For most of its long history the US Army existed without conscription (the draft). What is now the Regular Army was created by Congress in 1775. Colonial militia units began in the mid-17th century. Many of these units are now in the National Guard. In fact, some of the units of the Army National Guard are older than the oldest unit of the British Regular Army (The Coldstream Guards – 1660)
The first time the country drafted men for military service was in the Civil War (WBtheS). Both sides drafted them in that war. The US Army started drafting in 1863 just after Gettysburg. That draft lasted the two years until Appomattox. The draft returned in 1917 for about two more years. Then it returned in 1940 and continued until after WW2 when it was abolished and then re-authorized for Cold War purposes so that an army adequate to the task could be built. The draft then continued for around 25 years until it "went away" in the early 70s. Draftees were always primarily destined for the Army, but not always. Contrary to service mythology the Navy, US Marine Corps and Air Force all took people out of the draftee "stream" when it suited them.
How many years in all was it that the US had an Army made up partly of draftees and partly of Regulars? It looks like around 35 years to me. This means that for 35 years out of about 200, we had draftees in the standing army. For 165 years we did not have a draft, did not have draftees in the Army. What did we have? We had the militia (not drafted) and the Regulars (certainly not drafted).
The Regulars (in John Ford’s phrase, "the 50 cent a day professionals in dirty shirt blue"). Who were these guys? The mythology of America has long held that they were ,as Wellington described their British colleagues, "the scum of the earth, enlisted for drink.." Oddly enough, British troops liked Wellington. Perhaps he had as few illusions as they. Scholarship has demonstrated that in the enlisted ranks American Regularas were always much the same, half immigrants (often with European military service) and half native born farmboys and "mechanics" as they were then called. The latter had enlisted because they had got tired of the farm or the factory. Some found the idea of soldiering "adventurous," or perhaps they just wanted to get away from "pa." (See Don Rickey "Forty Miles a Day on Beans and Hay" 1974) In the small Regular forces of the United States such men predominated until the Second World War.
These soldiers fought a lot. A close inspection of the history of the US will demonstrate that until the Second World War the Army (like the Marine Corps) was more or less continually involved in small scale warfare in between the big wars. The US Marine Corps played a prominent role in Haiti and Nicaragua but their very small numbers until World War Two insured that the Army would do most of the fighting. The Mexican War, the everlasting Indian Wars, the Boxer Rebellion, the Phillipine Insurrection, The Moro War, The Vera Cruz Expedition if 1914 and the Mexican Punitive Expedition, were only a few of the many expeditionary campaigns in which regular soldiers and their marine comrades carried the load. In those days there wasn’t a lot of difference between the men in the two groups.
These soldiers lived a life apart from the civilian world. The junior enlisted men (the great majority) all lived in barracks. The government fed them, clothed them, housed them, treated their illnesses and wounds, punished them and paid them. When they became too old to soldier, the enlisted soldiers could take up residence at the "Old Soldiers Home" in Washington and live out their days among old friends. While in service they were not allowed to marry until they became sergeants and then only with the agreement of their commanding officer. They drank when they got a chance, whored as opportunity presented itself and smoked (the worst of all sins) when they had the makings. They played cards, often Pinochle, As Kipling said of his own, "Single men in barracks, they ain’t no plaster saints." Not boy scouts, not at all, but they sure did fight.
The Second World War changed all that. From the beginning, a new army was built that numbered in the end 12 million and which deliberately was made to reflect the modern, industrial nature of American society. Unit identities were downplayed. Soldiers were treated as though they were inter-changeable replacement parts in a giant attritional machine. This was a machine that was fed live bodies at one end and which produced dead bodies at the other. Leadership became sloppy and lazy because the draft always produced more human material The fine art of leading soldiers became much less important. This model army produced victory in WW2 in a struggle which had massive public support and which could be waged as a quasi industrial project against outnumbered and outproduced enemies.
The system began to falter in Korea in a war to which a lot of Americans were less committed. Without public commitment the fighting spirit of drafted soldiers rapidly erodes. Vietnam finished off this model army. It was clear by 1972 (when I returned to VN for the last time) that line US troops remaining in country were no longer reliable. Elite American units (professionals) were still what they had always been but line brigades of infantry were "finished" and needed to be withdrawn from combat as soon as possible.
In reaction to this institutional disaster, a new force was built on the principle of voluntary service in the ranks and the imposition of progressively higher standards of health, physical condition, intelligence, education and behavior. An important part of this program was the insistance on middle class standards of morality and the retention of people who conformed to those standards in terms of family life and responsibility. This re-build of the force was largely succesful after some early problems. The politically necessary decision to have a large number of women soldiers resulted in the phenomenon of a plethora of single mothers in the ranks, but the system adapted to that by insisting that they conform to all the rest of the system’s standards. The Regular Army that we have today, the people whom you see on TV news every night are the products of that system. They are, in many ways, more representative of their fellow Americans (except the rich) than any other Army we have had. Why? Because they were recruited to be that way.
Rumsfeld and company claim to like that Army, but are about to do things that will change its inner content and nature immensely. What are they going to do?
The US Army has an old, old tradition of garrison life in large military communities in which units live together on Army posts which are essentially self contained towns. It is a tradition peculiar to itself and not present in European armies. This tradition is derived from the experience of the frontier in which Army posts were self contained because often there were no towns. It is the normal Army way of life, and within those communities families can be raised and a semblance of normal life maintained. After WW2 the Army took that tradition overseas with it, and has maintained it ever since. It still does. When the 1st Armored Division deployed to Iraq, it deployed from its German garrisons. Its families stayed there in their homes, its children continued to attend the same schools with the same kids and teachers. When the division returned from Iraq, it returned to its homes, wives, children and neighbors in Germany. This is the stability needed to attract and hold the kind of representative Americans who now man the Army. Marines come from a different tradition, derived from life aboard ship in small detachments often gone on long deployments. Marines are somewhat different in their psychology, but I am talking about the Army of today, to some extent of the enduring culture of the Army.
Rumsfeld and company plan to change the basic pattern of Army life to something very different. They intend to withdraw the Army to US bases where the force will be divided into the smallish BCTs discussed here yesterday. Having done that, they intend to create small, bare bones bases in Eastern Europe, Africa and similar isolated places where no families will be allowed, where there will be minimal creature comforts and the troops can "concentrate" on training and soldiering without the "distraction" of dealing with family life. BCTs would rotate from permanent stations in the States to forward bases like these every couple of years for six months at a time. In other words a life of repeated and routine separation from family would be the norm.
The marines pretty much live like this at present and always have. Their long time presence in strength in Okinawa was typical in a life often unaccompanied by family members. Their routine deployments on board ship for six or eight months at a time create a "monastic" spirit which is reflected in many ways in their thinkiing.
US Army troops in Korea have been there without dependents since the end of the Korean War. This experience is so "out of tune" with the tradition of Army life that duty in Korea has been loathed by generations of Army people.
What will be the result of a transformation in social patterns as radical as this? Well, it may take a while, but the middle class, family oriented people who have been carefully and deliberately recruited for the past thirty years will gradually leave. They will stop re-enlisting. They will retire early. Junior officers with young families will resign and find something else to do, something where they can spend time at home.
The soldiers who will people the Army after the family men depart will be people for whom soldiering is more important than family. The resulting force will be more like the Airborne, more like the US Marines, more like Special Forces. They will be more like the "old breed," John Ford’s Army. They will be more consciously apart from civilians. They will be closer to the "ideal" of "warrior." Their units, their traditions and their craft will be all important to them. They will be superb fighters.
I wonder if America will be comfortable with them.