Published Date

October 1, 1944

Resource Type

GI Roundtable Series, Primary Source

From GI Roundtable 21: Shall We Have Universal Military Training? (1944)

Since the last war, whenever the subject has been debated in the United States or Great Britain, the advocates of a compulsory training system have usually argued that it would achieve three advantages: increased military effectiveness, benefits to the individual, and general benefits to the state. The arguments may be briefly analyzed.


Military Effectiveness

The primary aim of any country at war is to win in the shortest possible time. The costs of modern warfare are so staggering that every day saved, even every hour, will greatly lighten the burden of the taxpayers and, what is infinitely more important, save many precious lives. If a country is drawn into war unprepared, its achievement of final victory will take much longer than if it can undertake effective and large-scale military operations almost immediately after the outbreak of the conflict.

Obviously, one part of preparedness consists in having an adequate supply of the tools of war, especially of the kinds that take a long time to manufacture. The other part of it depends on whether there is a reservoir of manpower trained to use these tools, particularly the weapons which it takes a long time to learn how to use. Modern warfare is so highly mechanized that long periods of training are necessary before civilians can be transformed into effective fighting men. And as the degree of military mechanization increases, the period of military training must be lengthened.

Nearly a million Americans had over a year of peacetime military training before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Even so, our military effort has been retarded by the fact that other millions of young men knowing nothing about military affairs have had to be trained from scratch to face veteran enemies. In other words, the war might have been measurably shortened if every man taken into the Army by Selective Service had already received his basic training. This, to many people, is a compelling argument in favor of universal training.

In this connection it can be argued that peacetime training is desirable because it can be carried out more deliberately. Without the compelling urgency of war, greater care can be taken to select the men best adapted for specialized types of training, and they can be given better instruction. At the slower peacetime tempo, a training program can produce men better equipped to cope with the problems of actual warfare than an emergency program designed to make specialists out of laymen in a miraculously short time. This, it is said, should make for improvement in the efficiency of a fighting force. Experience has shown that a great and powerful army can be built up virtually from the beginning under wartime conditions. But few persons would argue that this method is as efficient as an arrangement that would make instantly available in case of need a force of millions of men, each of whom had already been trained in the type of military operation for which he seemed best fitted.

This has led many people to argue that peacetime military training will reduce losses in war. Much was made of this argument at the end of the last war. During that war the training program had been cut to a minimum because it was necessary for us to send troops as quickly as possible to support the British and French on the Western Front. Many Army officers felt that our losses would have been much lower if we had not been compelled to send troops into actual combat that were not thoroughly trained.

The outbreak of war confronts a nation that has had no previous military training program with a difficult decision. Either it must somehow delay a showdown with the enemy until an adequate army has been fully trained, or it must risk an excessively high loss of life if untrained men are immediately thrown into battle. Freedom to make this choice, moreover, does not always exist. If the enemy is prepared to make an all-out attack from the very outset, he must be resisted from the very outset at any cost. That the United States in 1917 and again in 1941 could take the time to train mass armies in safety was due to the valor of front-line allies and the failure of the enemy to capitalize on advantages gained from our unpreparedness. An enemy of the future might conceivably use new weapons of war, perhaps by air, in an effort to strike an immediate knockout blow without warning.

One point in connection with this matter of military efficiency should be kept in mind. This is the fact that peacetime defense training does not wholly correspond to wartime combat. Nations tend to conduct their peacetime training programs along the lines of the last preceding war. This is especially true in the case of victor states, whose military authorities frequently believe in and continue to teach the methods which proved successful in the last war. When this is true, training programs may have to be drastically revised after the initial campaigns in order that soldiers can deal effectively with the new tactics and methods of the enemy. In other words, even when there is a peacetime program of universal training, some wartime supplementary training would probably be necessary for most reservists called to the colors. This fact, however, does not destroy the case for military training as a means of improving military efficiency and saving lives. It means merely that such a system is not a final or complete answer to the problem.

If the outbreak of war is followed immediately by large-scale hostilities—and not by a “phony” war such as lasted from the end of the Polish campaign in the fall of 1939 until the Nazi assault upon France in the following summer—there will be an urgent need for a substantial force of trained reserves to replace initial casualties in the regular armed forces. The supporters of universal training argue that such a trained reserve should be at least equal to 10 per cent of the regular services, and that it should be developed in peacetime to be available immediately upon the beginning of hostilities. The existence of such a reserve, they say, would greatly simplify the planning of initial operations. Its absence might have a crippling effect.

Even more important is the question of providing experienced and competent instructors for a wartime training program without disrupting the regular services. It is obvious that the officers and men of the regular defense forces are the persons best qualified to take on the job of training civilian inductees in the art of war. But if training is undertaken only after war begins, the effectiveness of the regular forces which should go into action at once will be seriously reduced because much of the personnel must handle the training of new fighting men.

This is one of the points most frequently made by those who favor universal peacetime service. They argue that only a well-planned program of peacetime training will provide a basis for the orderly and rapid expansion of the armed services without disrupting or at least weakening the initial striking power of the nation’s regular professional forces. In this connection it may be remembered that the Army reorganization act passed after the end of the last war originally provided for a separation between the Regular Army personnel and a special section that was to be charged with preparations for civilian training in case of the adoption of conscription in a future conflict.

Benefits to the Individual

In addition to the arguments discussed in the previous section, which have to do with improved military efficiency in case of war, there are a number of advantages which military training is supposed to give the individual, advantages which will benefit society as a whole. It is held, for instance, that a period of peacetime military service for every young man will promote better citizenship, foster democracy, and confer definite educational benefits upon all those who pass through it.

In a period of peacetime military training more attention could be given to citizenship and civic education than could ever be possible in a hurried wartime course of training. Through lectures and group discussions young men with a scanty educational background—or young men with a good education who had avoided the study of American history and government—could be given a kind of political perspective. This, if it were kept rigorously nonpartisan in character, should go far, it is contended, to give them a better appreciation of the significance of democracy in general and American democracy in particular. Such a course could do what is not possible in our regular educational system—it could provide the same program of civic education for young men from every state in the Union and from every walk of life. Properly organized, it might be a force of great value in teaching young men a sense of civic responsibility. Proper organization is in itself a debatable question. Should such a course be under civilian or military direction?

The civic aspect of universal training has regularly been stressed in resolutions of organizations such as the American Legion. The Legion has repeatedly urged the adoption of a program of universal service, and it has pointed out that such a program could have great influence as an agency of Americanization. Specifically, the Legion has suggested that young men will have a greater sense of the value of their rights as American citizens if they have been trained to defend them and if they have been told exactly what it is they are defending.

The point is also made that, aside from the matter of civic instruction, military service itself is a democratizing experience. Young men from all walks of life are placed in a situation in which there is greater equality than they are likely to encounter elsewhere. It is argued that the experience of meeting and dealing with men from different groups will be a healthy thing for men, no matter what their circumstances or education. It is believed that as men of the last century experienced this same kind of equality under frontier conditions—and with results which were beneficial to the growth of American democracy—so a period of military training might have a similar effect in the present century when the frontier has ceased to exist. Sectional and other prejudices would he lessened by the experience of living for a time with men of different backgrounds.

The physical benefit of military training is often mentioned. If it were made compulsory, it is claimed that the regular hours, scientifically prepared diets, outdoor living, and proper personal hygiene might markedly improve the health of a considerable part of the population. Better teeth, better living habits, and a sense of improved physical well-being might be acquired, it is argued, by millions of Americans whose economic circumstances had deprived them of these essentials of a healthy, disease-resistant body. Today, far more than at any previous time in our history, our scientists can determine accurately the nutritional standards which are best for health. Universal military service would offer a unique opportunity to apply them on a nation-wide scale, and with undeniable benefits. Here again the process is one of leveling, but it is a leveling up for those who have been underprivileged and not a leveling down for those who have enjoyed plenty.

Another alleged benefit to the individual lies in the field of general education. While illiteracy is not widespread in the United States, it is still too high. Indeed, in a democracy any degree of illiteracy is too high. A period of obligatory military service could be used to improve the educational equipment of our most underprivileged young men. In this respect, the record of the Red army is outstanding. Tremendous and highly successful efforts have been made to use the two-year service period as a time for combating illiteracy, teaching the principles of the Soviet state, and providing specialized vocational training to improve the social usefulness of the individual. This kind of education is not an absolutely necessary part of universal military training, but it is something more than mere window dressing. An illiterate soldier is not of much value in a modern army; an illiterate citizen is not the most useful member of a democracy.

Some advocates of compulsory training stress the social values of military discipline. In their view, the traditional disciplinary institutions, notably the home and the church, are no longer as effective as they once were, and the school is inadequate. They hold that the individual in a democratic society must be a disciplined citizen who has been taught to recognize the rights of others as the basis upon which his own individual rights can be protected and maintained. Such discipline as military training provides, teaches the individual to appreciate his proper place in society. Without that appreciation, he is likely to be irresponsible, in the sense that he is far more conscious of his rights than of his obligations. In other words, it is widely believed that military training will have a definite effect in reducing crime and in improving the general standards of citizenship.

Benefits to the State

Nearly all the asserted benefits discussed under the two previous headings would accrue to the state through the improved efficiency of the military machine or the improved quality of its citizenry. In addition, however, there are at least two other alleged advantages of universal training which apply particularly to the state as a whole.

The first of these is economic. A gigantic program of military training in which the great majority of all young American men would spend at least a year, it is argued, would help greatly to solve the perennial peacetime problem of unemployment. From a social point of view the costs involved in such a program would be better spent in improving the quality of young American manhood and preparing a trained force for the defense of the nation than in many other types of public unemployment assistance.

The second benefit is political in character. Ever since the rise of the modern state system—and long before, for that matter—international relations have been conducted on the basis which we generally term “power politics.” Habitually we refer to certain states as “Great Powers.” In so doing, we recognize that there are certain standards which determine whether a state is or is not a great power. Among these are such matters as area, population, natural wealth, and the like. But the essential element of power is actual or potential military strength. A state which lacks this in relation to other states will be lacking in the principal element of power, and its views and policies will be treated accordingly. On the other hand, the wishes of a state which has military power, or which can produce it in time to deal with possible opponents, will receive serious consideration everywhere.

If it is true that the essential element of power is military effectiveness, then it can be argued that the adoption of a system of universal training should increase the relative power of the state and enable it to carry greater weight in all international dealings. Thus, during the first World War, the German government disregarded American protests over interference with our neutral rights upon the seas because Berlin was convinced that the United States could not possibly raise, train, and transport an army to Europe in time to influence the outcome of the war. Such disregard of American rights would have been unlikely if the United States had possessed a vast potential army already trained for service.

Few would argue, however, that a military training program should be established merely to increase the diplomatic prestige of the United States. The stakes are higher. A potential enemy would be much less likely to start a war if the United States had land, sea, and air forces of millions of men ready almost at once for active duty. It is arguable that Japan, for example, would have hesitated to throw down the gauntlet to the United States at Pearl Harbor if we had possessed such a trained citizen army. In a world of unregulated power politics, weakness invites aggression. A state which, like the United States, has assumed the privileges of world power must be prepared to discharge corresponding responsibilities—and to assure its own protection as well—whenever and wherever necessary. In this sense, a training program is represented as an insurance policy. It provides a sense of security when there is no threat of war and it provides actual protection in time of need.

The conclusion to which this last section points is that, pending the creation of some new basis for the carrying on of international relations, a state which follows the traditional role of a Great Power must possess military strength sufficient to carry out its political obligations.

There remains, however, the question of how the existence of vast American reserve forces is related to the ability of the United States to maintain itself in a position of front-rank world leadership in the postwar period. Enough has been said to indicate that such a relationship does exist and that, generally speaking, it is an intimate one.

Next section: Arguments against Universal Military Training