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Young men today no longer face the prospect of being called to compulsory military duty. This month marks the 40th anniversary since the draft ended and the military became an all-volunteer force.
The switch has had both positive and negative effects on the military and the nation as a whole, depending on who you ask.
Today’s fighting force is undeniably better educated and motivated than in the days when much of the enlisted ranks of the Army were filled with conscripts on two-year tours.
Nearly all of today’s enlisted men and women have at least a high school diploma. Many are college graduates. There is a perception that there are fewer discipline problems than during the Vietnam War-era. The all-volunteer military has consistently demonstrated its ability from Desert Storm to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But an all-volunteer military also means that the burden of defending the nation is carried by a small fraction of Americans.
Robert Taylor, a professor of American military history and head of the Department of Humanities and communication at Florida Institute of Technology, said the all-volunteer military has been a success, though it is “a two-sided coin.”
“The downside is that the vast majority of the American people expect the small number of people to fight our wars for us,” he said.
That relatively small group is carrying the weight of service in the military, which has led to multiple deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan.
From World War II to the final days of Vietnam, nearly every young man in the country faced the prospect of being drafted into the Army.
As time went on, more young men were able to avoid the draft by attending college or seeking other deferments.
Research published in the late 1970s showed that men from low-income or disadvantaged backgrounds were more likely to fight in Vietnam than men from middle- and high-income families who could avoid being drafted by going to college or finding a slot in a stateside National Guard unit.
“The American people lost confidence in the draft as a means of raising an army when it ceased to require equal sacrifice from everyone that was eligible to serve,” said Bernard Rostker, a former director of the Selective Service System and the author of “I Want You! The Evolution of the All-Volunteer Force.”
The feeling that the draft was not applied equally, combined with widespread unhappiness with the war, led to increased calls to end the draft, which the Selective Service did in 1973.
Dwight Elliott Stone, then an apprentice plumber from California, became the last draftee to be inducted. Stone, now living in San Francisco, didn’t go happily. “I just wanted to do my two years and get the hell out,” Stone said. He ended up serving about 17 months and never had to go overseas.
Others, though, say that compulsory military service gave valuable discipline and direction to many young men.
Retired Army Sgt. 1st Class Juan Santiago, a Vietnam War veteran, said that because many draftees didn’t want to go to the war, there were problems. But having to serve was good for many of the draftees who could have ended up in trouble.
“The Army molded them to be good citizens,” said Santiago, 74, of Melbourne, Fla.
Some like Santiago ended up making the military their careers.
Santiago said he was a high school drop-out when he joined, while today’s recruit must have at least a high school education. He went on to get his high school diploma and take college courses while serving.
Interest in the military has waxed and waned during the past 40 years, often dependent on such outside forces as the strength of the economy or the renewed sense of patriotism following the Sept. 11 attacks.
At an Army recruiting station in Rockledge, a board displays the photos of dozens of volunteer recruits who will be starting basic training in coming weeks. Many of them are idealists who find it their duty to serve in the military.
Shafaq Maria Yuhanna, 19, of Rockledge, who four years ago became a U.S. citizen, said that in her native Pakistan, she would not have had the opportunities she has here as a woman. She said she wanted to try every sport when she found that in the United States she was free to do so.
“I want to protect the country that gave me freedom,” she said. “Even though I’ve been here four years, it is my country.”
Latiesha Bryant, 24, of Melbourne, who earned an associate degree from Kaiser University, said she wanted to serve for the experience and to further her education. She said she wants to make a difference.
“I feel like today there are still gender stereotypes,” she said. “I want to break that stigma.”
The Pentagon is happy with the all-volunteer force. But others say it is time to bring back the draft.
Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., has made several attempts during the past decade to reinstitute the draft on the grounds that a small fraction of U.S. citizens are bearing a disproportionate burden in fighting the nation’s wars. But his bills have gone nowhere.
That hasn’t stopped him from trying. Earlier this year, Rangel — who earned a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star for Valor after volunteering for the Army during the Korean War — introduced another bring-back-the-draft bill that also would require women to register.
“Women have proven that they can do the very same tasks, military and non-military, that men can,” Rangel said.
Santiago said that while there were some advantages to conscription, today’s all-volunteer force is better prepared than it used to be.
“They have more professional soldiers,” he said. “Today, we have the best Army in the whole world.”
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