Military, academia debate selective service


Before he was a general in the United States Marine Corps, fighting in Vietnam and earning a four-star service medal, Orlo Steele ’55 was a strapping political science student at Stanford. And it was here where he came to oppose the draft.

The moon shone brightly on a spring night in 1951, and the men of Encina Hall were restless. Then, someone yelled the magic words down the halls: “panty raid.”

“The juices were running,” Steele recalled. Young men tripped over themselves as they rushed across campus to congregate outside Roble Hall, where, from the windows, the women of Stanford waived their lingerie at 650 pairs of panting eyes below.

“We were going to rush the place,” Steele said, and not a policeman was in sight.

But in the Roble courtyard, standing in front of a floodlight and wielding only a megaphone, was a dean who knew exactly how to deter the wild pack. “Anybody who gets into Roble tonight will be classified 1-A tomorrow,” the dean delivered a faux threat to the crowd. In other words, they would become eligible for the military draft.

And immediately, the crowd dispersed.

Wednesday evening, Steele joined Law School Dean Larry Kramer, emeritus history Prof. James Sheehan ‘58 and Martin Anderson, senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, for a roundtable discussion on the history and present feasibility of the military draft. Phil Taubman ’70, consulting professor at the Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC), moderated.

Taubman, recalling his years covering Stanford for The Daily, said campuses across the country unraveled during the Vietnam War years because the draft lent “a kind of immediacy to people and their families and their friends.” One night, students here lit the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) building on fire.

“There’s no question the draft was a powerful engine that led people to think seriously about the war,” Taubman said, “or, in many cases, oppose the war.”

Sheehan, examining modern-day drafts, offered a comparative perspective. Germany’s conscription model, he said, would be the most compatible with American society, if the United States were to implement selective service. German men are able to opt for civil service in medicine and other welfare agencies, and about half of them do so.

Kramer said he believes some kind of universal service — one that is not limited only to military service, but which also includes the option of civil service — should eventually be implemented in the United States.

Anderson, who said he, as director of research for Richard Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign, proposed an end to the draft even before Nixon was elected, reiterated on Wednesday his opposition to the draft.

“I didn’t like the people who didn’t want to be there,” Anderson said bluntly of conscripted men drafted into war. “You want very strong people who know what they’re doing.”

Audience members of Wednesday’s roundtable, who consisted of veterans and ROTC students, among others, eventually brought the discussion forward to the present day. Asked whether the use of predator drones in regions such as Afghanistan diminishes the need for a draft, Steele rejected any connection between the two.

“Whoever is running those robots probably has been under intensive training for a number of years,” Steele said, “so I don’t see a draft influencing that.”

Steele further said a draft would be unnecessary if the United States opened a “third front” — that is, another war on top of those in Iraq and Afghanistan. “This last January, all military units met their recruiting goals,” he said, acknowledging the likely role of a recessive economy and sluggish job market in that trend.

The retired general ended the discussion by suggesting a question to those Americans who favor a return of the draft: Is selective service intended to provide for common defense or for general welfare? That is, to actually defend the country or to instill certain values in the country’s young men?

“I believe it’s the latter,” he said.

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Devin Banerjee was president and editor in chief of Volume 236 of The Stanford Daily, serving from June 2009 to January 2010. He joined The Daily's staff in September 2007. Contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @devinbanerjee.