Easy Chair — From the March 2014 issue

Dodge the Draft!

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The Revolutionary War was waged by local militias and a volunteer army, and despite George Washington’s frazzled requests for more troops, the Continental Congress had no intention of wrecking the fragile American state by imposing a national draft. The next time the issue arose, during the War of 1812, a fuming Daniel Webster questioned the government’s right to “take children from their parents, and compel them to fight the battles of any war.” (Webster was particularly opposed to the invasion of what was then, for one brief shining moment, the Evil Empire: Canada.)

Not until the Civil War did America roll out its first national draft. The Confederacy instituted conscription more than a year before the Union — a decision at odds with its purported struggle against tyrannical federalism — but the South was short of men and understandably wary of asking its large population of slaves to fight for, you know, slavery. The Union followed suit with the Enrollment Act of 1863, which allowed potential recruits to buy their way out of service for $300.

In spite of this provision — or more likely because of it, since that sizable sum was out of reach for most — the draft touched off some of the most ferocious rioting in U.S. history. There were violent protests in Boston, Newark, Hartford, Albany. The worst, however, were in New York City, where one observer reported an endless procession of “men and women and even little children armed with brickbats, stones, pokers, shovels and tongs, coal-scuttles, and even tin pans and bits of iron.” The mob destroyed draft offices, churches, homes, railroad tracks, and telegraph lines. They marched on the headquarters of the New York Times — where the sight of three Gatling guns manned by the newspaper’s staff led to a temporary retreat — and tried to burn the mayor’s residence to the ground before six regiments of federal soldiers arrived to restore the peace.

World War I was different. Sold to the public as a struggle for civilization itself, it roused little such resistance. Having learned from the Civil War riots, the government offered no buyout option for the wealthy — all able men would serve, regardless of social station. (George Creel, Woodrow Wilson’s P.R. wizard, also anticipated some of the current arguments for the draft by promising that it would revitalize “the heart, liver, and kidneys of America.”) As for World War II, it, too, was presented as a Manichaean clash between good and evil — and, once the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, a defensive conflict to boot. The Times could keep its Gatling guns in storage.

With Vietnam, however, the insurrectionary days of 1863 seemed to be upon us again. Here was a war increasingly resented by the civilian population. About 210,000 Americans were charged with evading the Vietnam-era draft — a small number, you might argue, given the 2.7 million who actually saw combat during that period. But by the early Seventies, the conflict was inflaming regional, racial, and class divisions across the country. And resistance had begun to creep into the military as well, where it took the form of foot-dragging, insubordination, and ultimately a small epidemic of soldiers fragging their commanding officers. By the time Defense Secretary Melvin Laird announced the end of conscription, in 1973, there was not a peep of protest from the armed forces, who remained spooked by the memory of this slow-motion mutiny for a generation or more. They endorsed the AVF and never looked back, confident they could raise enough volunteers, especially for post–Cold War police actions that would require a smaller footprint and, with a restive public back home, a rapid exit.

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