Editor’s introduction: I’m a product of the all-volunteer force, having joined ROTC in 1981. But I’m a strong believer in a citizen military, one in which the burden of defending the Constitution, as well as the privilege of doing so, is shared equitably among all young citizens. Walt Stewart is a product of the draft (a “draft-induced” volunteer, as he puts it) in the era of Vietnam. He recognizes a fundamental truth: a citizen military forms the bedrock of democracy. A culture that is overly fragmented, and also one that largely excludes itself from service and sacrifice, is one that is not fated to last. W.J. Astore
Donald Trump and Ben Carson get it – which puts them right there with the strategic thinking of my 1966 Fort Dix basic training sergeants: Americans form and celebrate a common culture, reject the rejecters who will not, or fail as a culture and country.
At Dix it was a microcosm of a mix of young males – boys, really – brought together in a United States Army basic training company. In the tensions of the time, the mix was explosive. Farm-hardened rural boys, mostly white, thrown into open bay and open latrine barracks alongside street hardened urban boys, mostly black.
Our sergeants were a mix themselves – white and black staff sergeants under the direction of a Cherokee (as we were told) sergeant first class. We called the boss “Chief,” but not to his face. He was big, and carried the battle scars of Korea. To a man, the junior sergeants were early veterans of the war in Vietnam. They looked good, slim and wiry, and were as tough as nails. We thought ourselves tough, but not that tough.
It was our sergeants’ job to turn us into a unit – to join a volatile racial mix in common culture – and they did so by asserting and enforcing an inviolable rule: “Boys, in the United States Army there is only one color, and that color is green.” We would be green in commonality or sent home carrying the lifetime shame of an “other than honorable discharge.” In 1966, families, friends, and employers cared about military discharges. In 2015, most Americans don’t know what they are.
Our company was the drafted and draft-induced enlisted force raised to deter the Soviets and fight the war in Vietnam. The draftees among us had no say in whether they would be there or not, but they came because their countrymen called. But whether draftee or volunteer, and regardless of color or background, all but a few performed willingly and honorably.
We were part of the great cultural leveler of a citizen military formed by the draft. The burden of service would be shared, and that some might shirk, the shame was theirs. The rest carried on, and, like others before, brought our “greenness” home to our families and communities. Whatever color or ethnicity, and while we never put our individuality aside, we learned to be Americans first.
So for those who oppose a return to the shared risks of a citizen military – and let’s be clear I favor a draft without easy deferments for college or marriage or kids, a draft that would make it harder for chickenhawks to find roost – how about a health-check on the state of our common culture. Not so good, I think. We’re black; white; brown; yellow; like the Chief, native; haves; have-nots; males, females, gender transients; racists and race-hustlers; you name it. We are anything but a common culture, and a common defense is impossible without one.
So goodbye green, a nod to Trump and Carson, and a deep bow to the strategic wisdom of my basic training sergeants. In 1966, you taught lessons caliphate-seekers now teach in blood: Countries don’t fight wars, cultures do!
Walt Stewart rose from a private in the army of regulars, reservists, and draftees raised to fight in Vietnam, to a major general serving with the thousands of citizen-soldiers of the 28th Infantry Division, Pennsylvania Army National Guard. Now retired, Stewart is a strong advocate for a citizen-military and a saner world.