Conscription, Part III1
If you go to Harmony Grove Cemetery in Salem, Massachusetts – yes, that Salem – you will find, there amongst mostly older and fancier memorials, a simple upright white slab, government issue, bearing the name of Peter Brooks Saltonstall, aged twenty-three, killed in action while leading a patrol, Guam, 13 August, 1944.2 Young Peter was a sergeant in the Marine Corps. It doesn’t really matter whether he was conscripted, or volunteered because he would have been conscripted, or volunteered for perhaps the most vicious campaign in American military history just because it was the right thing to do. What matters is that he was there.3
Peter Saltonstall was also the son of the governor of Massachusetts, Leverett Saltonstall, who went on to serve not quite four terms in the Senate. Leverett, in his own time, had been an Artillery lieutenant in the Great War. Pretty much all the Saltonstalls, as blue-blooded and Brahmin as existed in Boston, served their country at need and had since before it was even a country. Though wealthy enough, in general, there are and have been many much richer families. Yet there probably was never a better one in the history of America. It was, for example, a Saltonstall who resigned his position as a judge rather than partake of the Salem Witch Trials.
Fast forward a generation from the Second World War. Though Peter was a Harvard man, where were the Harvard men in Vietnam? Likely under one percent served there, and possibly much less.4 Indeed, how many scions of our upper classes didn’t avoid military service like the plague? A few, a relative handful.5 How many took advantage of every imaginable route to avoid service, discomfort, and risk to their ever so precious skins? Droves. How many serve now or have recently? Again, only a relative handful.
We are not the country anymore that Peter Saltonstall fought and died for, nor are the bulk of our people what they once were.
There are certain requirements that must be true and must be followed if conscription is to work:
1. It must be seen as needful by the people.
2. The conditions of service must be seen as consistent with the need; they can be very harsh conditions, indeed, if the need is seen as great enough.
3. It must be seen as fair.
Requirements 1 and 2 have varied with the times and circumstances. They will continue to do so. But we have with almost perfect consistency failed with regard to 3, not merely as a matter of perceptions, but as a matter of objective reality. In the Civil War we had rich sons paying substitutes or commutation money, which was basically a fee to have the government find a substitute. It was worse in the South where, because of both the need for slave labor to keep the economy going and the dangers inherent in keeping real slaves in large numbers, there were further exemptions for owners and overseers of more than twenty slaves. It was perhaps around this time that the complaint, “Rich man’s war, poor man’s fight,” first came to be heard around campfires.
We did somewhat better in the Great War, although, even there, there was a considerable amount of grumbling over the degree of exemption of necessary industrial workers and managers, and none for subsistence farmers who, even so, had families that needed feeding. Yes, yes, one can argue “necessity,” but that cuts very little moral ice with a man carted off from his small farm and family.
Throughout the Second World War and through much of the Cold War, even in places where the cold had gotten decidedly warmer, broadly speaking the country felt the draft was fair, or as fair as it could be, necessary given the threat, and that the conditions of service were broadly in accord with the threat.
Cue peace, post-Korea, and the realization that we had a lot more healthy young men to fill the ranks than we had ranks to fill or that we could afford to fill. Soldiers, you see, are very expensive articles. So, what happened? The short version is that to legalize and regularize things, as well as to placate the well-connected, a whole menu of deferments and exemptions were created. These, incidentally, had the effect of making the armed forces appear a haven for the poor, for the losers, for those who lacked the economic or political pull to avoid service.
Cue Vietnam…cue the heavy hand of conscription upon the backs of the working class…cue massive guilt (oh, yes, there was) on the part of those who managed to avoid the draft…cue protests to lend moral approbation to what was usually selfish opportunism and taking advantage of social position…cue the splitting of the country…cue the helicopter atop the embassy in Saigon…
In summation then, although conscription is perfectly constitutional and would be desirable from almost every point of view except short term individual convenience (to which I am, of course, remarkably indifferent), in peace, we just can’t do it. The financial cost is too great to apply it generally. The precedent of setting things up for a poor man’s fight are too strong. The denationalization of our upper class, along with the corruption of society they take advantage of, is such that few if any of their sons will ever look at a dangerous and hostile world from underneath a helmet. No rucksack straps shall dig into their shoulders. Their fingers won’t fold around the stock of a rifle. They’ll never have to risk legs and arms and eyes to mines and booby traps. Since they will not, we cannot expect the rest of the people to think it fair or support conscription that disadvantages only them, and gets only their sons – and maybe soon their daughters – killed.
Let us still, however, keep up registration, and, yes, for both sexes, against the day when war again comes. As for that war, when it comes…no deferments, no exemptions, no conscientious objection…let all serve or let those who do not be forever deprived of the citizenship they are just too precious to defend.
1 This column is dedicated to the memory of William Young Boyd, of the Republic of Panama, who passed away 31 December, 2014, at the age of 88. Bill was a lifetime Panamanian citizen, attending school here, who, upon graduation from Phillips Andover was drafted into the US Army and served with the 242d Infantry and, later, the 5th Infantry Regiments. “He seen his duty and he done it.” http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/nytimes/obituary.aspx?pid=173754843
3 I find it particularly admirable that Peter Saltonstall didn’t try to use his education or social position to get commissioned, but was content to march and fight and, as it turned out, die amongst the common man.
4 http://www.nybooks.com/articles/1986/12/18/harvard-vietnam/ Give him his due, long before he became Pope Prius the First, the miraculous harbinger of unseasonal cold, frost, and snow, Al Gore went to Vietnam.
5 And, even of those, how many took the earliest route home they could, with never an obvious care about leaving behind the other men he’d served with?
Photo by Catherine Lane/Getty Images
Tom Kratman is a retired infantry lieutenant colonel, recovering attorney, and science fiction and military fiction writer. His latest novel, The Rods and the Axe, is available from Amazon.com for $9.99 for the Kindle version, or $25 for the hardback. A political refugee and defector from the People’s Republic of Massachusetts, he makes his home in Blacksburg, Virginia. He holds the non-exclusive military and foreign affairs portfolio for EveryJoe. Tom’s books can be ordered through baen.com.
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