socioeconomic, should prompt a return to some kind of compulsory service requirement.
Lt. Col. Chris Carter, commander of the ROTC program at UAB and a three-tour veteran of the Iraq war, said the concept of what it means to be a citizen does not appear to be as widespread as it used to be, “and those who support a mandatory obligation, whether in the armed forces or some type of Civilian Conservation Corps [a public works program started during the Great Depression], for example, I understand their belief that this would increase a sense of connection and service to our country.
“However, when it comes to the military — and this is my opinion of course — what we are ultimately looking at is the most efficient and effective military force to fight and win our nation’s wars,” Carter added. “And unless something drastic changes, the model that we have now is very effective and I see no reason to modify the process of forming the most effective military in, probably, world history.”
Col. Curtis Faulk of Homewood, an Afghanistan War vet and director of the Fort McClellan Army National Guard Training Center in Anniston, said that while many who might not choose military service could gain from having to do it, “compulsory service brings many of society’s problems to the military when the military has its share of those problems from those who volunteer.
“I believe the hybrid [military or civilian service] system has some merit, although it doesn’t alleviate the ‘problem children’ syndrome,” Faulk said. “I do believe the country has moved further and further from a sense of service to something bigger than the individual, and until that sense of service returns, we will continue to degenerate.”
One of UAB’s ROTC cadets, Morgan Hobbs of Chelsea, said the military is most effective when its ranks are filled with people who want to be part of it.
“I came here because I wanted to be here…and the military is not for everybody,” said Hobbs, whose father is a retired Air Force officer and who wants to fly Apache helicopters for the Army. “I know several people that have…creative mindsets and they’re going to accomplish so much in the civilian world doing what they love, and it’s definitely not in the military.
“I think that in order to be a successful, cohesive unit you have to have people that want to be there,” Hobbs said. “And bringing in those people that don’t want to be there is going to bring down unit morale, it’s just going to be really hard to accomplish things successfully. Yes, you will have that manpower…there, but if you don’t have that drive to want to do something, you’re not going to do everything you can to accomplish it.”
The U.S. had conscription during its involvement in World War I and had it leading up to and during World War II. It was instituted again from 1948 to 1973, a period that saw years of conflict, primarily in Korea and Vietnam, and years of relative peace. An About.com description of the purpose behind that 25-year draft – “men were drafted to fill vacancies in the armed forces which could not be filled through voluntary means” – could apply to the earlier conscription systems.
Jefferson County Commissioner George Bowman, a retired Army major general, put on the uniform when the draft was still in place, and he saw draftees become skilled, dedicated soldiers.
“I know many people who were drafted in and then, once their period of enlistment was up, they stayed because they appreciated the value of the military service, and military service resonates with some people,” Bowman said. In today’s climate, he said public service, military or civilian, can be a rite of citizenship and “should be a requirement for all citizens…if they are physically able.”
When Bowman received his second lieutenant’s commission in 1969, the Vietnam War was still raging and the draft, mostly for the Army, was helping fill the ranks of the U.S. forces fighting it. According to history-world.org, draftees made up 25 percent of those who were on active military duty “during the Vietnam Era (Aug. 5, 1964-May 7, 1975)” and 30 percent of U.S. combat deaths in the Vietnam conflict. One of the fallen was Army Cpl. Thomas Marvin Hill Jr., a Tarrant High graduate who was killed on Feb. 10, 1970. At the time, Hill was 21, and his wife Nancy was pregnant with their first and only child, a son. At the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, Hill’s name can be found on Line 121, at Panel 14W.
Unlike Tommy Hill, Eddie Dickinson of the northwest Alabama town of Brilliant was a draftee whose name is not on the memorial wall. Dickinson’s time in Vietnam ran from May 1969 to Jan. 30, 1970, and after returning home, he joined the National Guard and served two tours in Iraq. His Guard-soldier son Leif, with whom he served in Iraq several years back, is deployed for the second time, in Afghanistan.
In early 1969, Dickinson did not jump for joy when he got his draft notice, but, he said, “I just felt like it was my duty to serve. You know, it never crossed my mind to go to Canada or try to get out of it. I was in good health, a fine specimen of a man, and I just felt that way about it.”
In Vietnam, he spent most of his time on river patrols, and most of the guys he served with were draftees like himself.
“The Army gave us draftees a bad rap, but I’m proof – and I wasn’t the only one – that we were the best soldiers, in my opinion, that they had where I was at,” Dickinson said.
Asked if the nation should return to something like the draft, Dickinson said, “Absolutely, for every fit American…because we’re failing in homes to teach discipline and sacrifice and all those things they’ll learn in the military.
“I think a lot of people are afraid of military service,” he said, “But, in the end, I think it makes you a better citizen, more appreciative of what you’ve got here in America.”
Dickinson also said the current system is wearing out vital equipment and people, leaving the nation “with a little group that’s been deployed three or four times with a lot of bad memories.” As a latter-day member of that “little group,” Dickinson suffers from post-traumatic stress, and some of his strongest deployment memories are of always having to be watchful and wary.
Vern Miller of Birmingham was drafted, too, but for a different war, one during which more than 60 percent of those who served were draftees. Miller, 91, received his written greetings in 1943, when he was living in the hamlet of Comfrey, Minn. He got a one-year deferment because he was in college, then ended up as a truck driver with the 8th Armored Division, delivering ammunition, gasoline, water and other supplies to U.S. forces in the European Theater. He now sports a ball cap that notes he is a veteran of the Battle of the Bulge.
“The draft in itself was not always fair,” Miller said recently, “but I think they did the best they could.”
And a return to something like the draft would be more equitable than what the nation has today, Miller said.
“When you have all volunteers, people who need a job or are down on their luck join the Army to get some money,” he added. “So it puts the burden on the poor people, and the richer people and the smarter people who can afford college escape. And it’s not a fair way. Everybody doesn’t do their fair share.”
Andrew Bacevich, a West Point graduate, Vietnam veteran, political scientist and a father whose son was killed while serving in Iraq, makes fairness points and many others in his 2013 book, Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country. In response to an email query from Weld, Bacevich said he favored “a system of national service based on the principle that all young people owe a term of service to country and community.
“Under this approach, a range of service opportunities would be available,” he added. “Military service would be one option among many. I believe that national service would help close the gap between military and society by giving us a military more representative of society as a whole. I believe it would also make citizens more attentive to how political authorities used that military.”
There is something to be said for having a more representative military, said UAB ROTC cadet Morgan Hobbs.
“However, to me, we live in a country [where] we are supposed to be free to choose what we want to do,” she said.
But Bruce Scott said the nation’s choices have the potential to isolate those in its armed forces “in many ways, not the least of which would be doctrinally, geopolitically, socially,” with most Americans not involved with them other than standing at a safe remove and cheering them on in whatever they do. And that kind of blank-check trust from an uninvolved citizenry for “the least democratic organization that we have” is “a danger sign,” a “red flag,” and “not what democracy is about,” he said.
From the perspective of being wounded in Vietnam, serving on the Joint Chiefs of Staff and in other positions at home and abroad during his long Marine career, Charles Krulak said the nation should be having a serious conversation not only about acknowledging the service of its volunteer troops, but also on “how do we integrate them back into society in a way that betters our society but does not put them in a position of being almost an oddity.”
The nation also needs a foreign policy that has a proper feel for where the nation’s “vital national interests lie” instead of one that has wasted blood and treasure in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, he added.
“When you have a foreign policy that is incapable of identifying what are truly our vital interests in taking action on, then the idea of holding a draft to send my son or my daughter or my grandson or my granddaughter to fight and die in something like that is not going to appeal to the vast majority of the American people, nor will they get congressmen and senators to vote for it,” Krulak said.