People today often believe that the United States started building up for World War II on December 8, 1941.
The fact is, the upper echelons of the Roosevelt administration saw war as more or less inevitable, going back to the thirties. FDR started one of the greatest naval shipbuilding programs in history back in the early thirties – partly as a “stimulus”, but largely because the Navy, which had slipped into obsolescence after its huge World War I building surge, was woefully unequipped to deal with the expanding Japanese fleet.
What’s even harder to explain – especially with an entire generation that has no concept of “selective service”, which has been gone for nearly four decades, is the extent to which warfare was an industrial, all-society undertaking. That was really a very rare thing, historically, having entire nations devote their entire industrial base and manpower to waging war against other nations. It really started, at least in the West, with Napoleon, who introduced broad conscription throughout France and the occupied territories to keep his armies (which, for all of Napoleon’s genius, suffered grievous casualties) manned. The US Civil War was the first to bring a developed nation’s entire industrial might to bear against an enemy; the Franco-Prussian War, the first to pit two developed industrial nations in mass war with conscipted masses of troops; World War I, lineups of the same on both sides.
Big War and Big Government, naturally, go hand in hand; you can’t fight a big war without a big government, directing big industry and raising big manpower.
It was seventy years ago today that Franklin D. Roosevelt, the patron saint of Big Government, signed “peacetime” conscription into law. It was the first peacetime draft in American history. It ran, through three wars and the Pax Eisenhower, for 33 years.
It was a huge change in the way the US military, especially the Army, did its business. A “professional” army – volunteers who sign up to serve of their own free will, and often make careers of the service, and who treat fighting as their job – are usually able (says conventional military wisdom) to do things that draftees can’t.
Imagine this (and the imagination is difficult to impossible for those who’ve not been there, but I’m recycling things I’ve read from other writers who have); you’re advancing through a town; the Captain has told you to take the church, so you can use the steeple as an observation post. Your squad – eight other guys just like you, and a sergeant who leads you – takes fire from the church. One of your guys is hit, and goes down to the ground, screaming in pain. If you and your squad are volunteers, who’ve made a career out of training for this sort of thing, you are more likely to go about your mission, to haul the wounded guy out of harm’s way and put down covering fire on the church to allow one or two guys to get across the street and start chucking grenades in there. If you and your eight – well, seven – comrades are all draftees who had eight weeks of basic training and would all rather be driving tractors or jerking sodas or building pole barns or finishing high school back in Kansas or Chicago or Montana or California, your sergeant is going to have to work real hard to get you to run out under fire to get the wounded guy, and then aim you at the church to try to finish the job; you will be much more likely to hide out in a cellar and wait for someone else to do the job, if you can.
And then, if mortar rounds start raining down, and you hear a tank moving up behind the church, who do you suppose it more likely to grab a bazooka and find a place to lay in wait, and who is more likely to sprint for the rear when the sergeant turns his back?
This has always been the great conundrum of militaries; small, professional armies of volunteers are more likely to perform reliably, even spectacularly. Britain’s army in 1914, the “Old Contemptibles”, was about 10% the size of the German and French armies. All volunteers, all trained to the highest standard (especially marksmanship; German units thought they were facing machine guns, not guys with bolt-action Enfields), they shredded the first waves of German attackers along their front. And the second wave. And so on. Until they got killed or wounded in subsequent waves. And were replaced by newbies and, finally, draftees. In the meantime, armies of draftees are frequently unreliable in combat, sometimes spectacularly so, especially when fighting on turf not their own.
And each nation dealt with this conundrum differently.
The USSR drafted millions of men (and women), many of them deeply unhappy to be fighting for Josef Stalin. For some, fighting for the Rodina against the enemy was enough; for the rest, the NKVD would wait with machine guns, to kill anyone who failed to carry home the attack with gusto and vigor. Stalin also made it clear that being captured, even while incapacitated, was a capital offense likely to lead to nasty consequences for families left behindTo the Russian draftee, victory was the only alternative to death. And they died in horrendous numbers, at both German and Soviet hands.
Britain had never been comfortable with the draft. And so draftees, especially in combat units, joined regiments that had long, storied histories and traditions. Picture the United State Marine Corps, only a good 100 years longer, in many cases, and most of them drawn from the same area in the UK, fighting often with friends and neighbors. A British draftee infantryman wasn’t just a number in an anonymous, numbered unit, like an American soldier who might be underwhelmed to be posted to the 2nd Battalion of the 329th Infantry Regiment (which sprang into existence in 1942, and sprang back out in 1945); if he were from, say, Inverary, Scotland, he’d serve in the “Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders“, a unit with a long history of doing great things, led by officers and (especially) NCOs who had spent their careers marinating in that spirit. Britain being a fairly traditional, caste-based society, it worked in a way that is probably foreign to Americans who’ve never been, say, Marines.
In the US? A nation without much in the way of shared martial tradition (outside the South, which in fact provided a disproportionate number of soldiers and officers, then as now), but immense industrial power? We made up for any shortfalls in British-style esprit de corps and Soviet-style brutality with immense firepower. US troops may have been as reluctant a group of warriors as any mass body of draftees throughout history, but they had firepower beyond the dreams of their opponents and, largely, allies; from the rifle squads with their M1 Garands (the world’s first semi-automatic military rifle in general issue, which gave an individual grunt double the firepower of his British friend or German/Japanese enemy), to artillery and, finally, air support on a lavish scale. The US Army could blast holes through enemy positions that would have swallowed up regular armies or, given draftee behavior, made them hide out in shell craters and rubble until there was a fair chance of moving forward or backward without getting torn apart.
Which is not to say draftees were cowards – far from it. And it’s not to say they didn’t become good soldiers; after thirty days in combat, they’d be as capable as any Ranger.
If they survived.
But, as befitted an army fielded by a technocratic, “big” administration, the US Army adopted a personnel policy that may have been as lethal an enemy as any Japanese machine-gunner or German mortarman.
The US Army’s personnel policy would be recognizable to a production manager at any factory; if you had a machine on a production line, you could keep that machine running 24/7, provided you kept it stocked with power and materials. And so the system was designed to keep the machines – the “Divisions” – stocked with supplies; fuel and ammunition and, by the way, guys in olive-drab uniforms. The ideal was that the units, the divisions and their component regiments and battalions, would stay in the front line more or less nonstop, like a production machine; the Army would just keep feeding men into the units to keep them up to full strength. But the newbies – “replacements” – would go, usually under cover of darkness, into units of complete strangers, to sink or swim, more or less. The ones that survived became highly proficient soldiers, because they had to – but the casualty rates among replacement soldiers fed into the line was horrendous.
It got to the point that the Army figured a replacement could do any job at all, with a little practice in the front line; raw replacements were sent not only to the infantry, but to serve in tank units, which suffered grievous losses as well (more on that when we get to the chapter on the Sherman Tank) but, theoretically, required some training to handle the complex mechanics of running the tank, to say nothing of firing a cannon and driving off-road in a 30-ton vehicle. The raw replacement crews fared very, very badly; during the Battle of the Bulge, a group of seventeen replacement tanks, with seventeen veteran crewmen as commanders and 68 rank newbies who’d never been in a tank before serving as drivers, loaders and gunners, was infiltrated by a single German tank, which destroyed each of them in turn, killing and maiming dozens as their crews vainly tried to figure out their complex machines, which they were driving for the very first time.
But firepower won the day. The Germans and Japanese had little respect for American infantry (although units that spent enough time in the line with low enough casualties to develop some collective experience earned some grudging praise), and German tankers ridiculed the Americans’ Sherman tanks – but our enemies around the world all feared American air power and, especially, the artillery, which was accurate, quick to get on target, and available in crushing weight.
And so we won the war with an army of draftees. And we fought the next one to a standstill with the younger brother of that same army, only on a shoestring.
And then the son of that army went to Vietnam – just in time for war to change. A military designed to shred tank attacks with artillery, armor and air power was very poorly adapted to fighting peasant guerrillas in a counterinsurgency war. Draftees with enough firepower could bludgeon an industrial enemy into submission at acceptable cost – but winning a war that involved as much winning of hearts and minds as destroying enemies in close combat was another whole animal.
And the American draftee adapted, yet again – but again, at immense cost.
Today’s the birthday of our last draft. Some would bring it back; they’d do it for reasons that would have resonated with Franklin D Roosevelt.
I say good riddance.
Even as I deal with teenage kids.