Here’s how Colonel Robert Heinl, Jr., began a June 1971 article in Armed Forces Journal bluntly headlined “The Collapse of the Armed Forces”:
“The morale, discipline, and battleworthiness of the U.S. Armed Forces are, with a few salient exceptions, lower and worse than at anytime in this century and possibly in the history of the United States. By every conceivable indicator, our army that now remains in Vietnam is in a state approaching collapse, with individual units avoiding or having refused combat, murdering their officers and noncommissioned officers, drug-ridden, and dispirited where not near mutinous. Elsewhere than Vietnam, the situation is nearly as serious.”
Consider that grim list and the churning antiwar activism in the Vietnam-era military that Heinl went on to describe as a reminder of why President Richard Nixon, Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird, and the U.S. military high command opted on January 27, 1973, to end the draft. They launched instead the “all-volunteer” force we know 45 years later, the one that, with nary a peep of protest, criticism, or complaint, continues to fight a set of still spreading wars across the Greater Middle East and Africa almost 17 years after the 9/11 attacks.
What Nixon, in particular, took away from the endless disaster of Vietnam (before the disaster of Watergate felled his presidency) was that a draft army — that is, a literal people’s army — taken from a reasonable cross section of a still-democratic society increasingly opposed to a quagmire war, was a disaster in its own right. In his urge to ditch the draft and so dampen the still-churning antiwar movement at home, Nixon created a new kind of American force. For all the adulation it now gets here, it’s perhaps closer to a foreign legion (as retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel William Astore long ago suggested at TomDispatch) geared to fighting never-ending wars thousands of miles from what, post-9/11, came to be known as “the homeland.”
As for those draft-less armed forces and the draft-less society that went with them, Nixon couldn’t have been cannier or more on target. The resulting military and its commanders, who could be thought of as Nixon’s children, are now impermeable to criticism, even though they ensure, as TomDispatch regular Andrew Bacevich, author of America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History, makes clear in striking fashion today, that wars without end and a military system incapable of ending anything it begins are facts of our present lives.