Walter Kerwin

2 minute read
Mark Thompson

Four-star general Walter (Dutch) Kerwin, who helped pioneer the U.S. military’s historic shift to an all-volunteer force in the 1970s, had seen firsthand the problems that could plague a conscripted army fighting a modern war. Kerwin, who died at 91 on July 11, was the Army’s personnel chief during the Vietnam War, grappling with draftees deserting, abusing drugs and even murdering unpopular commanders. With draftees’ tours limited to 12 months, military units lost their vital cohesion. In order to help “bring this level of indiscipline down,” as he told Congress at the time, Kerwin drafted plans for what became the all-volunteer force that celebrated its 35th birthday on July 1.

A graduate of West Point’s storied class of ’39 (more than 70 of his classmates also became generals), Kerwin famously spoke of the line that he felt must be drawn between those in uniform and those they protect. “The values necessary to defend the society are often at odds with the values of the society itself,” he said. “The Army must concentrate not on the values of our liberal society but on the hard values of the battlefield.”

The volunteer Army isn’t without problems–conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have forced it to lower recruiting standards and increase bonuses to attract and retain soldiers–but with a conscripted force, the U.S. probably couldn’t have waged the two wars now under way. Compared with morale during Vietnam, the spirit among U.S. troops serving in our war zones is relatively high–a fact that will no doubt be Kerwin’s legacy.

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