»  National Review Online

October 4th, 2001

  Draft As Needed


"One reason why the American military attack on bin Laden is being delayed is because the U.S. army does not have a single person in its ranks who speaks Pashto, the language of the Taliban." This, according to a wire-service report from Lahore in Pakistan, filed September 29th. I wonder if this is true? In the eleven years 1988-1998 (the last ones I can find numbers for without spending all afternoon in the INS database) the U.S. admitted 24,811 legal immigrants from Afghanistan. Not one of them felt the urge to join the U.S. army? I doubt this; but if it is true, we have a serious problem here. We may have a serious problem anyway. I note, by the way, that you don't need to be a citizen to join the army, though you do have to be a citizen to hold officer rank. In fact, an aggregate of three years of honorable service in the U.S. armed forces entitles an alien to naturalization — the rest of us have to be U.S. residents for five years. Conversely, if Uncle Sam asks a resident alien to do military service and that alien refuses, he or she can be denied naturalization.

It is by now a well-worn cliché that the armed forces are the one part of U.S. society where racial integration has been vigorously pursued, and made to work. I don't doubt this, but I am curious to know some of the finer details. It is a simple, commonplace fact that hardly any line of work attracts people from different racial or national groups in precise proportion to their numbers in the general population. This is perhaps less true now than it was forty years ago, when well-nigh every barber was Italian, every bartender Irish, every launderer Chinese and every ship's engineer Scottish. It is still true over large areas of the workforce, though. Until two years ago I had the responsibility of hiring computer programmers for a Wall Street firm. I couldn't help but notice that the pool of applicants for these positions was around 40 per cent Chinese, 30 per cent Russian-Jewish, 20 per cent Indian and 10 per cent everyone else. It would be surprising to learn that applicants for any other line of work broke down the same way. It would be astounding to learn that the young men and women showing up at recruiting offices for the armed forces broke down that way.

In fact, this country's warriors have traditionally been drawn disproportionately from quite a small subset of the population: descendants of the "Scotch-Irish" — those people from the Scottish borders and Protestant Ulster who poured into the back-country of colonial America in the middle two quarters of the 18th century. Americans from other groups have served with distinction, of course (Eisenhower's ancestors were Mennonite pacifists who had refused to bear arms in the Civil War), but the fiercest and most aggressive of America's soldiers have been from back-country Scotch-Irish stock, like George Patton and Holland "Howlin' Mad" Smith. The historian David Hackett Fischer, writing on this topic, notes the intense warrior ethic in the South (which is much more Scotch-Irish than the North) in the years leading up to the Civil War: "In 1852, Massachusetts had one militia officer for every 216 men; North Carolina had one officer for every sixteen men … There were many military academies below the Mason-Dixon line and few above it …" He goes on to discuss the motivations that sent different groups of Americans to fight in WWII:

Northeastern liberals joined it as a crusade against fascism and militarism … Southern conservatives, always more internationalist than the nation as a whole, were drawn into the conflict by their kinship with Britain. The back country, bellicose as ever, fought for national honor — and also for the joy of fighting.

[My italics.] Tom Wolfe's audio-novel Ambush at Fort Bragg reflects the same state of affairs persisting in the 1990s, his elite-unit troopers all talking in thick hillbilly accents. Of course, not every American soldier pronounces "it" as "heeyit," but it's hard to avoid the impression that a high proportion of the toughest, hardest and most indispensable ones do.

The problem with this is that fighting wars is not just another job like barbering or laundering. It is a basic, if only occasional, obligation of citizenship. This fact tends to get forgotten in a long peace, when such little soldiering as needs to be done can be left to those who feel personally inclined to a military career. If a really big national emergency blows up, though, requiring more men and women in uniform than the voluntary principle can supply, who gets drafted? The current answer is: "Men of military age, at random from the draft registers, subject to fifty-seven varieties of deferments and exemptions."

It seems to me some useful adjustments could be made here in this age of mass immigration. If the army needs Pashto speakers, why can't it just draft them from among those 24,811 Afghan immigrants? Similarly, I recently read a report that said it is very difficult for the U.S. intelligence services to recruit spies to work in China. Pretty obviously, such a spy would need to be racially Chinese for full effectiveness, and to have a fluent command of the Chinese language. Well, the U.S. is not short of racially-Chinese citizens and residents: 439,521 immigrated during those years 1988-98. So draft a few. It would be an inconvenience — occasionally a lethal one — to the persons drafted, of course, but it is an entirely legitimate thing for a nation to ask of its citizens, and a fortiori of those who desire to become citizens.

Robert Heinlein wrote a fine novel, Starship Troopers (not to be confused with the silly and vapid movie of the same name), about a society in which you could only vote or hold office if you had performed military service. I doubt that Americans, generally speaking an un-military, commercial and peace-loving people, would ever go for that, but it might not be a bad idea to ask aspiring immigrants to show at least some evidence of willingness to put their lives on the line for the country of their dreams — a compulsory spell in the National Guard, perhaps. Speaking as an aspiring American myself, I wouldn't mind. I quite enjoyed my own military career, trifling and part-time though it was, and would be glad to renew the acquaintance. Whether Uncle Sam could actually make any use of an out-of-condition middle-aged guy with flat feet and glasses, is of course a whole other question. No, sorry, I can't speak Pashto.