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No more ‘greatest generation’ — why?

No “boots on the ground.” This is the assumption behind all American political, diplomatic and military policy. Why?

Of course, there are American boots on the ground in Afghanistan, Iraq, South Korea, Europe and elsewhere. But nowhere near the scale of WW II, the Korean or Vietnam wars. Even the Iraq war that began in 2003 and the Afghanistan war that began in 2001 — very large undertakings — do not come close to the scope of the American participation in WW II and Vietnam. Why?

The conventional wisdom is that the Vietnam War, 1965-1974, soured Americans on war because there was no clear-cut justification for that war beyond vague “anti-communism.” To most Americans, whether at the time or retroactively, the Vietnam War seemed to be a horrendous, massive waste of human life.

I do not think that is why Americans are now very leery of committing to a major war anywhere, regardless of the dangers.

Nor is it the bitter experience of America in Iraq, after 2003; nor the continuing American participation in the war in Afghanistan.

Whether these wars against terrorism were necessary remains, in my mind, an open question. Whether they were conducted with appropriate advance planningand efficiency is clear. They were not.

I remember thinking immediately after the “shock and awe” of the initial US attack on Sadaam Hussein’s infrastructure in 2003, “OK. Now, we go in and rebuild the electrical grid, assemble a democratic government, etc. etc.” Nothing of the sort happened. The US was flat-footed. No thought had been given to these critical matters. Rather than reconstruction, the looting of ancient Iraqi treasures followed the shock and awe. Our well intentioned war against the mass killer Sadaam Hussein seemed not to include any non-military expertise. No one had worked out a post-military victory plan.

This, too, is not principally why Americans, at least under current policy, will never see another “greatest generation” — people who devotedly, patriotically and heroically came to the defense of freedom.

One may reasonably argue that the attack on Pearl Harbor, Dec. 7, 1941, which brought the US into WW II, and the attack on the World Trade Center, Sept. 11,  2001, carried equal symbolic significance.

One can argue that the terrorist threat of the 21st century — with its routine suicide bombings and other terror attacks, with its roughly one-half million victims in Syria alone, and its overrunning of European countries unprepared for masses of immigrants — poses a threat to civilization big enough to warrant American and other free countries’ “boots on the ground,” even if the current threat is not as immediately  dangerous as Nazism.

But the boots aren’t there and they won’t be there. I am not trying to make an argument that they should be there. I am simply observing they won’t be. Why?

There has been one major change since the Vietnam War, a change that outweighs all subsequent geopolitical, diplomatic and religious (terrorist) developments.

That change is the radical change in the draft, the substitution of a voluntary armed force for an involuntary one.

Do you know who determines whether there will be another massive American military campaign (“boots on the ground”)? It is not the president of the US. Not NATO, not the Joint Chiefs of Staff, not the Congress of the US, nor the enemies of the US, be they Iran, Russia, radical Islamic terrorists or anyone else. It is, rather, every 18-year-old American and his family.

However many patriots among this cohort there may be, however many in this cohort will enlist purely for financial and educational bonuses, however much suffering or social advancement (as the case may be) this cohort will meet, however many in it will pay the ultimate price, this cohort will never produce the numbers of the involuntary draft.

In WW II, they went because they had to. True enough, patriotism swept the land and many underage American boys tried to trick their way into enlistment. But most went because they were coerced. Then, during the Vietnam War era, the draft — involuntary —undermined whatever patriotism governed the WW II and Korean War enlistments.

The draft in the WW I and Vietnam eras was patently unfair. Sons of middle class and upper middle class families found ways to secure deferments on a far greater scale than lower class families.

The US military itself was complicit in this. One Denver Jew once told me that when he was called to the draft board back in the Vietnam era, he told the officer that he had suffered a “broken tibia.” This was not grounds for deferment. Yet, he was deferred. This Denver Jew suspects that he got out of going to Vietnam because the officer thought it would be a waste to send someone to Vietnam who had enough education to name the bones in his body. He hadn’t suffered a “broken leg”; rather, a “broken tibia.” Let some uneducated slob go to Vietnam instead. Let us save this kid who can make a contribution to American society.

The great socio-economic discrepancy in the body bags of the Vietnam era undermined the draft. So it was made voluntary. Perhaps it solved a critical problem of the Vietnam era. It had implications no one could foresee at the time.

It is why “no boots on the ground” has become an American truth, at least on the  scale of WW II or Vietnam.

There will never be another “greatest generation” based on purely voluntary military enlistment.

I can’t imagine another fundamental change in the draft, reinstating its involuntary character.

Rabbi Hillel Goldberg may be reached at

Hillel Goldberg

IJN Executive Editor |

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