Conscription, Part III

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Be sure to read Part I and Part II in this series.

Lines of Departure - Conscription

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.”


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 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 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

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  • Michel Maiorana

    Footnote five brings to mind that great war hero and super Secretary of State John Kerry. Three Purple Hearts and not a day of duty missed on the first plane out of the land of live popup targets. Brings to mind that great tv war hero Frank Burns of Mash with his eggshell in the eye purple heart. Never heard of the three purples early out before the 2004 election. Maybe that was reserved for the connected.

    • Tom Kratman

      Maybe footnote five was supposed to.

      The connected, the unprincipled, the very lucky and the very unlucky. I leave it to history and, of course, the Swifties, to determine which was which.

  • Ming the Merciless

    We are not the country anymore that Peter Saltonstall fought and died for, nor are the bulk of our people what they once were.

    Nor, it should be added, do we fight the type of war in which Saltonstall fought. It is tough to convince the American public that they need to submit to conscription if the war is not “existential” — as our wars have not been since 1945.

    There are certain requirements that must be true and must be followed if conscription is to work:

    You are omitting a requirement. Namely, the war must be seen as being fought for a vital national interest; we must fight it to win; we must fight for clearly defined military and political objectives; and, victory must be attainable within a reasonable span of time.

    • Tom Kratman

      That falls under needful.

    • Ming the Merciless

      During the Vietnam War, the American people regarded the draft as “needful” (at least through 1969, if not through 1972). Yet the Vietnam War failed the test of “vital national interest, fought to win, winnable in a reasonable period of time”. Vietnam broke national support for conscription not because the people didn’t think we needed it, but because the government misused it.

    • Tom Kratman

      I’m not quite sure what your point is.

    • Ming the Merciless

      We have an example of a war in which requirements 1, 2, and 3 were generally met, and yet ultimately conscription failed (and was abandoned) because the national leadership committed the Army to a seemingly unnecessary, unwinnable, and endless war.

    • Tom Kratman

      You mean Vietnam? No, that;s historically wrong; it failed of 3.

  • Allston

    Years ago, I was a close neighbor to Saltonstall. He was a hell of a good guy as I remember, both Brahmin but also connected to the rest of us. No doubt because he shared the bad times, not just the good.

    Shared sacrifice.

    • Tom Kratman

      Which one; they’re not an especially small clan?

  • Clifford Fargason

    You laid it out very well. I enlisted during the conscription era. I agree that we need to have registration, that there should be no exemptions and that it is constitutional. However, in my personal opinion, the army that I finally left in 2007 was a much better organization. The draftees were a mixed bag, some were very good soldiers, and others were the equivalent of trying to lead recalcitrant two year olds. So keep the draft as an option for SHTF, but stick with volunteers as long as possible.

    • Tom Kratman

      Part of that is the way we tend to funnel the less capable and dumber sorts to the combat arms, where you really can’t make a good soldier by beating sense into him (at least, you can’t beyond a certain point). Make it so that the best get sent to combat arms, and the more connected your family is and the more they whine the more hard core unit you get sent to, and it might work out rather better.

    • Jack Withrow

      One time about 15 years back I decided to check GT scores on an Infantry Company after I noticed some very high scores on a few of the soldiers. To make a long story short, that infantry company had an average GT score of almost 120. The Bn HHC had an average GT score of around 100 and they had the “more technical” MOS’s. Back in the bad old days of the draft I would not argue the best and brightest went to other than Combat Arms, but at least as of about 15 years ago from what checking I could do, the grunt companies on average had a high average GT score than most CS/CSS companies. I would like to think the Military would not revert to putting the less capable back into the combat arms if the draft was reinstated, but I would not bet on that.

    • Tom Kratman

      Sure; in a good part the infantry’s become a haven for upper middle class kids looking for that once in a lifetime adventure before settling down to college and a life they hope the memories of having been something besides “producing, consuming economic animals” will sustain them through. It was already becoming true 30 years ago, when I was commanding a rifle company.

      No, I wouldn’t bet on it, either. You demand an Army (likewise Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps) of subservient, amoral, political whores, that’s what you get.

    • James

      So you could say we have the Military we deserve not necessarily the one we want.

    • Tom Kratman

      We have exactly what we’ve demanded and allowed, and when a large number of modern feminists find themselves on an auction block, I hope they take full satisfaction in it that they got precisely what they demanded.

    • James

      Some how I expect they will blame the patriarchy.

    • Tom Kratman

      Next Monday

    • James


    • Tom Kratman

      No, I mean the column for tomorrow is, “The Patriarchy; It’s Forever.”

    • James

      Yea i know I just thought it was funny you had already gotten to that point.

  • Jack Withrow

    Like you I see no need for a draft right now, but do see the absolute need for registration.

    I am still seething though over the decision to allow women in combat arms but not require them to register for the draft. I see many Repukeians running to introduce legislation to prevent women from being required from registering, and I have to wonder if they are walking into a very clever trap. If women are not required to register but are allowed to serve in any position, what does that do to the constitutionality of a male only draft? With a Supreme Court that no longer makes much sense in their decisions and the balance on that court up for grabs with Scalia’s death, I fear they may decide the draft unconstitutional sometime in the near future.

    • Tom Kratman

      I’m not sure it’s possible to overstate the moral cowardice and idiocy of the Republicans.

    • Ori Pomerantz

      Why would such a law matter? Considering that the conditions that justified the previous supreme court decision no longer hold (, can’t the male only draft be challenged on the same grounds it was last time?

    • Tom Kratman

      I think it can, yes.

    • Jack Withrow

      Ori, That last challenge was an effort to abolish the draft. It didn’t work because the Supreme Court said an all male draft didn’t violate the equal protection clause because women were excluded from the Combat Arms. Now women are not excluded. If by some miracle the Supreme Court rules the draft, if it is challenged again on the same grounds, constitutional; watch the Repukeians fall all over themselves to abolish the draft because it will have to include women. I may be wrong here, but it looks to me like the spineless Repukeians have been put into a no win situation on the draft, simply because they would not fight the women in combat arms fight. I really don’t see many parents agreeing to their daughters being registered or worse drafted. And if the Supreme Court again upholds the draft and registration for both sexes constitutional, the uproar over that will pretty much assure the end of registration and any future draft. The Left have pretty much got what they wanted, the end of registration and the draft is IMO a pretty near certainty.

    • Ori Pomerantz

      The end of registration. If we ever need the draft again, the situation will be so dire any previous decisions will be rendered moot under the “not a suicide pact” clause of the “Oral Constitution”. I don’t think it will even slow a draft down, should it be required – between student loans, income taxes, and driver’s licenses the government can come up with more people than the military could train at once.

      We will lose the threat function, but not much more than that.

    • Jack Withrow

      Ori, It takes time to get registration and the draft up and running. You abolish the requirement for registration, we may not have the time needed to stand up a draft again with no previous registration.

      Say for whatever reason we go to war with China tomorrow and have ground forces in action within two weeks. We are going to take casualties, probably many more than what anyone thinks. We will need replacements right away, and what personnel that are currently in the recruit training/AIT pipeline will not be enough. With things as they now stand we could start seeing replacements in combat arms units within 3-4 months. Without registration as a starting point for the draft we may not see any replacements for 6 months or more. So instead of the All Volunteer Force having to hang on for 3-4 months, it may have to hang on for 6 or more months, all the while losing more and more personnel. At some point the loss of personnel in current units will reach a point where they can not be rebuilt in any type of a timely manner. Lack of available manpower could very easily lose us a war.

    • Ori Pomerantz

      My point is that the registration aspect can be replaced by a few database queries. It takes time to organize draft boards, sent our summons, check the potential draftees, and then train them to be minimally useful. But all of those things aren’t affected by draft registration. Only the records do.

    • Jack Withrow

      Under the current system, draft boards are already organized and staffed; you do away with the system the draft board goes away. The Draft Board goes away, and you are adding time, a very critical commodity, to how soon you can stand it up again. Also you forget as the Col has frequently pointed out, registration forces young people to acknowledge there is a possibility they will be required to serve, relying on other data bases does not do that.

      Further do you really trust other data bases to provide the names of the majority of those draft eligible? I don’t. I can’t think of a single database outside the draft register, that might have more than say 40% of those eligible in it with an up to date means of contacting them.

      And finally the requirement for registration is a legal obligation and failure to comply can result in criminal charges. If you rely on other data bases that may or may not have a legal requirement for all draft eligible persons to register, what legal recourse do you have when you can’t find them to draft them? And if you require draft eligible adults to register in some other database, then what is the point in doing away with what is already in place?

    • Ori Pomerantz

      I agree that the registration has a threat(1) function that we will lose without it. I thought I mentioned it.

      We can keep the draft boards. What do they do now, keep a list of people to be activated should a draft board be needed?

      As for getting people’s information, I don’t think the current system does it very well either. Young men register at eighteen, because there are penalties for failing to register. But are there any real(2) penalties for failing to update one’s registration? How many people live at twenty five in the same address they did at eighteen?

      Also, the purpose isn’t to get all the eligible draftees. The purpose is to get enough to fill the first few groups to be trained. Those that you can’t train for half a year anyway, you can register during that half a year.

      (1) You can say “consider”, but young men know the military exists and consider it regardless. I say “threat” because conscription threatens them that they might be forced to do it regardless of what they want.

      (2) There may be statutory penalties, but does it ever get checked? First time registration gets checked when applying for student aid, for example.

    • Rick Randall

      We couldn’t ramp up the training pipeline that fast, even if we had an effectively infinite supply of draftees camped out at the post Main Gate.

  • Ori Pomerantz

    So basically we can’t have a draft unless we have an existential war that is bad enough to get the elites to agree to risk their own sons (and maybe daughters). This seems to require conditions on the level of those that would convince the same elites to support nuking an enemy with nuclear weapons even though it puts the places where they live at risk.

    • Tom Kratman

      The problem with equating nukes and existential war is that, facing a peer competitor, which someday we will again, use of nukes is contrary to your society’s continued existence.

    • Ori Pomerantz

      True. In a war with a peer or near peer, we’ll both hope like hell it will stay conventional – and try not to get the other side’s leadership to decide to go Samson.

  • James

    I’ve heard in a lot of countries in asia where they have a draft that its not really a problem for the government to deal with draft dodgers. Instead its more of a societal norm that the culture and people enforce. Sure it sucks but its what you owe society.

    The way the US culture has been devolved that would never go here. And honestly who can blame them when the other asshole gets to sit at home with the girl. Course if he slips and falls on a bullet one night after he runs off. Well accidents do happen and who cares he was a coward anyways.

    • Ori Pomerantz

      I think in a lot of places in Asia peer pressure is a lot stronger than in the US.

    • James

      Yep and it seems to be far more of a expected and good thing to them.

  • Flight Er Doc

    ALgore may have gone to nam, as an enlisted journalist, but his Daddy made certain he had a protection squad around him all the time. And after a very short tour in Saigon (6 months or so) he applied for, and was granted, an early out to attend divinity school.

    Where he either failed, or got a D, in every course until he dropped out.

    Not exactly the example I’d want to use for my children.

    • Tom Kratman

      No, but it’s still better than any number of other well connected and wealthy Ivy Leaguers.

    • Flight Er Doc

      More contrived than heroic: It was all part of Daddy’s plan for his spawn to go far….the only significant danger he faced in Saigon was intractable VD.

      And how does anyone FAIL a divinity class?

    • Tom Kratman

      Having reread what I wrote, I cannot find the word “heroic” anywhere in there, either with “contrived” or without. Can you point me to the sentence where I used it? And, if some aspect of it was contrived, it would seem more likely to have come from the White House, eager to get Gore senior out of the Senate, than anywhere else.

  • Harry Kitchener

    There are drafts and drafts, of course. In the case of the US, it’s clear that draft registration – and an eventual implementation of conscription – are intended to permit the generation of the war-winning Army of the United States, a mass military with many formations, designed to crush an opponent utterly. I sense no particular appetite, political, cultural or social, for a peacetime draft and a lot of work would have to be done, as noted by other posters here, to correct the legacy of the distinctly unbalanced way conscription was managed after the Korean War.

    Other nations which take defence seriously – Singapore, Israel, Switzerland all spring to mind – have mature conscription systems designed from the ground up to maintain string forces in being and allow very rapid mobilisation of reservists in a high state of training and readiness in order to fight an existential conflict. That’s not the preferred US model, but then the operational needs are different.

    • Tom Kratman

      Although the Swiss have been ruining their system for a while now.

    • Harry Kitchener

      True enough, the Federal government seems to be discounting their existential risk by a considerable percentage since the end of the Cold War. Probably courageous of them, while they’re not likely to end up arse-deep in Russians, there are other developing risks in their neighbourhood.

    • Tom Kratman

      I suspect courage has nothing to do with it, rather the opposite.

    • Harry Kitchener

      I meant ‘courageous’ as in:

      “”Kin hell, Sir, that’s a courageous idea.”

      “Oh Christ, do you think so, Sar-major?”

      “I do indeed, boss, one of your bravest ever.”

      “Oh, OK, scratch that idea, then.”

      “Right you are, Sir.”

    • Tom Kratman

      Ah, _that_ kind of courageous.

      The core of the thing, though, is moral cowardice as the Swiss slowly join the rest of the west in decadent, white-feathered sloth.

  • goldushapple

    I’m in my twenties and I remember when I turned 18 when I received a little white paper in the mail concerning my conscription. I read it, my mind was on board. At that time I was rather apolitical but leaned left a little. I didn’t have much qualms about it nor did I complain that females didn’t receive the same letter for, as the libertarian pacifists would put it, so-called “indentured service.”

    I then went to university and became “allergic” to all things military. The girl across my dorm room showed us a picture of the plane her boyfriend went on when he was deployed. I quietly scoffed, “The army?” I was lucky she didn’t take it to heart.

    Now, a little wiser and more humble I see any potential draft as a duty. I most likely will be medically dismissed and that certainly pains me, but if the military sees me as a liability then so be it. I’ll do my best to serve stateside, being the best citizen I can be.

    You see, I’m an American. If need be I’ll serve, if they [the military] allows me. If not me, then who?

  • Rick Randall

    It really seems as though conscription in modern America has worked best to *allocate* recruits, rather than *generate* them. If you’ve gotntongomgunt down your draftees to get them there, draft dodging is more of a symptom than a cause of a serious issue.

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